My mom—with her rural roots on a tobacco farm—delighted in the fact that my first crew of friends in elementary school all came from different countries. In middle school, I tried—unsuccessfully—to hide the fact that I was a nerdy white kid by hanging out with the cool black kids one year and the cool Latino kids another year.
The fact that I grew up in this sort of environment was enriching, but also deceiving. In being a minority among minorities, I convinced myself that I was progressive and sympathetic to the plight of the marginalized. I also grew up in a relatively-poor household, which insulated me from the possibility that I could still be an out-of-touch elitist—simply without money.
Two movements of the past year put the lie to my illusion. First, Black Lives Matter rose as an expression of outrage at the prevalence of black deaths, the lack of societal concern about the issue, and the lack of dignity and hope being afforded many black people in our nation. I admit that I believed that George Zimmerman was perfectly within his rights to shoot Trayvon Martin—even if the episode should’ve never happened in the first place.
I kept maintaining that belief through the shootings of a number of black men by police. Many of these men had criminal records or were brandishing weapons—and in looking at the individual cases, I lost track of the sum of the problem. Whether each shooting was justified or not, black men were dying at alarming rate. The question I began to ask was not “Whose fault is it?” but “How did we ever get to this point?”
I did not grow up in the inner city. A fellow soldier once told me of what life was like when he grew up in the inner city. For all the hardships I endured in my childhood, I could not relate to what he was sharing. It was an entirely different world. How would I handle watching someone murdered in cold blood? I did not grow up in the inner city, but presumed to speak with some level of authority about the inner city. I was wrong and I now see that.
Second, a populist wave—composed mostly of rural and blue-collar whites—swept Donald Trump through the primaries and general election and into the presidency. I kept dismissing this movement as a passing populist fad within the GOP. The grassroots of the party were primarily conservative, so Trump’s candidacy couldn’t last. Not when there were exponentially-better candidates in the field—principled, intellectually potent, and persuasive.
For years, I defended “flyover country” against my East Coast peers: traditional does not mean backward; religious does not mean bigoted; blue collar does not mean unintellectual; etc. At the same time, I would make fun of those I knew who took their prom photos in front of the giant tractor out back and dated men who looked like Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons. I did not grow up in rural, blue-collar America, but whether I defended or mocked it, I made myself the fool in claiming that I could identify with it.
While I conduct biblical exegesis for my pastoral work or research my latest political article, many of these folks are hunting, fishing, or taking their kids to their little league games. I live in the Midwest, now, and find that most people have little to no fervor for election season and will only come to my Election Night parties if I bribe them with adult beverages. In small-town America, I am the weirdo.
Even as the inner city continues to decay, rural America continues to suffer incredibly. Both of these areas lie largely untouched by our economic recovery. In both the cities and the country, there are economic wastelands where businesses won’t reside. Alongside the economic problem, the erosion of the family structure continues unabated and these areas are left alone to face the twin terrors of economic and cultural decline.
Most people pet the head of the inner city problem, offer some token solutions, and leave it to its own devices. Almost all people make a joke of the rural problem, as if a rural man’s suffering is ample fodder for a suburban man’s jest. Many of our politicians then pit these two aggrieved portions against each other. Urban blacks are kept down by racist whites, while rural whites can’t get jobs because of preferential treatment of minorities. The truth is, both of these areas are getting screwed and have plenty of room to find common cause—if only the two can recognize their mutual plight.
I long to bridge these divides and offer more hope—spiritual, cultural, and economic—to each of these marginalized groups. The first step is admitting that I am an elitist and didn’t see these issues so clearly before. I was more interested in viewing the world through the lens of theory rather than to actually engage the people who inhabit the world. People are not mere data for political polls and their problems cannot be satisfactorily or finally resolved through political means.
There is great potential for renewed social bonds between communities, cultures, and individuals, if we will but look to our commonalities. We all suffer and we all sin. All are created with inherent dignity, thus suffering and sin should innately cause us to grieve. And we all need hope—a hope that extends a new round of sanitized prescriptions for human beings that are anything but sanitized in the present state. We all need to know that only God can mend what mankind has so tragically torn asunder and that he has done so in human history through a wooden cross, a few nails, and a divinely-sent savior of sinners.