Teaching children theology through relationships and wonder
An increasingly cruel capital punishment system needs to die

How the often-hidden poor white U.S. population lives -- and dies

Cedar Monroe knows what it means to be called "poor white trash," and has decided to have none of it anymore.

TrashMonroe understands that such labels reflect an economy and political and racial systems that work pretty much as they were designed to work in the U.S. So Monroe, an Episcopal chaplains who prefers the binary pronoun "they," has written Trash: A Poor White Journey to describe how they've worked against it and why it's long past time to change those limiting systems.

This book is, in some ways, a drilling down into specific examples of what Matthew Desmond writes about more broadly in his insightful book, Poverty, by America, which I wrote about here.

Monroe's message is both urgent and nearly always sensible -- at times deeply moving while at other times polemic. But all the time it's rooted in personal experience in far northwest Washington state, where Monroe grew up and where they have spent most of their time. And its message, from the start, is unmistakable:

"We have discovered through bitter experience that the promises given to poor white people in the United States are empty, that the promise of a 'secure life in a land of plenty' was an illusion all along. Young poor white people are caught between white supremacy, which demands we succeed under capitalism, and the lack of a future that is becoming more and more evident as poverty rates climb and tent cities and prisons warehouse so many of us. My generation of poor white people, and the generations after us, get to choose: between the empty promises of white supremacy, on the one hand, and solidarity with poor people across race on the other."

Monroe was able to escape from a jobless (or nearly so) future to become a chaplain, but, eventually, the call to do some kind of ministry where they grew up became irresistible. So Monroe went back to Grays Harbor County on the Pacific coast west of both Tacoma and Seattle.

From the vantage point of a pastor to poor and homeless people, Monroe concluded that "poor white communities are at high risk for recruitment into all the extremes of white nationalism and white extremism, as illustrated not just by the Confederate flags flying from trailer parks and the rise of far-right militias in small towns but also by Christian and pagan versions of white nationalism gaining traction everywhere."

But Monroe rejected white supremacy in all its forms because it "is not good for anyone, even those it seeks to redeem. In the end, it destroys us all. It is a system rotten to the core, to its root, used to shore up a system of greed that is killing us all and threatening the earth itself."

Monroe's jeremiad against capitalism is often on target and relentless: "Whether on purpose or by accident, capitalism greatly benefits by keeping poor communities drugged and self-loathing, reducing the likelihood that these communities will have the resources or desire to fight back."

But a simplistic assumption is expressed here that capitalism comes in only one variety and is always and everywhere the villain. The harsh truth is that capitalism doesn't work for everyone in the U.S. today. But that doesn't mean the only alternative is full-blown socialism or radical communism (whatever those terms mean), which inevitably turns into autocratic mismanagement and worse.

In fact, every time Congress passes some kind of bill dealing with the economy, it changes capitalism here shade by shade (sometimes for the worse, sometimes not). Will it ever be perfect? Well, what is? But sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, and there is much that could be done to rescue American capitalism from Monroe's black-or-white conclusion: "Working to end poverty -- which means, essentially, the end of capitalism -- is an enormous undertaking. . .(But) poor people across the nation and across the globe are the majority. In this lies our power to topple the system that extracts our labor, kills our children and destroys the earth for profit."

All of that said, one important value of the book is to give readers an inside view of pastoral work among desperate people who feel unwelcome in the world. It's terrifically hard work, and in Monroe's case, it led to something of an emotional breakdown eventually. But in my experience, most people -- even long-time members of religious congregations -- don't have a good understanding of the various pressures on members of the clergy. If clergy take their work seriously -- and most do -- that work can break their heart. That it doesn't always do that is usually a testament not just to the strength of other clergy, it's a testament to their commitment to healing, insightful, life-giving faith.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito recently wrote an unneeded opinion about a Missouri case that the court declined to hear, as this RNS commentary reports. That sounds weird, but it may sound less so when you hear that the case involved a lesbian who, as the story notes, "successfully sued the Missouri Department of Corrections for discriminating against her because of her sexual orientation."

Alito "saw cause to weigh in with a five-page opinion on the merits. He said the episode 'exemplifies the danger' he warned of in his dissent in the court’s same-sex marriage case 'that Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be "labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.”'"

If justices are going to write five-page opinions about cases that aren't before them to decide, no wonder it took so long for the Supreme Court to get around to deciding whether to take up the Trump case about presidential immunity. Come on, justices, get your priorities right.


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