Looking beyond their needs to determine fault

Looking beyond their needs to determine fault November 3, 2011

It’s been several days and I’m still a bit gobsmacked by the perverse audacity of Herman Cain’s oddly lovely rendition of “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” Cain is the frontrunner in a Republican presidential primary characterized above all by the opposite impulse from what that song is about.

Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise,
for it was grace that brought me liberty;
I do not know just why He came to love me so,
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

I shall forever life mine eyes to Calvary,
to view the cross where Jesus died for me,
how marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul;
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

Cain is the frontrunner because of his capacity and his enthusiasm for looking beyond need to see people’s faults — or to invent faults even where none can be found. There’s a 1 percent-vs.-99 percent element to this dynamic. For the 1 percent, such as the bailed out banks and privileged millionaires like Cain himself, Dottie Rambo’s notion of “amazing grace” prevails and needs are met without any notion of accountability. For the 99 percent it’s the other way around — all accountability and blame, but no meeting of needs.

Rambo’s song is kind of a mashup of “Danny Boy” and Romans 5:8. Romans is a single extended argument and really doesn’t lend itself to the quoting of single verses outside of that context, but here’s the passage, which is familiar and beloved for many of us Christians:

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

The picture of grace there doesn’t fit easily alongside many of the dominant themes preached by our most vocal moralizers, particularly not alongside their ideas of economic morality. If that idea of grace is a cornerstone of one’s belief, as it purportedly is for us Christians, then how ever did we arrive at concepts like that of “the deserving poor” or its blasphemous counterpart, “the undeserving poor”?

This makes me think again of the foreclosure crisis depressing America’s housing market and kneecapping any hope for the kind of robust economic recovery that might bring us back to full employment. The clearest solution is straightforward and necessary, but it’s politically impossible due to our preoccupation with the idea that, at all costs, the “undeserving” among the 99 percent must be prevented from any measure of aid, security, restoration or protection.

Kevin Drum summarized this well:

Voters may say they hate bailing out the banks — and they do! — but they hate bailing out the profligate next-door neighbors even more. No politician in America seriously wants to risk voter wrath by doing that.

This is, in Dottie Rambo’s terms, a determined effort to focus on faults while ignoring needs. And it’s a particularly self-destructive form of resentment.

For most homeowners, their home is the largest single “investment” they have and it makes up the biggest share of their family’s savings. When, for whatever reason, another house on the block gets foreclosed, the value of that investment declines and those savings are worth less. When several more foreclosures hit the neighborhood, and dozens more hit the town, thousands more hit the state and millions nationwide, then the value of everyone’s home is reduced.

However much it may rankle some people to see their “undeserving” neighbors spared the morally instructive pain of foreclosure, that moral lesson costs us all a great deal to impart. Ensuring that the “undeserving” suffer means ensuring that everyone suffers.

This actually allows us to put a dollar figure on our collective indignation — or at least a napkin-math ballpark figure. The median price of an American home in March of 2007 was $262,600. Last November it was $213,000. So our resentment and unwillingness to assist struggling homeowners lest we accidentally help those we deem “undeserving” has cost each of us roughly $50,000.

Is the self-indulgent, self-righteous emotional kick we get from this really worth $50,000?

And that’s just the dollar cost. I couldn’t begin to guess how to measure the health costs of all the unnecessary stress we’re voluntarily subjecting ourselves to by dragging out the slow-motion train wreck of the foreclosure crisis — or by chasing the ever-diminishing high of self-righteous moralism.

It’s also, of course, not good for our souls. Sinful pride and disdain for the “undeserving” might just exclude us from that amazing grace that St. Paul wrote about and Herman Cain sang about. It’s just about the only thing the Bible says can exclude us from such grace. Time and again Jesus said that receiving grace cannot be separated from extending grace to others. Think of that terrifying bit in the Lord’s Prayer — “forgive us … as we forgive.” Or the parable of the unforgiving servant whose own forgiveness was thus revoked. Or this:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we must abandon any notion of accountability for our actions and the actions of others, or that we should dismiss every concern about “moral hazard” as an invitation to judgment. As always, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But it’s not so very complicated that we can glibly embrace a politics centered on the opposite of such reciprocal graciousness.

In our politics as well as the rest of our lives, we do well to look beyond faults to see needs. When we fail to do that, we cut ourselves off from the grace that looks beyond our own faults. And, more tangibly, we wind up trashing the value of our own homes as well.


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  • One thing that needs to get off the ground more is the Tobin Tax, or some other form of control over capital flows. Sadly, Canada has been one of the lead pushers against attempts to control capital flows, even when Chretien was Prime Minister, because his Finance Minister, Paul Martin, has always been beholden to the very wealthy in Canada (he was the first Finance Minister to have to put all of his holdings into a blind trust (!!), for example), and Stephen Harper is certainly no friend to the poor, for all that the Conservatives try hitting some populist hot buttons every now and then.

    Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Western Europe implemented cooperative controls over capital flows and did so even over US objections to doing the same. It’s not impossible for small nations to impose such controls. Malaysia is the most famous example in the 1990s, and Iceland recently had to slam down controls over capital flows.

    However, until the USA gets serious about implementing such controls, most other nations will happily refuse to do anything more substantial than talk up a good game about the Tobin Tax every once in a while.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Once again I feel compelled to point out that the insidious phrase and concept of the “undeserving poor” has a long history, including in cultures that are fairly homogenous in terms of ethnicity. The well-off in society have always been happy to look down on the poor and cast judgement on them; if the poor are a different racial group so much the better. But I still maintain that the origins are class-based with bonus racism thrown in where applicable, rather fundamentally racist sentiments recast as classism.

  • Anonymous

    I know this is a long dead thread, but I’ll give my run down here so you all don’t think I’m just a big wimp.

    I guess I didn’t make myself clear – STARTING a violent revolution to avoid living as a serf is only going to lead to you living as a serf ANYWAY.  Witness nearly every “communist” revolution ever.

    I’m not saying you can’t defend yourself.  I’m not saying that violence is never the answer (as it has pretty effectively solved some pretty big problems.)

    I’m saying picking a fight with a race of immortal sociopaths with a lot of guns is a bad idea.

  • Lori

     I know this is a long dead thread, but I’ll give my run down here so you all don’t think I’m just a big wimp.  

    I don’t think you’re a wimp. I think you and I have very different perceptions of both history and the relative weight that should be given to quality vs quantity of life. Those are perfectly legitimate differences. 

    I guess I didn’t make myself clear – STARTING a violent revolution to avoid living as a serf is only going to lead to you living as a serf ANYWAY.  Witness nearly every “communist” revolution ever.  

    I think you’ve chosen an odd subset of revolutions as your sample. Either that or you’re labeling historic revolutions in ways that I find odd. If what you were saying was accurate we’d all have been serfs all along and yet, no. 

  • Anonymous

    “So your solution is what? That we simply accept that nothing we do makes any difference and the 1% can’t be stopped from grabbing more and more and more? That we all just get comfortable with being serfs? Because that way eventually leads to serious bloodshed and I have to say, I’m not a fan.”
    I think he’s just saying he wants serious bloodshed now.  Which I can sorta sympathize with, although I’m personally entirely too close to the vicinity of the 1% to endorse that…
    “Among other problems, that would make them responsible for maintaining it, lighting it and cleaning it.”No it wouldn’t.  You can let your private property go to rot, if you want.  And we all know that they’d still get public funds for maintenance anyways.  Privatize the profits, publicize the expenses…
    “Plus – “Wars are always fought for old men by young boys.” (Herodotus!) The threat of violence by the powerful against the weak is more like a historical fact than an actual threat – but witness what happened in Oakland or Denver, and imagine what would go down if we somehow found the political capital to federalize a 100 trillion dollar industry.”Trillion dollar industry or not, where are Wall Street’s divisions?
    “I’m not calling for violence far from it – that’s the thing I want to avoid EVEN IF IT MEANS LIVING AS A SERF (since IMHO a violent revolution ALSO means me living as a serf, but a lot of people probably die to boot.) but my historical observation is that the status quo don’t take kindly to you making threats, son.”Related to an observation made on another website, this is what despair looks like.
    “because A) once you’ve done one utterly radical thing like that, the path to other radical things becomes a lot shorter.  B) I don’t think it would play out like we think it would – we’d find out most of the banks were empty because they’d moved all their assets to Antigua or something (thereby freezing credit markets… pretty much permanently).”Freeze their assets *first*.  Or just ignore them taking their data and running – Wall Street types aren’t exactly known for producing great material wealth.  All they generally have is paper money and yachts, so all you actually lose is some ‘capital’ that’s no longer actually worth anything (because it doesn’t have any assets to back it.  The execs can go have fun in Hong Kong, if they want, it’ll only cause a bit of deflation for the rest of America).
    “1:  The Predatory Classes KNOW how to crush peasant uprisings.  If we give them an excuse, the resulting lockdown will make the post-9/11 madness look like a day at the beach.”How much is it that soldiers get paid nowadays?
    “I’m saying picking a fight with a race of immortal sociopaths with a lot of guns is a bad idea.”Immortal sociopaths with a lot of guns that don’t actually exist.  Also, I don’t know of any corporate armies that are actually worth much of anything…