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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