The New York Times every Christmas runs its Neediest Cases stories to encourage people to help the less fortunate. A recent article was about a promising young guy from the Bronx who started out in the Boys Club of America and ended up in jail.
“It was the whole hippie thing,” explains the man, now 53, referring to how he got sidetracked by the '60s. “I remember going through the Village barefoot with a joint in my hand,” he says. There was Jimi Hendrix and wine in the schoolyard, and then Rikers Island after he was picked up with 75 bags of heroin stuffed in his pockets. Along the way, he was homeless from 1986 to 1999 and had three kids by three different women, and now, from sharing drug needles, he has HIV. The story ends with the good news. He’s clean, thanks in part to rehab money from the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. “He now lives in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side paid for by the HIV/AIDS Services Administration. Medicaid pays for his health care, and he receives food stamps. He no longer drinks or uses drugs; he has even stopped smoking cigarettes. He has, though, picked up one of his old habits: Every Sunday, he attends church.”
It’s easy not to feel sorry for this guy. The poor are seldom perfect. And mostly, they don’t have good lawyers or family coaches to get them through the rough spots. In this guy’s case, he was arrested at 15 for carrying a roach clip, used to hold marijuana, in his pocket. It might sound like a convenient excuse, but he says now that he thought that meant he would never be able to get a job or enlist in the Army. For a dumb kid doing drugs in the Bronx, peddling a little marijuana, and then heroin, looks like a step up from a life of anticipated joblessness.
If one is into the theological blame game, none of the calamities in this man’s life come as a surprise, or as anything approaching real injustice. Damnation, first in the Bronx and then in the eternal sense, comes to those who do bad things. And on the other side of the coin, those who aren’t bad will inherit the Earth, including the best cars and houses, and then eternal bliss. In his most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber took things a step further, past individual rewards and punishments, and argued that capitalism, the most bountiful economic system, was the direct result of a religious movement, Protestantism, specifically Calvinism.
As luck would have it, back in the '60s I didn’t know people were running barefoot through the Village with a joint in their hands, or I’d have been there. Instead, I ended up in mandatory chapel three mornings a week in the middle of some Ohio cornfields at Muskingum College, a school with some deep and everlasting Calvinist roots. Before I got there, students weren’t even allowed to dance at the proms. They just sat at card tables and stared at each other and listened to Guy Lombardo.
Aside from astronaut John Glenn, our most famous graduate was Agnes Moorehead, Endora on the “Bewitched” television series. She died of lung cancer 20 years after making the ill-fated The Conqueror, a movie that was shot in 1954 in the Nevada desert near where the government was doing nuclear testing. Those tests are suspected to have caused the cancer deaths of several of the film’s stars, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Dick Powell. Said Ms. Moorehead shortly before her death, “I wish I’d never done that damn movie.”
Anyway, what I learned in chapel was Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the idea that God decreed, beforehand, the salvation of some and the damnation of others. It’s the kind of doctrine that makes people anxious about whether they’re stuck from day one in the bad or the good group. To get some reassurance, this led people who believed this stuff to go full blast in achieving economic success, thinking that God signifies his favor by giving the best cars and top knickknacks to the elect. In short, the fat cats are God’s people, hence “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”
Somehow, I think the whole thing might be more complicated than that.
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