Friday, December 16, 2011

Fear of the Poor

I am currently working on a paper for a conference I’m attending next March. It’s based on an idea I had reading Jake Stratton-Kent’s “Geosophia”, and looks at the afterlife and the role of the goete in society. Kent mentions that at some point in ancient Greek religion, there was a rearrangement of the underworld, with some of its denizens suddenly rising to Olympus (like Dionysus), and others that were venerated became demonized. In general, the underworld became demonized, when initially it was a somewhat neutral place. Scholars have argued that the idea of reward/punishment in the afterlife comes from the need to manage death anxiety. After all, if death just means being a ghost in a dreary underworld, regardless of what you did in life, that would tend to make you fear it all the more.

Of more specific interest is the goete, that outsider class of “clergy” that served a ritual function at funerals. The howls and laments of the goete (the word means “lamenting”) were the sounds that guided the dead to the underworld. They were often feared in Greek society, as they were associated with the thing most feared, death. Anyone having any kind of power over the dead was kept at a distance, just a shamans (which have many similarities to goetes) were on the outside of society, because they had “a foot in both worlds”. To touch that other world made you taboo.

The goete was often wild, unkempt, and on the outskirts of society. They were also poor. As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that there are many unconscious associations with poverty. To be poor—without a home, without basic needs, without comfort—makes us terribly afraid. It is being swallowed up by chaos, not knowing how one will live from day to day, not knowing where the next meal will come from, or how they will stay warm. Scriptures teach adherents to care for the poor, and provide for their needs. Curiously, in more modern eras, this is an injunction largely ignored by the loudest of the “faithful”, in favor of those scriptural passages that condemn those who are different from themselves.

Modern American mythology suggests that poor people are “lazy”, or that they are really comfortably well-off people in disguise trying to swindle you. It is the justification for taking away things like welfare benefits and public health care, because these people are “useless parasites on the system”. This is not a new mythology; certainly Queen Elizabeth I attempted to deal with poverty during her reign by outlawing it. Recently, the country of Hungary did the same thing. It is “criminal” to be poor, a sign that there is something wrong with you, that you are defective. Given that religion teaches compassion towards the poor, it is clear that this attitude comes out of fear. We do not like to see our worst insecurities manifest in a human being; that human being may as well be the “Devil” himself.

It is another fascinating example of the illogical ways of humans. Logically, if everyone shared even some of what they had, no one would have to go without. Certainly there are those who would try to take advantage, but the most successful social programs have ways of keeping that tendency in check. In a recent conversation on a similar topic with a friend, he noted that from a macroeconomic standpoint, things like welfare and unemployment benefits are subsidies to small business. Even if someone is taking advantage of the system, it doesn’t matter from the macroeconomic point of view. What matters is that the economy is moving and healthy, and that money is circulating, goods are being bought and sold. The morality of that system is irrelevant. In short, economic trouble is not a reason to not help the poor.

It is interesting how fear brings restriction. The government compromises civil liberties in the name of “national security”. We are always armed and loaded (psychologically, not literally) against our fears. And we’re ready to demonize and blame those who challenge us.

You might think that I’m beating this subject to death lately, but I think it’s important that we think about our assumptions about life, especially in light of recent national crises. This is not about “other people”, it’s about me as well, and questioning my own assumptions about the world and my reaction to it. We don’t question our assumptions often enough. And if we aren’t aware of them, we can never hope to change them, only to be ruled by them.

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