I was struck by a line from Job in Morning Prayer this morning. “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet stumble.” Peterson puts it this way: “It’s easy for the well-to-do to point their fingers in blame, for the well-fixed to pour scorn on the strugglers.”
I wonder what it is that entices those of us who are more or less at ease to heap contempt on beggars, immigrants (illegal or otherwise), low wage workers in part time jobs with no benefits, the intellectually less competent, the intellectually more competent, the poor, anyone receiving government benefits other than the ones we receive (because we’ve earned and deserve them), and so forth. It goes even deeper than that. Some of us, as in the story of Job, heap contempt on the inadequate faith of others which, do doubt, has led to their failure to recover from their misfortunes. We even dare to heap contempt on God by attributing to God our own worst impulses toward punishment and revenge. The character of Satan in the story of Job is very much a reflection of us, which is not a very flattering revelation. To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met Satan and he is us.”
A few months ago I wrote about a friend who believes that anyone can lift herself or himself out of poverty and the ghetto. He is not blind to social and racial beliefs and attitudes that effectively fence off any but the most determined and able, he’s in favor of them as tools to separate the worthy from the unworthy, with his sort as the arbiters. Others, who are not quite as perverse as he, are just not observant and don’t see what is clearly in front of them. Of course, it’s not all about race, class, and social barriers. Just the ordinary events of life tend to seduce us into smugly blaming the victims of disease and injury.
It is that smugness that is so infuriating. “I’m at ease, they are not, and it’s their own fault.” When we are at ease, it is easy to be smug about the misfortunes of others, and yet we are horrified at the unfairness of life when misfortunes happen to us. Even that horror is a form of smugness because we are certain that we don’t deserve the misfortunes that come to us, unlike others whose misfortunes are deserved.
My friend, who is such a contented bigot, does what he can to help some individuals whom he deems to be be worthy, if less fortunate, as long as they bend to the task as he defines the task. Maybe that’s a good thing, or at least better than those of us who are simply ignorant and too lazy to pay attention to our surroundings. I’m not sure.