I am not an economist so I am not even going to try to understand the mess were are in as a nation – but I cannot help but think about The Grapes of Wrath and the odyssey of the Joad family when I think about our current financial times. Massive debt. Budget shortages. Home foreclosures. Business failures. Bankruptcies. Job losses. In some ways I feel that we are all (well many of us) Joad’s now – trapped in a financial system that we do not understand, trying to make a daily living, but always feeling that we are taking one step up and two back.
My favorite scene in The Grapes of Wrath was early in the book, when a tenant farmer is trying to stop his home and land from being plowed over by tractor-operator hired by the bank. This is a man he knows, a local, who has taken a job with the bank to gain a regular salary and some stability for his family. But, this stability comes with a huge price. His job is to repossess the land of his friends and neighbors and ready it to be turned over to the banks. How many of us would do the same? Life is a struggle and when money is tight we would do most anything to pay the bills and feed our own – but where do we draw the lines? The tenant wants to shoot him – but the man explains the truth – it’s not him, not his fault – it’s no one’s fault – we are all ghosts in the money machine. This is a slice of that conversation:
“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look — suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before your hung there will be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill. You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told them: Clear those people out or it’s your job. Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a Board of Directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank. The driver said: Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were: Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up. But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me. I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t man at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.”
The financial machine we live inside often challenges our morality, our faith, and our ethics in exchange for a paycheck. Think Glengarry Glen Ross, think sell or be fired, think it’s me or you and it’s not going to be me. So we take a nice long trip to Disney to forget all about it. Maybe we have a food drive at school – help the less fortunate. How are we supposed to live? Is this really it? Work your butt off, get as much as you can, hoard as much as you can – every man for himself. Really? The Joad’s are not bums, not lazy, not moochers. They are simple folk who want to work – an honest day’s labor for an honest day’s pay. But the fruit growers of this novel are the factories of Mexico, China, Vietnam, and every other “third world” country that produces our clothes, shoes, food and products. They are in a race to the bottom – pitted against one another for jobs – always pushed to do more for less. Why? So we can buy three dollar T-shirts at Wal-Mart.
Don’t get me wrong – I shop at Wal-Mart – we all do – we must to make our money stretch. We are all stuck. But can it change? As the tenant farmer went on to say:
“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”
I think the beginning is within each of us – within me. We (I) made this mess – we (I am) are part of this mess. We (I) can change it by waking up, beginning to care and changing how we (I) live, think and treat one another – today. We (I) need to begin to want less, expect less and need less. This concept is antithetical in a society based on consumption – but will help forge a world that is more humane and loving. It is time to withdraw from the “Grand Illusion”, to unplug the television, cancel your (my) subscription to all your (my) magazines, especially – “You’re Not Skinny Enough” Monthly, “My House is Perfect – What’s Up With Yours” Weekly and “Look How Rich I Am” Daily – shut it off – go outside, appreciate what you have, love one another, seek God and be what he has commanded us to be in this life – witnesses to his Word, not buyers of more garbage. As Americans we need to see ourselves for what we are – from a global perspective – we are the rich oppressors. Our want’s, needs, desires, and struggles impact the world. We need to heed the following:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” – James 5: 1-6
Although The Grapes of Wrath is a story about the Great Depression, it is a story of our lives – today. Many in this nation are doing very well – their houses keep getting bigger, their cars more expensive, their travel more extensive and their luxuries increase– but what about the rest. The Joad family represents “the rest.” All those people who have been foreclosed upon; laid off – forgotten. Where do they go? What do they do? Do we care?
This is not a political perspective – politics do far more harm than good – nothing has been changed through legislation. Problems such as this require a change of the heart. It requires us to look each other in the eye – see one another as fellow humans – a mother, father, husband, wife, sister, brother, son, or daughter – not as a number or a servant. I believe that we as a nation will reap what we sow – it is for us to decide what that will be. Our final reward will be contingent on how we treated the least among us – every day. I am far from doing this – my eyes are just opening to my personal greed, narcissism and selfishness – but all change begins with the decision to change. What is your decision?
Be Strong. Remain Faithful. Walk Tall.