Many of the 1960’s civil rights workers Robert Coles consulted in his psychiatric research came from middle-class families. Their parents nagged the kids about getting a real job and making something of themselves. One of them responded to his mother’s concerned prayers over him: ‘I wonder what Jesus said, listening to her prayers! I felt like writing her back and asking her if Jesus ever held “a regular job” – or ever “found himself”. Jesus, the migrant preacher, who became so unpopular and disturbing to everyone big and important that He got crucified.
Working with the poor and oppressed, Coles marvelled over how much their lives resembled the lives of the prophets and Jesus himself. Perhaps that was why they found solace in religion, and why the sophisticated reviews of society so studiously ignored what they had to say about it. Middle-class churches tend to be sweet, soothing and inoffensive, their worship services predictable and controlled. Coles himself, a product of the privileged minority began to wonder about his own resistance to the power of a radical gospel. He could not avoid the discrepancy between the Bible’s teaching on justice and fairness and the lives privileged people tend to live, marked by greed, competition and status. What was the gospel’s message to the well off? What was its message to him? As Coles explored the mind of the privileged ones, he realised he was exploring his own mind. To his shame, he found within himself many of the same troubling tendencies.
Comfortable people, he noticed, were apt to have a stunted sense of compassion, more likely to love humanity in general but less likely to love one person in particular. Did he show compassion? As a Harvard undergraduate, he recalled with a pang, he had treated the dormitory maid as a lowly servant even while earning As in his ethics course. What about arrogance? A physician, he fought the temptation every day; he was, after all, the expert, the healer who had come to help the disadvantaged. Pride? He was generous, to be sure, but he had the luxury to be generous. He had never been in a situation of absolute dependence, the daily state of many poor people. Continue reading