(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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The song “This Land is Your Land” was once seriously considered as our official national anthem. For many people, its lyrics about the vast sweep of American land seem to extol what has long defined the nation. Citizens and immigrants alike often see our wide and open land as a symbol of American freedom and opportunity.
That patriotic idea was not, however, what Woody Guthrie, the song’s writer, wanted to convey. He composed the song in 1940 in response to Irving Berlin’s hugely popular “God Bless America” released a year earlier. Widely played on radio stations and sung by Kate Smith, “God Bless America” sang of ideals that Guthrie did not believe were practiced – those of brotherhood and goodness.
Instead, Guthrie used the symbol of American land as one of social equality and economic fairness. Open and abundant, our land had once been freely available for everybody – citizens, immigrants and former slaves.
By the time Guthrie wrote the song, however, he believed America had changed and become selfish and overly greedy. His song “This Land is Your Land” instead promotes a communal ideal of sharing. Land, the defining symbol of America, should be owned by everyone who lived and worked upon it. Indeed, Guthrie was an avowed socialist and belonged to the communist party.
His views were shaped by experiences of his youth and young adulthood. Born to a well-off father who lost everything, Guthrie came of age during the Great Depression. Later, after marrying and having three children, Guthrie was unable to support his family. With no job and living in the midst of the dustbowl drought, Guthrie left his family in Oklahoma and ventured to California where he hoped to find a promised of land of opportunity.
Instead, Guthrie was shocked to find California divided between the haves and the have-nots. Tens of thousands of desperate Okies and Arkies, like him, had moved there. But they were met with derision and discrimination. There was great wealth in California, as in the rest of the nation, but it was walled off for the rich only.
Fortunately, Guthrie had skills as a songwriter and singer. During his journey to California, he sang in the campgrounds of dustbowl refugees, became well known and, after arriving in Los Angeles, was hired by a local radio station. It’s there that his fame spread. Guthrie’s simple folk music addressed the struggles and dreams of farmworkers, immigrants, and dustbowl refugees – all who’d been impoverished by the Depression.
Guthrie hated money and saw how the love of it destroyed both his father and the nation. Property ought to be owned by everyone in a utopian society where everyone works and takes care of each other. In that light, we can better understand his lyrics: “this land is your land, this land is our land, from California to the New York Island.” America does not belong to the Rockefellers, Hearsts, Trumps and big businesses. It belongs to everyone.
This month of July, I intend to use the theme of summer music to examine a few songs and some deeper ideas within them. For today, the subject of economic justice, as expressed in Guthrie’s song, is more than a question of government and politics. It’s a spiritual concern. If every person is a member of the one human family and deserving of equal dignity, then every person deserves the right to live free from poverty. Every world religion believes this. We are spiritually called to be our sister’s – and our brother’s – keeper.
Large portions of the Old Testament teach that Jews are to be generous – particularly to the poor. Greed is considered a sin and ancient Israel is said to have been conquered because it had become arrogant and uncaring to those who were in need. Concern for the poor was considered the highest of ethics by the Jewish prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, writers in the Old Testament. A society is not moral unless it helps the least of its citizens.
And Jesus, perhaps more than any other prophet in history, was an advocate for the poor. He taught that those who do not feed the hungry or shelter the homeless are not followers of him. In other words, they are not Christians. The first churches, formed only a few years after his death, were models of socialist communalism. Home churches were not simply groups who met for worship, they were small communities who followed Jesus’ teachings by sharing resources with one another to insure the well-being of all.
Muslims are likewise commanded to be compassionate to the poor. Any Muslim who does not give liberally to help them is not a true Muslim. Indeed, charity is a requirement for Muslims to go to paradise.
Economic justice has always been a spiritual concern because it addresses what many religions see as humanity’s root sin – that being egotism. We are selfish from the moment we are born many religions believe. All our worst misdeeds – greed, arrogance, murder, theft, and warfare – come from egotism. To be spiritual is to believe in the opposites of selfishness – cooperation, sharing and concern for others. One of the main purposes for spirituality, therefore, is to encourage and help foster economic justice.
1930’s America brought that concern to the forefront. Western economies had essentially failed. Millions of people were laid off work. Businesses and banks failed. Wealth became even more concentrated in the hands of a few. The Great Depression seemed to prove that capitalism is unworkable since it promotes greed, corruption and leads to economic collapse.
It was in this context that Woody Guthrie composed “This Land is Your Land.’ Numerous artists and writers joined Guthrie in condemning America’s capitalist system. They did so on political grounds and their solution was to replace it with socialism and communism. Upton Sinclair, in his book “Oil!” laid bare the immorality of both American individualism and American religion. Individualism encourages a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest mentality, Sinclair implies. The weak and poor should be allowed to die because they hold back society. The other pillar of American culture, religion, was seen by Sinclair as a perversion of Jesus’ original teachings since it mostly promotes salvation and a better afterlife instead of improving life right now.
And those ideas against American individualism and religion are clearly evident in Guthrie’s lyrics. A big high wall with the words “Private Property” on one side – with the other side blank – was Guthrie’s image for two possible American economies – a capitalist system that benefits the few, or a socialist system that benefits everyone.
The lyrics “In the shadow of the steeple, near the relief office” stand hungry people, were intended by Guthrie to condemn religious hypocrisy. Economic justice is a Christian ethic and yet it often went unpracticed.
The 1930’s were thus a crisis point in America. While events and conditions of that era cannot be fully compared to what exists now – a crisis for capitalism is once again, in my opinion, looming on the horizon. The 2008 Great Recession fostered a sensitivity to economic inequality but many of those left behind by our economy have turned to demagogues and far-right politics as a solution. There is a sense that the wealthy control our institutions of power and they must be taken down. Unless our nation finds a middle, balanced way to address job dislocations and increased poverty caused by globalization and technology, there will be a radical revolution, of either the right or left, at some point in our future.
A possible solution, in my opinion, lies in looking to what was put forward in the 1930’s. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal polices were framed not to attack the premise of capitalism but to instead prevent its worst excesses. That effort was not only political, it was rooted in spirituality. Into that debate came one of history’s great theologians – Reinhold Neibuhr. He is widely admired today as a father of progressive spirituality. Fairness for all humanity was seen by Niebuhr as a moral and divine requirement. God, in his view, did not create the universe to be enjoyed by a few. She implored humans to be fruitful and multiply – thus offering the good of creation to as many people as possible. She also gave humans the freedom to act as they wish – thus emphasizing that liberty and individualism can also be spiritually good.
But humanity often chooses the sin of pride and selfishness instead of adopting God’s generosity ethic. Sins of greed have ruined her creative intentions, Niebuhr believed. We must re-learn and re-adopt her original purpose for all humankind. Niebuhr’s book Moral Man, Immoral Society, published in 1932, encourages this spiritual view of society and bridges the divide between communism – which Niebuhr came to detest – and capitalism, which he thought was often equally wrong.
He noted, however, that capitalism, in its best form, initiates a positive work ethic to better oneself and provide for one’s family. That ambition is motivated by greed but it can cause positive outcomes – people gain confidence and skills that enable them to help launch their children on similar paths. Individual greed can also create opportunities and jobs for others.
Niebuhr compared greed to what Saint Ignatius, the medieval philosopher, called passion. Humans are born with selfish passions for pleasure, power and wealth. These are so-called original sins. Ignatius and Niebuhr promote what they called temperance as an answer to those passions. Instead of trying to banish passions – as a socialist or communist society might, or instead of allowing them uncontrolled freedom – as in capitalism, religion and governments should work to instead balance our worst instincts.
In other words, passions are not evil by themselves. It is the excess of passion that is evil. Sexual desire, for instance, is a good and creative force when it is tempered. Greed is a similarly good and creative force when it is likewise tempered. Greed to amass hoards of money and property, at the expense of others and beyond what one needs, is a form of uncontrolled passion. That is what must be restrained.
Niebuhr based his argument firmly in the teachings of Jesus. The Bible does not condemn wealth. Instead, it echoes an important teaching of Paul in one of his Biblical letters. It is the love of money – the excessive passion for money – that is the root of all evil.
Jesus also taught that ethic with his admonishment to a rich young ruler. Go and give all your money to the poor if you wish to be a moral person, Jesus told him. By itself, that verse promotes socialism. Instead, the very next verse indicates that Jesus issued the command for that man only – because he knew the rich young ruler loved his money.
Niebuhr praised Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal because he saw them as expressions of pragmatic spirituality. Such pragmatism accepts human nature for what it is – but within a context of balance. In other words, such spirituality has empathy for our flaws – like our propensity to think only of ourselves. But in that empathy we are asked to find balance by limiting selfishness and encouraging generosity.
Niebuhr wrote in his book Moral Man, Immoral Society that the primary purpose of any government is to “rationally direct the irrational impulses of people.” Those are exactly his views about how we should practice spirituality. Yes, humans have irrational or sinful impulses, but spirituality is designed to rationally and morally counteract them.
All of this brings us back to Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land.” A reasonable perspective of the song realizes that Guthrie’s choice of individualism and selfishness – versus collectivism and selflessness – is too limiting. It says we only have two choices. But why can’t we choose a mix of the two? Interestingly, the Dalai Lama echoes that suggestion in the Book of Joy that we recently read. We can be “selfishly unselfish” he said. In other words, we cannot help others unless we first insure our needs are met.
That also echoes the universal Golden Rule. It is taught by all world religions and says that we should treat others at least equal to how we wish to be treated. Implicit in that ethic is that taking care of ourselves, to a reasonable extent, is not bad. The crucial point is that we take care of all others equal to what we want.
That well states what I believe is a spiritual approach to economic injustice. Limiting human freedom with a socialist economy that hinders the ability to work hard and achieve a level of wealth needed for one’s basic happiness, that is not a moral option. Liberty is denied and innovation suffers.
But equal to that is the mistake of a purely capitalist system which allows human passions of greed and egotism to go unchecked. Massive inequalities happen such that a few prosper beyond what they need – while millions of fellow humans suffer. A solution is to find balance between the two extremes – an approach encouraged by Jesus, the Buddha, Niebuhr, the Dalai Lama and many others.
“This Land is Your Land” simply and beautifully expresses a moral case for economic justice. But it’s version of only two possible Americas is lacking. We need an spirit based economy rooted in justice……..that is also pragmatic enough to empower our individualistic – and, yes, greed based impulses – for the equal benefit of everyone.