The middle class is in this country are battle ground for every political campaign. They are older now than they were a generation or two ago and they have absorbed certain life-lessons that are repeated as a mantra and therefore parroted back at us every time there is an election. Church is not all that different. Most mainline churches are populated by middle-class people, if I had a dollar for every nurse and teacher who served on a search committee that interviewed me for a pastoral vacancy I would be a mighty wealth man. Middle class people take it as gospel that they rose up from poverty to where they are today through a combination of hard work and access points that governments made available. The hard work was applied to school, a first job, parenting, community involvement, planning for retirement. The access points include a quality education (elementary, high-school and post-secondary) and a public service that provides needed services and good-paying jobs. That was the “sacred trust” that middle class people accepted.
That covenant seems to work in countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway but in many other places around the world that “sacred trust” is being severely tested by challenges like systemic poverty, deficits, education programs that graduates too many undergraduates and not enough trades people, and a gnawing worry that this climb to the middle class may not be all that it is cracked to be. Combine that with the fact that the middle class has lost ground over several generation, that children of the middle class are worse off than their parents and that for the first time in human history everyone now believes they can be rich, and you’ve got what Jimmy Carter once called “a societal malaise” on your hands.
It was never supposed to be this way. Our forbearers lived through an economic depression, two world wars, and constant new illnesses that killed and crippled thousands and thousands of people. Add to that a class structure that froze people into tiny boxes of opportunity and you can see why people of that time refer to our challenges today as “first world problems”. Then people worried that nuclear war would kill everyone, today we worry climate change will make our planet uninhabitable.
I believe there are two important factors that desperately need to be addressed if we are ever going to get over this “malaise hump” we find ourselves in. 1) I believe we need to create a hunger for lives of meaning rather than lives of affluence and 2) we need to shift our posture in this hunger from grievance to participation. Life is about more than money and expensive name brand things and it is also more than conforming to the norms of your context. The deeper hunger, and this applies across cultural and demographic lines, is to connect with each other and make a difference in the lives we touch. And to get there we need to roll up our sleeves and be creative in our efforts to make our communities and the world a more just, sustainable and joy-filled experience. That means shifting from constant grievance and waiting/demanding that “they” do something and doing something ourselves. The middle class in the west has shifted from an enterprising and can-do outlook to a static, us-them, passive approach. How did we allow ourselves to become so passive? I see so many liberal institutions; like the mainline churches, governments, even non-profits, become the most conservative intractable organisms imaginable all in the effort to “keep what we’ve got”. Being entrepreneurial is somehow a dirty word amongst these communities. That is a far cry from how experimental the middle class were a little more than fifty years ago.
For church folks like me the Book of Acts and the Anabaptist churches are the inspiration for this needed shift in culture. For the western democracies I think the way countries devastated by the Second World War moved from the rubble to modern cities can be equally inspiring. Passivity has a certain comfort but in the end demanding something from a shrinking resource is a lot less fulfilling than imagining something that connects us all and then doing our part to make it happen.