On Monday night Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, led a discussion with J.D. Vance, the author of the extremely popular Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book is a powerful telling of Vance’s own story of growing up in extremely dysfunctional homes, yet moving upwardly in society to become a Marine, college graduate and Yale-trained lawyer. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, especially as a way to begin to understand a group of people not usually in contact with anything approaching a healthy church.
Here are a few of the highlights of the conversation. Keep in mind that these are being processed through the mind of a pastor and may not fully reflect what Mr. Vance, who is fairly guarded about his own current faith, believes.
“We’re not people who succeed.” One of the most startling themes of the book and discussion is the mindset of many people growing up and living in poverty and dysfunction. Unlike so many others in our nation, Vance grew up in a culture that simply believed success was something that happened to other people. In so many quiet and subconscious ways, many children are led to believe that they aren’t as smart or gifted and simply don’t have the option of succeeding. They don’t believe there is any connection between effort and outcome. So why try? For his own life, it took a few mentors and especially his strong-willed grandmother to keep pushing Vance out of this mindset.
This speaks to the importance of what many call a “Christian imagination.” In other words, those who trust in Christ should be those who can always imagine something better. Not that we preach a prosperity gospel, but the church ought to be a place where the inherent worth and potential of each person is believed and promoted. To come alongside someone in poverty can’t mean simply offering a temporary solution or alleviation of a few bills. It must mean convincing them (often many times over) that success is really possible.
“Life may not be fair, but don’t let that stop you.” Vance seemed to present two realities to poverty that shouldn’t be ignored (though they often are). First, those of us who haven’t faced it need to understand the extraordinary amount of cultural, family and religious factors working against the success of those growing up poor. Beyond (or in addition to) white privilege, we need to understand our middle-class privilege.
Second, those difficulties should not be allowed to keep the poor from striving for upward mobility and successful stability. In other words, it’s possible to acknowledge that life is truly difficult without using that difficulty as a motivation for laziness or despair.
“Real compassion needs to have an edge.” One of the factors behind Vance’s success is his ability to speak from within the problem of poverty with humility yet forceful grace. Thus his writings are able to pinpoint some problems with rural communities which would appear insulting coming from someone else’s pen. He went on to point out that it’s not helpful or truly empathetic to treat people as little children who have absolutely no control over their surroundings or situation. Rather, true “compassion treats people as moral agents” and thus will often have an edge to it. This is a helpful reminder to any church interested in Biblical mercy ministry: treat people as God’s Word treats them – kindly, gently, yet with the truth of their own responsibility.
“…the rotating door of father figures…” Both Daniels and Vance spoke strongly about the reality that one of the greatest indicators of a person’s failure to succeed is growing up without a father and growing up in a neighborhood where few fathers are present. The statistics and reality behind this are, as Daniels put it, “Himalayan.” Yet our society continues to look elsewhere for answerable reasons for poverty while ignoring this most clear one. And we continue to celebrate the breakdown and breakup of the God-ordained structure of the family, all the time calling for relief for the poor.
This isn’t an easy problem to “fix” but it is an important one that deserves a continual spotlight whenever we consider how to show Christ’s love to the poor. Without raising up men who will lead their families faithfully, we will only be putting bandaids on the gaping wounds of poverty, whether in inner city or rural.
“A book can make a difference.” This comment was one of the last made by President Daniels, who is not only a fan of the book but was joyous that a book can much such a huge impact in a day of blogs, memes and 24-hour news cycles. Mr. Vance’s book has indeed created a huge stir in our nation and will hopefully continue to inform many of an enormous group of people largely ignored and often despised. So, yes, books still mean something. We should be glad for this as well.
I would also encourage you to read or re-read some of the previous articles by Kyle Borg, who is devoting his life to ministry in rural America: