I Should Have Gone for the Refill

A few days ago, on a balmy, late summer’s afternoon, I sat down at an outdoor café to have a cup of coffee with two acquaintances.

We were all in the same neighborhood demographically speaking – three senior-aged white guys.  One of the fellows I had known for about three years and the other was someone I had met but a few months prior.

The one I had known longer and with whom I had shared some personal conversations prided himself in his quick wit and benign sarcasm (When is sarcasm ever truly benign?).

The two fellows were part of a non-profit started and owned by my more recent acquaintance the purpose of which is to counsel wannabe entrepreneurs on how to avoid mistakes and how to lay out a successful business plan.

The self-proclaimed quick-witted fellow constantly prodded me about becoming a counselor with the company and when I would beg off saying that I was happy just writing my poetry (this after forty-two years in ministry as a pastor, campus minister, interim minister and hospice chaplain which I didn’t say but he knew), he would respond by asking sarcastically, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you interested in helping people?”

Ah, sarcasm once too often.  I replied by asking him if he wanted to go with me to a  march at the state capitol to protest the unfair lending practices called “payday loans”  practiced by many large banks across the country.

There really wasn’t a protest planned; I was just baiting him, but if he had agreed, which I knew he wouldn’t, I would have driven him to a local bank and offered to protest in front of the bank with him.

He didn’t know what a payday loan was.  So I explained that the working poor regularly can’t make their paychecks last from one paycheck to the next, so they go to places where they can get a quick loan.  Unfortunately, when that loan is due, often the money isn’t there and so another and another and another payday loan is secured with interest rising exponentially to some stratospheric place like 400%.  Eventually, when whatever money can be extracted from the poor borrower is exhausted, the bank moves on and the borrower has more bad credit and is vulnerable to legal action.

By this time the other fellow, who had gone for a refill, was back and the conversation then took an unexpected turn.  The two of them began a litany of accusations directed toward the payday loan borrowers and I was dumbstruck by the callousness, judgmental-ness and dismissive-ness in their pronouncements:

“Whose fault is it anyway?  Their own. They should learn to manage their money better so they wouldn’t need these loans.  You can’t fault the lenders.  They are just legitimate businesses trying to make a living. Nobody put a gun to the heads of these people.  Nobody made them take out the loans.”

The barrage came fast and furious.  I felt like I had been swift boated. Oh, my, as if that wasn’t enough, the conversation then expanded to the people who got mortgages who couldn’t afford them during the heyday of the mortgage bubble.  The same image was advanced:  “Nobody put a gun to the heads of these people.”

I tried my best to defend the masses who had fallen into foreclosure, a job no one, I mean no one in the masses asked me to do, by saying that they were seduced with promises of the American dream and a slice of the American pie by unscrupulous bankers thinking only of making large sums of money – seduced as we all are at some point in time by our desires. I made the case that these people are bombarded day in and day out with messages to buy, buy, buy and then they will finally be in the “in crowd.”  I asked them to think of the power of that conditioning upon the most vulnerable.  It didn’t go anywhere.

I asked, “Who doesn’t want that slice? And if you feel that you’ve been kept out of the game, you are going to jump at the chance.”

Then, the clincher came: “Well, we have made the correct decisions in life and we have made them ourselves. We’ve done it on our own.”

“What!”  I asked incredulously.

One said, “We’ve got 64 million out there on the dole, sidlin’ up to the public trough and aren’t carrying their weight like we are, and they just want more. They don’t pay any income tax and they want us to pay more so they can have more while doing nothing.”

My blood pressure was rising rapidly and if I had been wise, I would have excused myself and gone for a refill and then ducked out the back door, but no, I jumped right in wagging my finger and playing the “I’m a minister and you guys should feel guilty” card.

“You guys go to church every Sunday. Haven’t you heard the words of the prophets crying out against those who exploit the poor, the widow and the orphan? Haven’t you taken to heart Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and his admonition to the rich young ruler and St. Paul’s cautionary words to Timothy about how the rich should not trust in their own riches but to trust in God and be generous with those riches?”

No answer, just resolve.  “We are free market capitalists.  What are you?”

“A socialistic capitalist, one that believes in checks and balances and regulations to keep the long arm of greed at bay.”

Oh good, I just handed them the ammunition that they needed to shoot me and my argument out of the saddle:  a socialist and a liberal, left-wing, bleeding heart minister.

“Well, we are self-made men.  We have earned what we have.”

There it was:  the myth of the self-made man so near and dear to old, white guys.

“You know what?  You’re just a couple of old, white guys scared to death of the coming of the Rainbow Coalition, the blacks, browns, yellows and reds.  And while there is no such thing as the self-made man, there especially is no self-made man who came from Bloomfield Hills, MI.”

Oops, that was it. Them was fightin’ words.  The guy from Bloomfield Hills, the self-proclaimed quick-wit, lost that wit, got really close to my face, scrunched up his and said, “Don’t make this personal. Where I come from has nothing to do with this. How dare you.”  The other guy agreed.

I said, “It isn’t personal (even if it was, a bit); it’s demographic.  If you claim to be self-made, that claim is untenable, especially if you come from one of the most economic privileged demographics in all of America.  You guys didn’t spring full-grown in three-piece suits from you mother’s womb.” (Actually, I didn’t say that, but it was a great after thought and while I wish I had been fast enough to think of it, I got to use it here.)

The other one, as if to justify his own claim, protested that he was from Detroit which served to do two things:  indicate that maybe the Bloomfield Hills guy wasn’t self-made after all and simply reference a Detroit from back-in-the-day when it was solidly middle-class and not the primarily the poverty-stricken town of today.  Nice try.

They both accused me of making an assumption about Bloomfield Hills. Yes, I know how to spell assume, but this was a pretty safe assumption.  Think birthplace of the Republican candidate for the presidency and just try not to think “privilege.” It just screams.

The self-proclaimed quick-witted one had to go, so as he left, I said, somewhat sarcastically, “The peace of the Lord be with you, brother.”

“Hey, you said that sarcastically,” stopping, he called back.

“Hey, you said that sarcastically,” the still seated Detroit guy said.

“And so it was,”  I said.  “But I’m in good company. Jesus could be pretty sarcastic, too, I think.”  In this case, I hoped and prayed they didn’t know scripture, especially I Corinthians 13 and all about not speaking with love.

And so, it will be quite a while, if ever, before the former tres amigos have coffee together again.

“Hey there, socialist, radical, left-wing, bleeding-heart minister, say that in American.”

Later, I wondered why those two social Darwinians bother to help those wannabe entrepreneurs rather than just let them fend for themselves and let the best “self-made man” win.  They don’t do as they say.  They talk tough and then they do something for others. Actually, I think they have a heart deep down under that old, shriveled, white skin.

Still, I should have gone for that refill.

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