Staying Vertical

"That Christianity has to be revealed and embodied in the line of social progress is a corollary to the simple proposition, that man's action is found in his social relationships in the way in which he connects with his fellows; that his motives for action are the zeal and affection with which he regards his fellows. By this simple process was created a deep enthusiasm for humanity; which regarded man as at once the organ and the object of revelation; and by this process came about the wonderful fellowship, the true democracy of the early Church, that so captivates the imagination.... The spectacle of the Christians loving all men was the most astounding Rome had ever seen." .... "The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." Jane Addams, social reformer, founder of Hull House in Chicago, 1892

A week ago, I had a noon meeting in downtown Long Beach. After the meeting, I ran to catch the Blue Line train to get back to Los Angeles. In my haste to cross the street, the toe of my shoe slipped on a slick steel rail, and down I went, planting my face on the cement. I hopped up and kept going, but quickly realized I was bleeding from the nose and lip. My clothes were scuffed and dirty. As I got on the train, people looked at me askance.

I had been transformed from a upstanding professional gentleman into a member of the underclass, in one second.

But when I got off the train, my wife, who is lovely in every way, scooped me up in our Prius and drove me to our nice house in the Hollywood hills, where a shower and clean clothes awaited me. In an hour I was an upstanding professional gentleman once again: bruised and scratched a bit, but otherwise presentable.

"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." I cannot think of a more perfect summation of my face-plant incident than this one from the legendary Jane Addams, the mother of the social work profession and of the public child welfare system of America. This sentence was the product of her Christian faith put into daily practice. I "secured good for myself" by choosing and marrying a remarkably wonderful woman, working hard to get through school, and getting and keeping a great job that pays well and affords my family excellent health insurance. But as I sat on the train, stanching blood from my lip with my hankie, I looked around myself at the regular riders on the Blue Line. It's the train that runs through South Central LA. A lot of those folks had nobody to pick them up at the end of the line, nobody to comfort them and whisk them away to get cleaned up and better-dressed. Had they worked any less to get what little they had? Did I deserve my advantages any more than they deserved their disadvantages? In my condition, it was harder than ever to answer in the affirmative.

My face-to-face encounter with the pavement was one of those "values clarification moments". It reminded me why I vote for political candidates who are committed to social justice. striving to create a society that ensures real help in fall-down-flat situations: those disasters that are not "respecters of persons" (Acts 10:34, KJV).

The philosopher John Rawls undergirded Jane Addams' values when he posited a hypothetical gathering of the unborn. What kind of social arrangements would we make if we collectively designed them before knowing what sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, and social-economic status we would enter as babies? It is hard to imagine that we'd choose the current American system of wildly unequal access to good medical care and schools, inadequate social insurance, and extreme differences in exposures to crime and pollution. It is hard to imagine that in a constitutional convention of the unborn, they would fail to choose what prevails in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway: relatively low income inequality, generous social insurance, universal health care, excellent free education for all, lively democracy, freedom of speech, religion, conscience, and enterprise.

I'm voting for the candidates with policy positions that align most closely with this vision. Life is precarious for us all. We're vertical one second, horizontal the next. We're all on the Blue Line train together, hurtling into an uncertain future. We owe it to each other, and to the Divine Love that binds us all together, to set things up so that there will be comfort and care for everybody at the end of the line - no matter the circumstances into which they were born.