First They Came…

Reflections on Our Need for Unity
(A Wake-Up Call to the White Middle Class)

Crowd of protestors


Centuries ago, an old story tells us, a proverbial wise man from the East implored his deity to spare him from living in interesting times. Since we are not wise men and women, our deity has not spared us, for not only do we live in interesting times, we live in dangerous times. As I continued my reflections on the times in which we are living I was drawn to the 29th hexagram in the I Ching. In Wilhelm’s translation the title of this hexagram is “The Abysmal.” R.L. Wing gives the title an updated translation as “Danger.” This trigram is a doubling of K’an which means plunging in. It is a doubling of danger. It advises us that “… the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation. And once we have gained inner mastery … the action we take will succeed and we must go forward with thoroughness in order not to perish.”

As I was considering these thoughts I certainly agreed with the I Ching that our danger in modern times is doubled. We are seeing more of our collective societal shadow than most of us could have imagined. And we are facing the physical and economic dangers of the pandemic. It does not take much reflection to see how clearly these dangers are bound together and intertwined—the cruelty of our politics, the systemic racism, and the systemic income inequality that are all now in our face.

One important thing that I want to note here, and it is an important point to me, is that I was born into the white educated middle-class and have lived in it all my life. I have often asked myself the question, “What kind of a power, what kind of privilege, does this actually give me?”

One evening when I was thinking about my life and these questions I remembered the post World War II confessional by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. Many of you, particularly if you are around my age, may remember it.

First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out –
   Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
   Because I was not a unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out –
   Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I might update this confession and write it another way.

First they came for the Native Americans and I did not speak out –
   Because I am not a Native American.

Then they came for the African Americans and I did not speak out –
   Because I am not Black.

Then they came for the union members, and I did not speak out –
   Because I do not belong to a union.

Then they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out –
   Because I am not an immigrant.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

This confession isn’t totally true for me, yet. I have spoken out in many of these cases. But, did I really? Did I speak out with passion and determination to make our politicians change the system? Did you, over the last forty years?

And when I say they came for me, I mean they came for members of the white educated middle class.

My real income is about the same it was in 1974. Since then the cost of living, housing, college, medical expenses and other expenses have sky-rocketed to the point that, in most cases, both parents in a family have to work in order to stay in the middle class. Meanwhile, retirement and health care benefits have been shrinking. Our middle class appears to be going down for the third time.

Are we sitting like the proverbial frog in the pan of water slowly heating up to a boil that will kill us instead of being aware we need to jump out of the pan?

I might note a few other things we haven’t been paying much attention to. To begin with, unions were instrumental historically in creating the middle class. Shouldn’t we remember how important that was? And, shouldn’t we remember unions of such groups as teachers, nurses, and civil servants who protect the quality of all our lives?

I, in fact, was fortunate that I changed careers when I did. The stores that my business partner and I owned were mill outlet stores. The great industries that supplied us moved to China a few years after I left the business, and if I had stayed I would have gone under. These great industries in textiles and men’s clothing along, with furniture and others, just left. We know how this affected the workers, though it didn’t take us long to turn a blind eye toward them (even though many of them earned enough to be in the middle class.)

But what happened to the people in the middle management, in marketing, who ran the show rooms—the people who were middle class, had mortgages, and had kids in college? And what happened to the middle class in the towns these industries supported—the shop owners, restaurant owners, health care providers, and school teachers?

Let me ask you another question. When the big-box stores came into small and medium-sized towns with business plans that deliberately focused on putting the small independent businesses out of business, what happened to the middle class in those towns? In effect, these powerful companies reduced the populations of these towns into serfs.

Many of the educated middle class have dulled their awareness through “political correctness.” We learned to be inclusive verbally without letting ourselves learn how to be inclusive in actuality. All too often we have made our passionate emotions socially unacceptable. We have buried our capacity to have the kind of rage that demands change. We have lost the strength to be aware of the real power-hungry people and corporations that are predators and have purchased our government. As a nation, we haven’t remembered the words of King Arthur in “The Once of Future King” when he concluded that when might makes right it turns us into beasts, and that might must be harnessed and used for right.

The great psychoanalyst Rollo May reminded us that it takes rage to break the bonds that encapsulate our capacities for creative visions and our capacities to love life and each other enough to be fierce in the service of life. We are not going to have unity in this country until we begin to have unity within ourselves.

The predators, the dark side of capitalism (it also has a positive side,) have been putting the middle class in harm’s way for forty years and we have been in denial for forty years. But there is someone to speak for us—people in the Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Wall of Moms, and others like them that are very familiar with the heels of oppressors, are speaking for us too. In Jungian Psychology the shadow—the poor, denied, and oppressed parts of ourselves—holds our potentials and our future. In western religions the stone the builder rejected becomes the cornerstone of new construction. And, we still have time to join those speaking up and realize we are all speaking up for each other.

We can become united in our humanity, and unity does not mean we all have to be the same. It means we have a common purpose that includes caring for each other, valuing every life, and our founders’ ideals of “liberty, justice, equality, and opportunity for all.”

Categories: Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris
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