A Gospel of Wealth

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

Well, OK. She wanted $4. I could have done the “pretend not to see you” thing. Taking that option is part of life these days, especially in Chicago. She’d been standing in the middle of the intersection, trying to get money so that — if she was to be believed —she and her daughter could get dinner at the McDonald’s on the corner. When the light changed, she came over to me. I was out for a walk. It was a beautiful, cold December night.

This is what I’d been thinking: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

It was a quote from one of my favorite writers, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and at times it feels true — such as when I’m walking through my vibrant, unpredictable neighborhood. Suddenly nothing is ordinary or banal, nothing is to be blown off. Oh, the humanity.

She was young but had a raw, weathered look to her, as though she’d spent nights in parks or maybe under viaducts. Why not just keep walking? That’s the sensible thing to do, but I cannot do so — cannot avoid eye contact — without feeling a wrenching brokenness in my relationship with the world. Most of the time I can tolerate this and I move on; but sometimes a curiosity, or perhaps my own need for an I-thou connection to the world, simply stops me in my tracks.

And once I give eye contact, the story begins. And the story is always about money. Money separates us. Without it we’re hungry and homeless. According to worldhunger.org, one in seven American households — more than 17 million of them — were “food insecure” as of 2010. It’s “the highest number ever recorded in the United States.”

Yeah, something’s broken. It’s systemic, of course. I won’t fix it tonight, here at the corner of Devon and Ridge, as a young woman steps out of the traffic and tells me how hungry she is, and so is her daughter, and she’s pregnant. And her words are compelling even if I don’t necessarily believe her. “I’m for real,” she says and I feel for change — because I don’t disbelieve her either — but I have only a few nickels in my pocket. I pull out my wallet. I have a one, a ten and some twenties.

I’m rich.

This is what I sense in this moment, as she stands there looking at me, illuminated by the streetlight and the glow of the McDonald’s sign. And nothing could feel more preposterous to me than to feel, suddenly, rich, when in my own mind I’m anything but. I don’t want to be rich or, at any rate, to feel a divide between us based on the contents of my wallet. And I think about the presidential campaign that ended a month ago — about the convenient divide that money creates between “taxpayers” and “moochers” and the righteousness that instantly supplants any internal conflict we might feel about the basic unfairness of the situation.

“It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so. Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor.”

Wow, universal squalor as the only alternative to a wealth chasm dividing society into fragments. This was Andrew Carnegie, writing in 1890 (“The Gospel of Wealth”). Earlier he’d talked about how, in the old days, “there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food and environment of the chief and those of his retainers.”

And furthermore, “The Indians are today where civilized man then was. When visiting the Sioux, I was led to the wigwam of the chief. It was just like the others in external appearance, and, even within, the difference was trifling between it and those of the poorest of his braves. The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization. This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial.”

Oh, the entitlement! The poorest of “his” braves . . .

These are the prejudices — the spiritual contaminants — built into the society we inhabit. It begins with the myth of civilization and the abundance of technology and art and fabulous entertainment and great footwear it bestows, however unequally, on all of us, rich and poor alike. The viciousness of the enforcement of this divide is hidden behind the glorious abundance. Without the inequality — without the rich owning almost everything — we’d have . . . drum circles and moccasins. You know, universal squalor.

What I do is hand her the ten. I don’t know if she’s telling the truth, nor do I have a “feel good” moment of helping someone in need. I have only a bemused despair, either that nothing has changed and she’ll be hungry again tomorrow, or her pitch was a lie (or maybe just a form of advertising).

When I hand it to her, she squeals, “I love you!” And I watch as she hurries off toward McDonald’s, presumably to have a feast with her daughter.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.