In Chapter 1 (“The Foul Ball”) of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator, John Wheelwright, declares on the first page, “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Later in the chapter, John and Owen are in the car with John’s mother:
We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker—or, at least, of another pair of hands.
“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing a theme, and therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window….
“WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED,” Owen said morosely. “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.” (pp. 33-34, 35)
If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—John Wheelwright’s mother, who “noticed nothing unusual out the window.”
D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” presents the reader with a young boy, Paul, talking with his mother:
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—a working class fascination with luck and wealth, passed on to children, instead of the charity Owen calls for throughout Irving’s novel
From the grave, Addie Bundren reveals her philosophy of life in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:
So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. (p. 171)
If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—the failure of words against the possibility of deeds.
“With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea,” opens Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
Later in the story, however, the narrator explains:
Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—the sacrificed child, the dull resignation toward inequity.
While Daisy and Tom Buchanan flee, essentially unscathed, to Europe, the images of Myrtle Wilson dead in the road and Jay Gatsby face-down in his swimming pool haunt Nick Carraway’s final lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 182)
If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—Myrtle’s corpse in the wake of Daisy driving a gold Rolls Royce, Gatsby and George Wilson both dead at George’s disillusioned hand.
The U.S. is no Christian nation—of that I am reminded, like Owen Meany witnesses again and again, each time I make a case that the U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world, in human history, and that we tolerate and even loathe the growing number of poor, including poor children, who populate our country.
When I suggest we should end poverty directly, cries ring out for the interests of the wealthy: How dare I suggest that we take from the rich and give to the poor!
Certainly a sentiment that Jesus espoused often? No, in fact, Jesus speaks most about the least among us, the need to lay down our worldly possessions, and our moral obligation of charity.
The U.S. will have none of that, however.
A country will ultimately be measured by how the privileged treat the impoverished. About many things I am unsure, but about that, I am certain.
Many stood in line to buy the newest iPhone (which will be obsolete very soon so everyone yet again can line up for the new iPhone) while almost no one lined up to do something about 22% of children in the U.S. living in poverty.
If you are looking for the U.S., there it is—in line for the new iPhone.
Echoing the words of Jesus in many ways, Henry David Thoreau in Walden (Economy) recognized even in mid-nineteenth century:
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor….
The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind….
No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience….We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches….
We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcæ, but Fashion.
I imagine most in the U.S. would scoff at Thoreau, much as they scoff at my suggesting that the privileged have more than they need, and that what they have earned isn’t earned at all—and that those people and children trapped in poverty are our obligations to charity, not people to be shunned or ignored.
The U.S. is no Christian nation.
Although humanist Kurt Vonnegut, may he rest in peace, seemed to understand:
How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake. (pp. 80-81)