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Tex Sample, Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus: Doing Ministry with Working Class Whites

–Review by Landrum Leavell III

          Sample’s book is a fascinating study of the practices of social inequality as it pertains to church ministry. The first half of the book was given in an oral and multimedia form as the Hein Fry lectures of 2000 at four Evangelical Lutheran seminaries. While the subtitle may appear a bit off-putting, Sample’s admitted “hunch is that people who do not care about lower-class whites probably do not care about any kind of people who are poor.” (11)

As he begins to look at indigenous practices, Sample focuses on the phrase “pitching tent” from John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Greek word skeenoo literally means “pitched tent” and is central to the Incarnation. “Pitching tent” was an indigenous practice in Jesus’ time, a fundamental way of taking up habitation with people.

          Having studied social class in college, Sample finds it more helpful to examine class in terms of social practice. He argues for the words indigenous practices rather than contextualization. “All of our lives are located in a history and a culture and a class. We are all local. We are all indigenous.” (6) Since “We are all beggars telling other beggars where there is bread,” our understanding of the faith is culturally mediated. There is no escaping the fact that we witness to the faith as people within an indigenous culture of our own to those in yet another indigenous culture. Sample suggests there is “too much Western presumption in the distinction and in the privileging of the word contextualization… a stereotyping of traditional culture which sounds too much like the way the West tends to view the other.” (7)

          He begins talking about rituals of inequality, the first being the ritual of giving and taking orders, studying who gives them and who takes them. The second ritual of inequality is getting and giving respect, the way people treat you. The third practice of class is that of deference and demeanor, how those in the lower reaches of the class structure defer to those at the top of the structure, having to do with the very bearing of people, even with their posture in the presence of others. Here is the contrast between people working and getting their jobs done, but when the boss comes on-site, both posture and language changes. The practices of deference and demeanor take over. It’s easy for a pastor to enter quite actively into such practices of inequality. Education, the position of “responsibility,” the kind of respect often accorded in a community all become occasions for our practice of the rituals of social inequality.

          Closely related to the practices of class is the politics of distinction and the strategies of condescension. Basic here is the use of language. The polarities of language and the binary use of language are pervasive in the realities of class. Listen to the terms people use: those who have “class” and “no class,” “distinguished” and “trash,” “highbrow” and “lowbrow” in discussing taste in music and arts. The emergence of this distinction comes from so-scientists who studied phrenology (heads) and physiognomy (faces). The highbrow and lowbrow foreheads were related to intelligence. Interesting enough, the scientists tended to look like the highbrow types. The “lowbrows” were people of other racial ethnic groups. “This is an outright racist, bipolar use of language. Yet, it has entered our commonplace language.” (18)

          Closely related to language is the conspiracy of taste and music and the arts. Robert Walser is quoted in seeing the same kind of racism and classism: “People are constantly being typed by their cultural allegiances, respected of dismissed because of the music they like.” And people begin to believe these demeaning characterizations of their traditions and their lives.

          There is so much more analysis and anecdotal substance in this book that is well worth the time. (It’s a short book-138 pages with wonderfully large font.) Most churches are made up of working class folks. The insights contained in this volume are extremely helpful in regard to relationships, church meetings, and our preaching as we see how the practices of everyday resistance play out. Most working people are more oral than literate. Sure, they can read and write, but “they engage the world through proverbs, stories, and thinking in terms of people they know rather than philosophers and theologians they have read.” (27)

          In theological language, these practices of social inequality are principalities and power: “The concrete, lived practices of taking orders, of giving and often not getting respect, of demeaning insults to one’s dignity, of the heavily sanctioned deference expected from working people, which is systemic—these are the required litanies of the liturgies of class.” (29)

          Anyone out of the ivory tower and on the ground, working in the trenches will benefit from a romp through this book.