Subverting our bourgeois tendencies

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January 19, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 2
Aiden Enns |

Many of us like being rich. Moreover, many of us, myself included, like to be seen as being rich. And this, it seems, is contrary to the gospel of Jesus, who preached “woe to the rich,” and “blessed are the poor.” He also warned of leaders in “flowing robes” who liked to sit in places of honour (Luke 20:46).

A few months ago I was getting ready to attend an awards dinner at one of the fanciest hotels in town, ironic because the awards were for outstanding social justice activists. I actually agonized over my wardrobe. In an attempt to look appropriately rich, I kept trying on different outfits. I couldn’t wear jeans. I don’t own a neck tie. I feel too “granola” in my sweaters. And my black pants scream “funeral.” What’s a part-time editor at a non-profit magazine supposed to do?

I regret that I am bourgeois. By this I mean we are middle- or upper-middle-class capitalists that “take for granted the sanctity of property,” as my dictionary says. We prefer to own the means of production—factories, stores and information services—and control or cooperate with the means of coercion. As Mennonites, too often we boast of our religious relatives engaged in status quo party politics, and welcome police- and military-minded members in spite of our pacifist heritage.

We have several bourgeois markers. We drive cars and consider that normal. We respect university education and even build our own institutions. If we seek to undermine the social stratification that higher education brings, we still don’t abandon that same system. I say this as someone who has his own share of degrees and drags them out when needed.

We use clothes and outward appearances as bourgeois markers. For example, I’ve tried to look less rich than I am. One day when I was at my office, I met a man who looked at me and thought I was looking for the food bank, as he was. Oddly, I took it as a compliment. But seriously, when I’m on my bike in traffic and look over at a car and see white, middle-class, male police officers, they most likely look back and see one of their own.

Our choice of shelter is also a marker. As much as I resist—and even resent—my self-identification as middle class, I can’t succumb to the social dislocation of moving down a socio-economic notch. Would we have to sell our house and become renters, or share ownership with others who are poor?

Worship spaces become markers, too. I trust there are still congregations that meet in homes or rental spaces. But I bet that the majority buy property and erect buildings that blend in with consumer- capitalist esthetics by looking like retail centres or performance theatres.

In each of these areas, however, we can sully the bourgeois markers.

For example, we can initiate the formal sharing of cars. We can teach or take courses on poverty alleviation or economic justice. We can be like Gandhi and Jesus, and out of solidarity wear the garments of the masses. When seeking shelter, we can experiment with cohabitation, hospitality and relocation. Instead of following trends and styles, we can risk being outdated and practical.

Even from within our middle-class privilege, we can do things that show our wealth is a problem. Let’s at least take symbolic steps toward solidarity with the poor.

Aiden Enns is a member of Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man., and the editor of Geez magazine. He can be reached at aiden@geezmagazine.org.

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