Look Down and Blame Up

People gathered at the British Museum Every so often you hear an idea or a phrase that gets to the heart of a matter and becomes an insight that explains a lot of things. That happened to me at the Shadow Conventions when listening to Dean Trulear speak on our ‘poverty day’ programs at both the Philadelphia and Los Angeles conventions. Dean is the director of Faith-based Initiatives at Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia, which brings both expertise and resources to urban churches on the front lines of the battle against violence and poverty.

Trulear was talking about the role of the middle class in the fight to overcome poverty, and he said something that really jumped out at me. “Most of the time,” said Trulear, “people tend to look up and blame down.” That’s a mistake, he said – and it’s also not biblical.

He went on to explain. Middle class people “look up,” meaning that they aspire to move up the economic ladder and they like to identify themselves with those higher up than they are. At the same time, they also “blame down,” meaning they are critical of those below them, often even scape-goating those who are poorer than they are as the source of many problems.

That’s just the opposite of what people should be doing, said Trulear. “We should look down, and blame up.” We should be identifying ourselves with those who have been shut out and left behind, while seeing the sources of many problems to be most often with those higher up the economic hierarchy.” That, he said, is much truer to the reality of our social problems, and it is what the Bible suggests as the more appropriate attitude.

Biblical writers tend much more to identify with and be sympathetic to the poor and vulnerable, while putting most of the responsibility for poverty and injustice on the rich and powerful. Yes, in the Bible there is blame for poverty. It’s not just an accident or nobody’s fault. And, in the Bible, blame for poverty is seldom laid at the feet of the poor, as is so common in our society. Blaming the rich is not class warfare, as some would say – it’s just biblical faith.

Of course, many of us have been saying things along those lines for years, but Trulear’s phrase just summed it up so well for me. When I asked Dean about the insight, he gave credit for the concept to John Raines, a professor at Temple University, who offered the idea at Roundtable on “Business and the local Church,” sponsored by the New Jersey Council of Churches. Thanks John and Dean! Your simple phrase puts biblical economic ethics in a nutshell, as they say. And it’s a good insight for reflection, both for individuals and congregations. Are we “looking up and blaming down,” or are we beginning to learn how to “look down and blame up?”

Jim Wallis

Church Action on Poverty

Church Action on Poverty is an ecumenical social justice charity which mobilises churches to work alongside others to tackle poverty in the UK.

Photo: Ghosts Amongst Us. [Photo credit: Rob Stanley]