In the rural, small-town Deep South, people still frequently get acquainted by asking some version of the question, “Who are your people?” It’s intended as a friendly gesture.
Some families have lived in the same town—and even attended the same church—for as long as anyone can remember. In Louisiana we joke that everybody is related, so be careful what you say about somebody else. You’re probably talking to one of their relatives.
Besides, even families without blood ties have formed bonds that span multiple generations. By asking about a stranger’s people, you might find mutual friends or a distant family tie. Posing that question is partly motivated by a desire to unearth an already-existing bond.
But as a friend of mine once said, all motives are mixed. So I’m not leveling a criticism of my Southern neighbors when I admit that something else is going on when we ask this question.. Asking about a stranger’s family helps us place him or her on our social map.
Your family’s reputation says who you are and how much you matter.
Since reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, I’ve come to see why this line of questioning used to make me squirm. My answers put me in an undesirable social stratum. I am the product of suspect breeding.
My father was born a lint head. That’s how the upper classes referred to workers in the textile mills of the Carolinas. Lint and dust hovered inside the mills. It settled in workers’ hair and covered their clothes. Mill workers lived in the tumbledown houses of the company-owned mill village.
My immigrant mother had fled the rubble of post-WWII Austria. Her English was littered with mispronunciations and grammatical car wrecks. She worked variously as a seamstress, a grocery store checker, and a convenience store clerk. Sometimes she would dream aloud about owning her own double-wide trailer.
We were not desperately poor. But we did belong to the struggling working class.
In America we’ve told ourselves that there’s no such thing as social class. But an honest look at ourselves tells a different story. We assess ourselves and judge other people on the basis of economic success and failure.
In our private thoughts and our all-too-public tweets we divide the world into winners and losers. The standard we use to put people in their place is what Richard Rohr calls the three P’s: Power, Prestige, and Possessions.
We applaud the rich and powerful for their industry, shrewdness, and cunning. The poor have nobody to blame but themselves. There are winners and losers. The market sorts them out according to their achievements. Since this all seems to run in families, it’s probably in the genes. Winners beget winners. Losers beget losers.
When we’re on a roll, this view of the world can feel pretty good. But even when we’re at the top of our game, we can’t quite shake the nagging fear that the next step could be a humiliating stumble. Somebody smarter or stronger is always waiting in the wings.
And strictly speaking, if people really knew the things I keep hidden away in my heart of hearts, they would reject me for the loser I really am.
In the birth of Jesus, God reveals that our habit of naming winners and losers is based on a lie. When we see what God is up to in the manger, we learn who we human beings truly are.
To unpack the meaning of Jesus’ birth, theologians have asked this question: Why did God become a human being?
In different ways, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin each saw Jesus as God’s Plan B. God sent Jesus to die for our sins. If Adam and Eve had never eaten the forbidden fruit, there would have been no Jesus. Grace enters the universe as a repair kit.
The Franciscans—especially in the writings of John Duns Scotus—offer an alternative view. Grace governs the creation from before the word go. Jesus was not part of some Plan B. When God decided to bring the world into being, Jesus was God’s very first thought.
God made us to love us. To love means to draw near. To get so close that you become one.
In Jesus, the divine and the human are so intimately woven together as to be inseparable. That has been God’s aim from all of eternity. And it is in Jesus that we see who we truly are as human beings. Our dignity and our worth derive from our union with God.
We will still feel pressure to measure up, to compete and to compare. To accumulate achievements, to amass political clout, and to angle for social status as if that will make us somebody.
But once we’ve been to the manger, we know that our worth and our dignity come from God’s love. And God never loves in half measures. God loves us all infinitely, so we are all infinitely valuable.
The challenge for us, now that we have been to the manger, is to live the truth we’ve found there. Everyone we meet is our people. In all their crumpled diversity and lumpy uniqueness. This is the work of the Incarnation. It continues in us.