Over the last few weeks I have run across quotes, allusions and references to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” everywhere I turned. I had a very kind High School English teacher who didn’t believe in torture, so I had never the book. But I figured maybe God was more cruel than my English teacher and was now requiring that I read it.
So I was obedient to the calling and found a cheap copy on Google play. As it downloaded, my wife warned me in a way that echoed Dante, ‘to abandon all hope ye who read that book.” Although she had never read the book herself, her words were vindicated by a 1 star Google review by someone named Megan that said, “Horrible! I only read this because I had too for English class. The whole time I’m thinking dafaq? is going on.”
I ignored my wife’s and Megan’s reservations and resignedly finger flicked my way through the book. As my finger perfected the side swipe, my mind, heart and soul spent the week surviving the Great Depression with the Joad family.
As I struggled my way across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California with the Joads, I was often tempted to think, “I am glad we have come such a long way in the 75 years since this was written.” Honestly, we kind of have. I mean right now as a nation we do a lot better at feeding and housing homeless people than at any time before and better than most countries throughout history. Despite popular belief this assistance does not just come from the government, but a large amount of individuals, churches, NGO’s and for-profit organizations give a lot of time and money to helping the less fortunate.
Still, I hesitate to write off “The Grapes of Wrath” as an antiquated story from that time when we evicted ranchers from their ancestral homes, lured them into traveling across the country, starved them to death and then insulted them by calling them, “lazy.” Instead, the book seems to contribute to the very timely and relevant discussion about the two golden rules that war within us. The first golden rule is that Scriptural one about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others as you would like to be treated. The second golden rule is much more persuasive, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”
The story begins with a bank that has the gold making the rule that farmers in Oklahoma had to leave the land of their ancestors because one man on a tractor could do the work of 10 without one. The man on the tractor gets paid extra if he uses the tractor to bulldoze the ancestral home. The story continues as scheming merchants and used car salesmen make up the rules of “fair” trade, leaving the homeless ranchers with junk cars in exchange for their priceless heirlooms. Along the road, power hungry policemen, angry store operators and fearful property owners set the agenda by which the Joads must live. Sometimes this results in violence. Most of the time it merely results in the tyranny of an empty stomach and the pain of feeling useless and unwanted.
Steinbeck summarizes all of this with the sentiment that the Joads, “were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them.” That sentence might be a worthy contender for thesis of the book.
But Steinbeck doesn’t let the second golden rule win the day entirely because the Joad’s story is filled with sudden bursts of compassion. A one-eyed used car parts seller practically gives the Joad’s a car part for free. The preacher traveling with the Joads confesses to a crime he did not commit so that the father who was accused of the crime could escape. A starving mother feeds a group of hungry children the last little bit of stew she has. Then there is the wonderful and classic diner scene where a cook gives a family a loaf of bread for 2/3rds of its cost. His wife goes one step farther and gives the children free candy. This encourages some truck drivers to give a gracious tip.
But every crime of compassion comes with its own punishments and rewards. The woman feeding the children gets yelled at by their mother. The preacher’s confession gets the uncle to confess he has been hoarding $6. In the end he keeps $2 for himself, which he wastes on liquor. The one eyed used car seller gets a tongue lashing about feeling sorry for himself by the person who benefited from his generosity. And in the diner, every act of compassion is followed by another act of compassion that is also accompanied by crude insults towards the beneficiaries.
I would like to think in the 75 years since the Great Depression ended we have become a more compassionate people who love our neighbors instead of inventing rules that favor the wealthy. And perhaps we have. Yet reading “Grapes of Wrath” gave me pause because I sense it is still not ancient history.
After all, I work with the 21st century migrant population and they are not unlike the Joads. I spent three years working with homeless men in Kansas City and while some of them were born and raised there, the majority landed there with no money, looking for a fresh start.
Then I moved to the small town where I pastor. It is filled with those who have migrated here from larger cities. Most of them are young and dirt broke. They moved here in beat up trucks or with no car at all. They were running from a bad situation that usually involved drugs, alcohol and a broken romantic relationship. They are desperately craving a new start but they never known anything different than what they ran from. As I have gotten to know them, I find they are not unlike the Joads, “being beaten by a system they do not understand.”
Yet there are sudden bursts of compassion among both the inner city men and the small town migrants. And these acts are quickly punished and rewarded all at the same time. The offer of a place to stay comes with expectations and household rules that when broken yield angry brawls and hurt feelings. The financial help from churches comes with the expectation that you will go to church there (a temptation I fight often to never convey). Free babysitting is only free so long as the parents buy the babysitter the next carton of cigarettes. The offer of free dinner comes with the expectation you bring the alcohol. And lent money is always expected to be repaid, if not in dollars, in video games, movies, and cigarettes.
The rules and methods of compassion are opaque in such a world, just as they were in 1933. Do we educate those who don’t know about the system so they can get along better in it? Do we seek to reform the system and let some of those without the gold make the rules? Do we vilify the wealthy as corrupt beneficiaries of the evil system? Do we launch a revolution? Or do we, who have the goldm visit the homes of the Joads? Do we climb in their truck and travel across the country with them, letting their hope become our hope and their despair become our despair? Do we listen to their stories, write them down and publish them to remind everyone else that our systems and structures and powers and authorities still leave much to be desired? From what I understand of Steinbeck he advocated for all of the above but he seems to have been most successful on that last part.
So until the Bible’s golden rule trumps that other golden rule, I will seek to do the same. I will visit the homes, travel with the people, listen to the stories and advocate for a better world. To do any less would be to ignore the neighbor God called me to love.