A Mess of Pottage: the side effects of communal temptation

Everyone knows the Bible’s ultimate story of sibling rivalry: Jacob and Esau were twins. Esau, first out of the birth canal, was the one that secured the birthright. Esau was a man’s man, spending his days outdoors hunting for game, while Jacob preferred staying close to home. One day, when Esau arrived home famished, Jacob was just putting the finishing touches on a savory stew. Would Esau like a bowl? Jacob demanded his birthright in exchange. Esau agreed.

Another well-known story provides the biblical counterpoint. Just after Jesus was baptized, Matthew tells us that the Spirit led him out into the wilderness to fast and pray. After 40 days, the devil showed up, trying to make a similar deal. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” he taunted. But Jesus refused: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ he replied.”

The lessons drawn when one trades something of enormous and lasting value for something lesser and temporary is not lost on the individual. But toxic side effects that linger in the larger community are often overlooked. Here’s what I mean…

Any reader who has seen a loved one addicted to opioids, the painkillers which have now claimed the lives of 500,000 Americans, knows full well how quickly, and tragically, that momentary relief can turn peoples’ lives upside down. Eager for profits, pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family, targeted vulnerable communities across America, with thousands of reps playing local doctors with false or misleading information about the addictiveness of their products. Subsequently, millions became enslaved to these drugs. Listen as Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, describes the “side effects” in communities across America: “[s]ome communities began to resemble a zombie movie, as the phenomenon claimed one citizen after another, sending previously well-adjusted, functioning adults into a spiral of dependence and addiction. You could spot them out and about, pill heads, fiending outside the mini-mall, or nodding off in a parked car, a toddler bawling in the back seat.” (p. 226) All would agree that the toxic side effects on the community must be addressed along with an individual’s addiction.

But imagine what occurs when an entire culture trades away a foundational communal truth for collective comfort food, and almost no one sees the danger.

In Children of the Dream: Why Integration Works, Berkeley economist Rucker C. Johnson (stay with me—it relates) features this appalling statistic: across our nation, Black children are typically two grade levels behind their white peers in academic achievement.

Could it have been different? Johnson says yes. Slowly, in the decades following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which outlawed segregation in schools, districts across the country began to desegregate. Studying those years, Johnson found that the more years Black children were exposed to a desegregation order, the more they achieved. The benefits persisted into adulthood: even five years of exposure to school desegregation led to a 30 percent increase in annual earnings, better overall health, lower hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity incidence, increased marital stability, and lower incarceration rates. In short, the impact was huge! Meanwhile, the white kids exposed to school desegregation did as well as their white peers who were not exposed to school desegregation. A win-win, not a zero-sum game.

Tragically, a gradual process of resegregation began as early as the mid-1980s, so much so that today, America’s schools are as segregated as they had been under Jim Crow (another of Johnson’s startling statistics). Imagine how different our nation would be now if we hadn’t traded our birthright—liberty and justice for all—for the wretched stew of segregation.

Johnson, offers this analogy: “Segregation is like a painkiller providing instant relief for families looking to avoid diversity, but also plaguing them with long term side effects.”

The side effects of our addiction to segregation have been no less devastating: today, the Black-White wealth gap is nearly ten to one.  Meanwhile, Black men are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated during their lifetime.

Would Jesus have chosen the palliative of segregation?  Should we?