Battling class envy: A long struggle for me, and for America

Posted: Oct 18, 2011 12:01 AM

Last month I wrote about creating more jobs by not worrying about inequality and putting aside class envy. One reader responded by asking whether I truly understood the debilitating effects of inequality and the anger it can cause. Oh yes, I know.

My earliest memories are of my mother's envy. She had five siblings, all of them married, all living close to each other in Massachusetts, so every other Sunday evening they assembled for bridge games that rotated among the various homes. When it was our turn I got to set out the candy dishes, sneaking more than my share of Brach's sugared fruit slices, chocolate gold coins, M&M king-size peanuts, and Tootsie rolls.

Dressed in my plaid knee-length shorts, my belly pushing against the fabric of a button-up shirt, with dark socks and dark leather shoes finishing the look, I listened to my mother interrogating her sisters about any new clothes they were wearing: "What's something like that cost?" or "Where did you buy it?"

My mother had married a smart man who was poor. Her sisters had married uneducated entrepreneurs who became rich. They lived in "split-level homes"—I wasn't sure what they were, but they were bigger and better than our snug apartment. They had wall-to-wall carpeting. We had peeling linoleum.

My mother's sisters played mahjong, but at age 41, once I hit the fourth grade, she went back to work as a secretary, this time in a tannery. The smell was bad but the sense of defeat was worse. Her sisters had the good life. She had dictation. I had a bicycle put together out of scrap metal. I wouldn't ride it in front of other kids with their Schwinns. I coveted.

The 23rd Psalm famously begins, "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want." In junior high and high school I wanted everything and had no trust that God would provide anything. Since I had always lived in an apartment on one floor, I coveted houses with both an upstairs and a downstairs. We had a black-and-white television. I coveted a color one.

In September 1968, I put my two polyester sweaters in a suitcase and headed off to college. My roommate was a New Yorker who had brought his own dresser just to hold all his luxurious woolens. I was mad at him from day one.

Later, I learned that Yale gave a prize to the undergraduate who had the best book collection. I spent three years putting together a collection of inexpensive paperbacks that in my view reflected excellent taste. The contest judges came to inspect. They trooped to my room, took a 2-second look at the paperbacks, and walked out chuckling. The prize committee chairman told me I'd be better off trading the thousand paperbacks for several prime (and expensive) first editions.

Yes, I know class hatred.

A year after graduation, hatred led me into the Communist Party USA. Envy led me to advocate murderous revolution of the kind that ravaged Russia, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and other countries. Envy leads to class warfare. Class warfare kills. It might kill this country.

I've written in WORLD ( about how God graciously pulled me out of communism. When I became a Christian in 1976, many of my sinful tendencies remained. It's been a 35-year struggle to corral them. But one instantly disappeared: class envy. Strange but true. My pre-Christian life did not include a day without envy of the rich. My Christian life has not included a day with it.

Would that I could say that about my other sins! But my life has been better without class envy.

I'm not saying we should ignore the way our concentration of power in Washington allows some to combine political and economic clout. Nor should we ignore how failing public schools leave many children uneducated: That's our nation's prime structural problem.

I am saying that the life of this country would improve if we paid less attention to what the rich have, more to the sin in our own lives, and more to the productive ways of helping the poor that WORLD has covered over the past 25 years. America, America, God shed His grace on thee.