In “Fuck Your Prayer, Show Me Solidarity,” posted 12-15 on killingthebuddha.com, Kristin Rawls tells her “coming-out story in an age of predatory credit…the story of a good girl from a quiet town who prayed, studied hard, said no to drugs, and otherwise did everything she was told,” then found herself – where she remains – living in a modern debtors’ prison.
“I grew up in an evangelical home, and was an earnest “liberal-evangelical” into my early twenties,” Rawls says. “Now I think that my former religious faith – not unlike my faith in the U.S. higher education system – gave me a warped sense of optimism about the way the world works.”
Issues of debt and default, Rawls notes, are so “cloaked in shame and humiliation that many of us stay silent…Financial struggle is associated with sloth in this country.” Because of her “low credit score,” Rawls has “trouble finding stable employment,” and has to work low-paying temporary jobs and spend all her free time writing “as many freelance articles as I can convince anyone to pay me for…I am thirty-one years old. I am not a drug user. I am not an alcoholic. My crime is that I went to school, and then I got sick…
I’m among America’s brightest and best educated. If you came across me in a social setting, you might mistake me for a middle- or upper-middle-class person. This is because I ‘pass’ pretty well. However, I’m not able to get jobs that match my skills, because employers assume based on my credit score that I’m lazy and incompetent. I’ve never done anything irresponsible except having gone to school. I’m the new face of financial ruin in this country…
I’m not telling you these things to facilitate a bonding experience or to bare my soul. I’m coming to believe that refusing to be silenced by shame is the first step in fighting predatory student lenders, that the only way to decouple financial struggle from shame is to normalize it, one person at a time.”
Rawls says that, growing up, her parents and mentors all encouraged her to “follow her dreams, no matter what they cost. So I took out loans,” and went to college and graduate school in international relations. “I decided I wanted to be a professor. I loved the academy, and I was good at asking tough, big-picture questions that got to the heart of things. I was at the top of my class, and I was physically healthy. I’ve never been a big spender, and I saw no reason why I couldn’t live on the stipend of $14,000 per year I’d be receiving from the Penn State PhD program that admitted me. I knew it was risky, but I saw it as a bet on myself. My intellect had never let me down before. I don’t come from a wealthy family, and there would be no cushion if I didn’t fast-track my way to tenure, but I thought I could make it…
Not long after I began my PhD program, I was diagnosed with lupus, a life-threatening autoimmune disease. I soon found that my health insurance was designed for young, healthy people, not people who develop serious diseases in their late twenties…For over a year, I suffered through a major lupus flare, unable to lift my arms for more than a couple of seconds without excruciating pain. I had trouble getting around, and often arrived late at the morning classes I taught. I had to borrow large amounts of money from Sallie Mae and Citibank, because my insurance didn’t cover all my healthcare expenses. When your doctors say you could have ‘vital organ involvement leading to premature death,’ do you worry about the cost, or about your vital organs? I didn’t want to die, so I took out as many loans as I had to, and before long, I had to drop out of school. Now I understand why so many people who are mired in this sort of debt contemplate suicide. I’m not suicidal, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to run on rage indefinitely.”
Rawls then relates her some of her experiences with evangelical Christians – and evangelical Christian groups – professing to care about economic and social justice, while ignoring issues of class. Many of them, she says, claim to be “sympathetic” with the Occupy movement, but concerned about the 1%, because “God loves them, too.” Here’s where we get to the part I struggle with, because spiritual beliefs back up what I say and do as well, and I strive for inclusiveness, nonviolence, love, etc.
Rawls again: “Occupy Wall Street isn’t perfect, but it’s the first sustained critique of class injustice in this country in my lifetime.” The problem of poverty is structural, systemic – not just a matter of creating more jobs. There are also billions of people around the world who’ve been struggling with poverty for generations, often because of first and second world vs. third world privilege. Donating to charities isn’t going to change that either. Rawls insists that only concrete action, real societal changes, will correct unjust balances of power – justice can’t be achieved just through love, prayer, and meditation, as many spiritual people seem to believe. As she says: “Notwithstanding the fact that ‘love’ is perhaps the vaguest, most unhelpful political prescription of all time, this kind of thinking removes any analysis of power from the conversation. It falsely presumes that we all enter the conversation on equal footing. Everyone is so busy preaching ‘unity’ and ‘loving one another’ that there’s never any interrogation of privilege or power.” The message Rawls feels she’s getting is “Love your oppressors. ‘Love’ rhetoric is less pronounced in secular society, but we’re accustomed to being silenced because we have a ‘mean tone.’ We’re asked to speak more respectfully so that we can earn a hearing. We’re taught to submit to our oppressors. We’re being angry and irrational, and it’s our job to make everyone comfortable.
Rawls refuses to be pitied or objectified, saying, “I’m unlucky…not ‘downtrodden.’ I’m pissed off. I don’t want your prayers or an invitation to your church, and I’m not interested in discussing ‘the poor’ as if they’re some kind of abstract concept…If it makes you feel better, go ahead and dismiss me as ‘bitter,’ but I’m not. I’m outraged. I want ‘fellowship’ with people who are outraged with me, and who practice solidarity by showing up when it matters and advocating for real economic justice – shutting down predatory lenders like Sallie Mae and Citibank…I want to turn the shame machine back on you, and I want to invite others like me to come out and stand up against your paternalism. You’re not helping me. You don’t speak for me. I’m the new poor. I did all the right things, but now I’m part of the systematic erosion of the bourgeoisie in America that started with home foreclosures and went on to student debt. Occupy Student Debt just released a video suggesting that one in five new graduates will default. We have no bankruptcy protection, usually meaning that our credit is ruined for life. And credit is tied to everything in this country. In some states, you can actually lose your driver’s – or professional – license for student loan default. We’re talking about a large segment of my generation losing its future.
And we’re being blamed. We had so many opportunities. How could we squander them, and then turn around and blame our lenders? Without them, we never could have gone to school! And we shouldn’t have, in any case, if we couldn’t afford it. We’re thieves! We’re irresponsible! I think these kinds of insults reaffirm our certainty that these awful things could never happen to us. One of my goals here is to show you that they can. If you feel that this is solely my fault, that I should have known better, and that the predatory lenders in question bear no responsibility, I invite you to stop calling yourself my ‘friend.’ Real friendship doesn’t come in the form of paternalistic charity from the powerful to the weak. I don’t want crumbs from your share of the non-profit industrial charity complex – I want you to fight with me for a world in which I don’t need charity. So, stand up and join the class war, please, or get out of my way. Don’t expect me to be grateful for your prayers. I have survival to worry about, literally.”