The Justice of a Peanut Butter Sandwich

Editor's note: Katy Stigers is a listener and first time contributor who grew up a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, swerved left, and ended up somewhere between Sarah and Beth. 

My least favorite food in the entire world is a peanut butter and honey sandwich. In fact, when my husband first offered to make one for me, I looked at him as though he’d offered to smash one in my face like a cream pie.

My three younger sisters also despise these sandwiches. We aren’t allergic to peanuts or honey or gluten. It’s because when we were in school, that’s what the cafeteria served when your lunch account had too many “charges” on it.

Last September, a cafeteria worker in a school near Pittsburgh resigned when she was required to take a lunch away from a child at her school because of the policy where students with balances over $25 were served a substitute lunch. (Those children will someday refuse to eat a cheese sandwich on untoasted bread.)

I wasn’t upset at the school system because Wylandville Elementary will have to pay for the food somehow, just like my old school did. If there is any sort of accountability, many parents, if they can, will figure out how to pay for the lunches. But, some of those kids’ parents can’t pay. Those parents are probably working, like mine were. They may not qualify for reduced price or free lunch because they actually have jobs, and have stretched their budget as far as it will go to purchase housing in a great district so their child (me) can go to a great school, instead of one that’s on the verge of collapse. The result is that sometimes the lunch account gets behind.

Peanut butter and honey sandwiches didn’t ruin my life (which is great, by the way, thanks largely to my excellent education). But they do give me a small window into he gaps between ideology, policy, and people’s lives.

There’s nothing wrong with eating a cold sandwich once in a while. I knew why my lunch was different, but no one ever shamed me. I like to think it’s because we had a sense of community, of neighborliness, of simply all being in the same boat. The worst thing that happened is I really don’t like honey on peanut butter, but blackberry jam is just fine. And it was just—in the sense of “justice”—for the school to substitute a less expensive option for the hot food.

That’s what our government owes us, justice. We can’t expect more from law. Because if the woman holding the scales is not actually blind, she’s certainly a candidate for Lasik.

If we want to be seen, we need neighbors. From them we might hope for mercy, compassion, and grace. Not because we’re entitled, but because somewhere we’ve all had or will need it given to us.

Despite the thick skin I earned eating a different lunch, what actually formed my character was the kindnesses of people who gave me what I couldn’t earn in compassion, dignity, and sometimes a pair of shoes or a book at the book fair, as well as the knowledge that my parents were doing everything they could to take care of me and my sisters.

Abraham Lincoln’s Brother

Abraham Lincoln’s relationship to his step-brother illustrates what conservatives idealize as appropriate social care. Lincoln once turned away his step-brother for $80 (about $3000 today). He wrote to him that he’d not ever seen him do “a good whole days’ work in any one day.” And so he says no to yet another loan. But he offers his brother John a chance. He says, for every dollar earned in the next year “either in money, or in your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar.” (Letter to John Johnston - http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/to-john-johnston-december-24-1848/ )

One of the reasons this example comes across as compassionate, not cold, is because Lincoln knew his brother. They grew up together. They stayed in touch. Lincoln cared about his nephews. (Read the letter, he tells brother John to look for work that is close to home, to stay clear of get-rich-quick-schemes, and cautions that the young boys are learning from their father each day.) Lincoln was a progressive micro-financer.

An intensely relational effort by faith-based groups is what I suspect George W. Bush had in mind when he was advocating compassionate conservativism. Or, to paraphrase Bush 41, a thousand points of Lincoln. I’m not yet convinced that scaling that kind of help, or addressing the myriad structural issues facing the poor, isn’t too much to ask of the faith-based or non-profit sector. Many organizations are already trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while helping others do the same.

I think healthcare is the best example of the conflict between justice, mercy, and grace in our administrative, technologically-enabled, age of dislocation. Kafka would surely recognize the insanity of the labyrinth that the hospital statement, provider bill, co-insurance requirements, and patient responsibility reminder sent to a patient with a high deductible may literally be the death of them.

When my coworker, who prides herself on common sense, “no-waste” thinking about government ponders welfare fraud (in the generic way that many of us lump social assistance programs together as “welfare”), she doesn’t have a stereotype in her mind. The person working the system is her relative, whom my colleague knows from childhood. A person she believes (probably correctly) is unwilling to work and has found a doctor willing to diagnose a disability. This is one of many examples my coworker has in her mind of those who aren’t deserving of assistance because they won’t lift a hand to make things better. When she thinks of “the people the program helps,” she knows she herself has overcome poverty and difficulty “without the system.” Devising a matching-grant scheme like Lincoln’s isn’t her solution. Who has the resources for that? Besides, it wouldn’t be fair.

My parents really disliked the word fair. “You don’t want fair,” they’d scold. However, it’s one of the watch words of our time. Fair gets you rules, and myopic Justice-lady, and not a whole lot of what anyone actually needs, because we’re so worried about those who don’t deserve any help we miss those for whom it would be life changing.

With our justice glasses we can’t see the people who live next door are our neighbors, and we can’t imagine that other folks might be our neighbors (in the Biblical sense) too.

Trying To “Tough Love” Our Neighbors

The weight of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has moved many who, until now, couldn’t understand the point of view of rural voters. Perhaps similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, has shared another facet of African American life otherwise unknown. But for quite a few there isn’t any need to read Vance or Coates because they are living those lives themselves every day.

Where I see the gap between theory and practice is that we’re making policy for those we think we know, using the blunt force of law’s heavy scales. But we aren’t thinking about those we don’t know, who might just do better with a bit mercy and grace.

Both progressives and conservatives have to deal with the fact that some of us are watching John Johnston’s in our own lives and expecting them to measure up to our own inner-Lincoln. Living just on the rough edge of rural Appalachia my friends and neighbors have seen all the misuse of Medicaid, disability, and so forth that they can stomach. They don’t want to pay for it anymore. If we use the coercive power of the government to move resources around, surely it makes sense to keep those closest to the problems eagle-eyed on the implementation. But, on the other hand, some communities are overwhelmingly poor and need folks on the other side of the country to fund their solutions. How big is our boat?

A few months after the Pittsburgh cafeteria storm, during the silly season of judgment in the internet echo chamber, a member of the Twitterati had a brilliant idea. The school couldn’t provide mercy but Ashley C. Ford could (http://www.today.com/parents/tweet-inspires-thousands-pay-school-lunch-debt-t107730_). She tweeted out to her followers that “a cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off.” Approximately 20,000 retweets later, hundreds of thousands dollars have been paid on overdue lunch accounts. That helps kids, and balances school budgets with no slack.

The Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible (which starts off with the law…) speaks of this as a jubilee.

Who knew your neighbors were on Twitter?

When your neighborhood is small enough you have a sense of who needs those peanut butter and honey sandwiches, who doesn’t, who would benefit from a Lincoln-esque matching program, and who needs a kick in the pants. It’s a real shame that by unleashing the power of capitalism to enable coast-to-coast commerce we’ve had to unravel the fabric that, as least in our historical imagination, held us together like a warm blanket. Jobs will leave coal country. San Francisco will be expensive as heck. Our neighborhoods now are just subdivisions or mid-term investments, not anything like communities. There are great big challenges. It might be a start to try and perceive where our neighbors might need us. Try and think about what a big difference it might make to pay of the lunch account of a kid you don’t know, but who might be living a lot like you did. And, perhaps, there’s a bit of grace that we can use Twitter, of all things, as a tool for mercy.