The Dead Kennedys, Princeton University, and James Cone

 “There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.” ― Victor Hugo in Les Misérables

For a very short season in the 1980’s I had an odd fascination with the British Punk Rock scene and general and the band, “The Dead Kennedys” in particular (thank you, Murray Bickel!).  There was something raw, unfiltered, and authentic about their rage against oppressive structures that drew me in as a testosterone filled adolescent.  Now and then, I still get their catchy tunes stuck in my head:

The sun beams down on a brand new day/ No more welfare tax to pay / Unsightly slums gone up in flashing light / Jobless millions whisked away / At last we have more room to play / All systems go to kill the poor tonight/ Kill, kill, kill, kill the poor, tonight.

This song got stuck in my head as I read a recent paper published in the Journal Psychological Science.  It is both disturbing and a sad commentary on the deep depravity of the human condition.  Lasana T. Harris and Susan T. Fiske from the Department of Psychology; Center for the Study of Brain, Mind, and Behavior at Princeton University wrote about, Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low: Neuroimaging Responses to Extreme Out-Groups.

To summarize: when people were placed in neuroimaging machines and shown photos of the poor and homeless, their brains responded as though the photos depicted things, not humans - a sign of revulsion. “Americans react to the poor with disgust,” said Susan Fiske, one of the authors of the paper She has studied attitudes toward the poor for twelve years.  The images scored the same neurological reaction as vomit, an overflowing toilet, and a drug addict. “It’s the most negative prejudice people report,” greater even than racism, Fiske said.

Prejudice against the poor increases during hard economic times, said John Dovidio, a Yale University psychology professor. “Our society is based on the idea that if you work hard, you get more, and if you have less, you deserve less,” Dovidio said. That’s why, he added, many Americans don’t accept the notion that low-income people are deserving of support. (The complete paper can be found here)

This study also got me to thinking about the Black, Feminist, and Liberation theologians that I loved reading in the 1990’s.  I pulled James Cone’s, God of the Oppressed off the shelf this morning and found this gem:

The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity's liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.

Dana Hicks