Since my mother-in-law died last summer, my husband Dan has spent more time trying to sort out the cable-internet-phone at her house than he has on all of the other matters related to her estate put together. Dan’s sister continues to live at his mother’s house, and so this was one of the many bills that needed to be transferred over to Julie. The media provider has been happy to extract their monthly fee from her account ever since, even though the service has been spotty at best. She went weeks without cable, which required Dan being on standby for whole days at a time waiting for service personnel to show up, call back, and troubleshoot. She hasn’t had internet access since last October, which has required countless phone calls, with every phone call seemingly reaching a crustier and less competent customer service rep, each promising to phone back with possible solutions and none of these promised return phone calls ever materializing. “Yes, I can see right here in the system that the internet isn’t hooked up,” one rep said to me over the phone. “We can address this right away,” he promised. It was never addressed. He never called back.
All of these shenanigans culminated in one particularly nasty person on the other end of the phone raking Dan over the coals for having not informed them of his mother’s death (he had, of course, informed them last August). “You have committed fraud,” she announced. “I am going to have to cut off service to your mother’s house!” This tired and cranky employee didn’t know how to solve the internet problem, she wasn’t interested in trying, and she obviously had so little investment in representing the company that employed her that she was willing to cut loose a client rather than to provide any help or apology. One more attempt to call back and speak to a supervisor resulted in being hung up on.
I seethed with anger. “If that is how they want to behave, then we’ll take our business elsewhere,” I snarled at Dan. “And we’ll tell everybody we know about the deplorable—not just incompetent, but downright mean—customer service which is obviously the accepted standard of behaviour for this media provider.” The air very quickly went out of my vindictive sails, though. There are only two companies in town who provide cable, internet, and phone services. We had been with the other company before, and my mind began to race through all of the same kind of frustrations we had had with them: sneaky billing practices, lack of answers when service didn’t work, and grumpy customer service reps on the other end. Furthermore, I was pretty sure that any Facebook rant against this company who wronged us could result in being slammed with a defamation suit, which is also why I am not naming names in this blog. It doesn’t matter that my words are true. It matters that this media giant has the best lawyers money can buy and therefore has the power to shut me down.
These frustrations might be counted in the category of “rich people problems,” or “first world problems.”
Poor me, I can’t get my 500 cable channels to work! I am wronged, I can’t get on-line!
Meanwhile, millions of people cram themselves into subpar boats to escape warfare and persecution, hoping and praying that the ship will make it across the choppy seas, and somehow the world they are leaving is so dangerous and frightening that a life-threatening boat ride and a refugee camp become better options. “Blessed are the poor; blessed are the hungry and the persecuted,” Jesus tells us in one of his more famous teachings. His words have been heard and claimed as a preferential option for the poor. Jesus shows us where God’s heart lies, and it lies with those who are vulnerable, forgotten, lost and broken. It lies with those who have had their pockets and their livelihoods and their homes robbed by the violence and greed and apathy of others. Our struggle with internet access is a sign of our immense privilege. Imagine lack of online access being a person’s greatest problem!
And yet, there is a poverty and there is a hunger at the heart of our privileged North American life, too. And my frustrating dust-up with a media giant says something about what that hunger and that poverty is. Jesus has a word to speak to my experience, and more importantly, to the broader experience to which mine points.
Philosopher Jacques Ellul’s work focused on what he defined as the “Technological Society.” He argued that, beginning in the 1700s with the Industrial Revolution and increasingly ever since, technology has not been used to serve humanity, but rather, the use and development of technology has become the foundational value around which human life is shaped and educated to serve. The Technological Society’s primary values, Ellul says, are rationality, progress, efficiency and growth. The tragedy of my run in with a media provider isn’t that one of my family members has to go without internet access; the tragedy is that nobody cares. Why does nobody care? Because these enormous companies, who turn out more and more extraordinary profits year over year (and if they fail to do so, get bought out by a company who is growing their bottom line) make this profit at the expense of decent jobs for the people actually connecting their company with the customers who will buy their products. That crusty girl who decided my husband had committed fraud and cut off the service probably did so because she was working a crappy weekend shift, likely at minimum wage. And while she was doing the work she was paid to do, she was not connected to the person on the other end of the phone, and neither was she connected to the company she represented. Dan and I, on the other end, yelled and made demands because our frustration had reached a boiling point. We just wanted our service already, and a little sympathy and kindness would have gone a long way. We spoke with an edge to our voices that we wouldn’t normally adopt, but the crusty girl on the other end of the line wasn’t human to us, either. We don’t know her. We don’t know if her mother had just died, or if she was just naturally mean (is anybody naturally mean?) We felt entitled, as her customers, to see her jumping through the hoops necessary to appease us: and all of us just cogs in the wheel, with none of our voices mattering at all, because the important thing was the media giant continued to pump out slicker and more awe-inspiring entertainment and communication technologies to numb the frustration of all of the dehumanizing and demoralizing systems of our lives. And, of course, to see their profit margins grow. We could switch companies, but we would find ourselves in the same situation because the system is still rigged to place human relationship in the service of profit.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says. Blessed are those who hunger. He is inviting us to be awake to the Kingdom of God: to seek and search out how the world can be different by acting with compassionate service toward those who are hurting and broken because they are God’s beloved. Choice. To be blessed is to realize that there is a choice, and that we don’t have to settle for the business-as-usual of our inhuman lives. We can opt out of being cogs in the wheels of unkindness and profit-over-relationship (“it’s not personal, it’s business,” as one billionaire turned hobbyist politician was known to say.) We can vote with our dollars and invest in businesses that invest in people. We can model the kind of human interaction we want to be the standard in all human interactions, even when we ourselves feel trapped and powerless.
But maybe even deeper than that, even before we try to wrestle with how to be different, how to seek and serve difference, Jesus’ words resonate down through the centuries with just a basic and gracious starting point. Our faith tradition lives and breathes. It has transformed the lives of countless men and women, and it has been documented in texts we call sacred because the extraordinary experience of a God who is personally invested in our lives is aching to find a home in human hearts. God is willing to put all on the line—the power and the glory—in order to reach out to us across the chasms of apathy, and fear, and greed, and self-centeredness, and to see and love and hold each lost individual as a beloved child. Blessed. It is a word that Jesus speaks from the mountainside, first and foremost, as a description of God’s loving touch upon each hurting human life. Before there is a question about the powers and principalities, or a choice that we might make, or a different way for the world to be, there is this basic action of God which actually makes us human. To be human is to be marked for and by love.
I don’t know how this solves the internet and cable problem for my sister-in-law. But then, in the end, that’s not what this is really about. This is about the resigned and widespread belief that we have no power and that nastiness and frustration is the order of the day. That same anger that I felt about these internet problems is on the loose: voting for questionable leadership, trashing one another for doing so, building walls, consuming porn, buying products made in sweatshops because they are more affordable, and complaining about the loss of jobs and then using the self-help check-out at the supermarket because it’s quicker. We feel disconnected and dehumanized and we compensate with responses that further disconnect and dehumanize.
I imagine Jesus’ words were first spoken to crowds of people who, likewise, felt discarded. And yet, that word of blessing, that witness of blessing, spurred a movement that healed the sick, raised the dead, and created a community of brothers and sisters that has translated down the ages and across cultures to topple seemingly invulnerable systems of injustice and oppression and to set us free for lives of holy love. It seems easy to imagine that this word of blessing might also have the power to breathe some kindness into our frustrated interactions today, might invite a realignment of our lives with the relational, might open our eyes to the poverty of the system into which we buy so blindly and the choices we can actually make to place human life before profit.
It also loosens the hard knot of anger I have against a media giant that I can’t beat but who doesn’t get to win.