tem·​per·​ance | \ ˈtem-p(ə-)rən(t)s , -pərn(t)s \

1: moderation in action, thought, or feeling : restraint

2: habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions

It may be too late for temperance. It is, at the very least, much too late for temperance as we have long advertised it.

We weaponize our understanding of temperance in American society, particularly against the poor. Imperialism and Protestantism, doused with the gasoline of white supremacy and set ablaze by capitalism, centuries ago hammered American notions of “temperance” into cultural tools for extracting more labor and more self-blame from the ranks of poor and working-class people. An internalized narrative of self-sufficiency and sober self-denial at all costs — regardless of economic hardship, regardless of political abuses at the highest levels — stoutly furthers the American capitalist project. The “temperance movement” itself was one small but crystalline example of this. Are you suffering, traumatized, and ill-adjusted to the sick society that surrounds you? Must be all the booze — pay no mind to the industrialization, poverty, the deeply patriarchal social order.

We weaponize our understanding of temperance in American society, particularly against the poor.

There have, of course, been legacies of resistance to capitalism’s distortion of “temperance”: moments, movements, and communities devoted to entirely different concepts of balance and discipline that did not hinge on exploitation. The humble survival programs and rigorous self-study of the Black Panthers leveraged the powerful concept of self-control as inseparable from political autonomy for poor Black communities (and, at least in Chicago, poor Brown and white communities as well). For their wildly successful free breakfast programs for children, the Panthers were identified by J. Edgar Hoover as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” Thus their chapters were infiltrated and sabotaged, their young leaders like Fred Hampton assassinated. So goes holy temperance in America.

In the context of the twenty-first-century United States, our popular individualist narratives of “self-control” are at best an illusion. At worst, they are a tool of violent scapegoating and profound psychological gaslighting. These narratives are a mind fuck, pure and simple — a deliberate one. Hyper-individualized notions of temperance are at the foundation of our grotesque national mythology of bootstrapping it out of poverty, of telling suffering people to have Jesus cure their heroin addiction so that the government doesn’t have to lift a finger to fund healthcare, housing, healing arts, and culture. We are reaping what we have sown: mass death — and so many of them deaths of despair and shame.

I spend most of my week with people who use lots of drugs (or who did, once upon a time). I am the cofounder of an organization — a church of the streets — in a rural poor county where there is a lot of meth and even more heroin. There are around five hundred people in our congregation scattered across the county’s encampments, back alleys, jail cells, and trailer parks. I love my people. I love my people, and therefore I despise the ways “temperance” has been used to bludgeon them with blame, with self-loathing, with state and vigilante violence at every turn.

Poor people are relentlessly scapegoated and pathologized as being wasteful, immoral, licentious, and intemperate. Poor people are convenient scapegoats for our lethally imbalanced political and economic system. Media coverage of the ongoing uprisings in the wake of the highly publicized police murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd sharply illuminate this point. Handwringing moderates, usually of some economic stability, clutch their pearls and gasp, “Protesting is one thing, but looting is unacceptable!” Why? This country has been looting poor people since day one. America has particularly looted poor Black people of bodily autonomy, of labor, of wealth, of political power, of family, of safety, of health, of life itself in an ongoing history of atrocities. Even in my broke-ass redneck parish, responding to the prolific misinformation that “looters” might attempt to come to our community, our priest simply replied, “Capitalism and the timber industry looted Aberdeen a long time ago. There is nothing left to take.”

This country has been looting poor people since day one.

One hundred years ago, Aberdeen, Washington, was the timber export capital of the entire world. More raw timber was logged, milled, and shipped out from here than anywhere else on the planet — to build cities across the globe and line the pockets of corporations and a tiny handful of local families. In the 1990s, when the timber industry packed up and went abroad where it was cheaper and easier to exploit human beings and natural resources, the working-class people left behind were rendered as surplus population. “Temperance” to the capitalist class ultimately defined our human beings and our human needs as excess — as fat to be trimmed in service of the bottom line.

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Overlooking the Chehalis River in Aberdeen, WA. On the left, juvie. On the right, the last remaining shred of timber jobs.

How do you temper a surplus population? Three of temperance’s hallmarks are humility, abstinence, and self-regulation. Capitalism has mutated these positive traits into humiliation, austerity, and state violence. In the void left by timber, Aberdeen saw the emergence of incarceration as a replacement industry — both in the form of a state prison used to incarcerate Black and Brown people from other poor communities, as well as an expansion of municipal and county jails to incarcerate local poor white and Native people. In tandem with the expansion of policing, criminalization, and incarceration, we have seen an absolute explosion of the drug economy. Drugs do not flood poor communities in the United States by accident and they never have. It is not an accident that the small city at the epicenter of opioid overdoses in Washington State houses no inpatient treatment program. It is not an accident that this town of sixteen thousand people — with one thousand people homeless — apparently cannot fund affordable housing but can always find the resources to secure more militarized police equipment. Likewise, it is not an accident that our dominant local narrative around addiction is inseparably intertwined with our local narrative around poverty: bootstrap your way out of it. If you can’t — if for some ungodly reason you need help, healthcare, housing, meaningful living-wage work before you can heal — then you are weak, dissolute, and you should be consumed with shame. This is the formula for “temperance” America offers to poor people.

And what is the “temperance” we have permitted to billion-dollar corporations and the rich? Here, have some more. Of everything. Have another formerly working-class neighborhood to gentrify while homeless people are dying in the streets. Have another round of water rights while Flint’s taps still run with poison. Have another war over oil while veteran rates of suicide skyrocket. Have another city council or key senator’s seat in your pocket while poor people are disenfranchised through escalating voter suppression. Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, writes,

This system treats injuries to the rich as public crises requiring massive government action, but injuries to the rest of us as the unfortunate results of bad luck and personal moral failures. It is able to do this — and sustain this inequality — through the creation and reinforcement of the powerful ideological belief that an economy that benefits the rich will benefit the rest of us. We are seeing now how this holds true even in a crisis that affects us all. The rich will still be prioritized over everyone else. . . . The failure to fully care for workers and the poor is in part the consequence of the fundamental faith that the rich will construct a healthy economy out of this crisis, an economy that can and will take care of us. But the power of this belief defies what we see every day about how the economic interests of the rich do not correspond with ours.

You and I are currently living through one of the most intemperate moments of human history, in a society whose economy and politics are fundamentally structured around maintaining the power of the most wealthy. In the first ten weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, US billionaire wealth increased by $485 billion while forty million Americans filed for unemployment. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, nearly half of Americans were already poor or low-wealth. So what might true temperance look like, in this moment of American public life?

The only theologically sound definition of temperance we can pursue at this point in human history must be a revolutionary temperance. It must be collective and it must be structural.

The only theologically sound definition of temperance we can pursue at this point in human history must be a revolutionary temperance.

So what kind of temperance do we need in the days to come? What does temperance look like in a society already at war with the poor and oppressed, with conflict steadily spreading and escalating?

We must first and foremost seek material temperance — concrete balance, mercy, and hospitality — in our distribution of political and economic power. In June of 2019, the Poor People’s Campaign released the “Poor People’s Moral Budget,” identifying enormous sources of financial and political redress for the 140 million Americans who are poor or one emergency away from poverty, including: $350 billion in annual military spending cuts, $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street; and billions more in savings from ending mass incarceration, addressing climate change, and meeting other key campaign demands.

Second: we will need temperance in our strategy. By “temperance” I do not mean centrism — just the opposite. We are faced with the reality of immediate, critical, mass life-and-death struggles. We have to meet this reality with the utmost urgency, while at the same time recognizing that our current layers of crisis were centuries in the making and will not be undone quickly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither did it fall in a day. Our movement to restore balance, restore justice, restore right relationships with one another and the whole of creation will be, by necessity, the project of generations. We need the kind of temperance, fortitude, and endurance that will allow us to run a long game, constantly and effectively recruiting more and more people into what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called “the nonviolent army of the poor.”

Third: this kairos moment we find ourselves in requires of us a profound spiritual temperance. We are out gunned. We are out spent. We have numbers on our side in terms of the numbers of people who are suffering from poverty, violence, and repression — but we are not yet nearly organized enough to contend directly with the forces we’re up against. The scale and scope of what we face is staggering, and despair over the hope of our cause is a real and chronic specter. And yet: this has always been true for poor people under empire. And yet: empires have always fallen. Empires do themselves in, in the end — in new and horrifying ways each time, but with great consistency nonetheless. What is never a given is what and who will emerge from the rubble. That part is, in many ways, our responsibility. Seeing it through is a deeply intellectual commitment, a deeply political commitment, and an even more deeply spiritual commitment.

Empires do themselves in, in the end — in new and horrifying ways each time, but with great consistency nonetheless.

What kind of spiritual temperance can meet this task? It takes many forms, and I have had the immense gift of witnessing it already at work in the daily lives of countless poor people. This is the kind of spiritual temperance that doggedly anchors itself in life and human connection — through songs shouted through the drains, through love letters to the outside — even during lockdown at the county jail. This is the kind of spiritual temperance that drives someone to socialize their entire month’s worth of food stamps in order to share a feast with twenty other homeless people. True temperance is not only self-sacrifice; it is also deep inner orientation to finding and enacting balance in the face of excess. When every excess you face is an excess of deprivation and lack, temperance will very often look like trusting in and mimicking the abundance of God.

In the material, strategic, and spiritual temperance called for in this revolutionary moment, then, let us move forward together: wise as serpents, innocent as doves, temperate as Christ himself amid the moneychangers.