Diocesan Book Study Focuses on Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

Starting today, Bishop Jennifer will lead a diocesan book study of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. “It’s a story that I identified with immediately,” says Bishop Jennifer in her video introduction. “What does it mean to leave your home circumstances and return to find that things are not as you might have hoped economically or socially for the people you knew and loved? It is a story that helps shine the light on the realities that we know here in Indiana about the wide gaps too often getting wider these days between the haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and struggling — whether you are white, black, or in urban environments or the rural countryside.”

Bishop Jennifer will host Zoom conversations about the book’s various themes on Sundays, November 29,  December 6 and December 13 at 1 p.m. Eastern/noon

Congregations are also encouraged to organize groups to discuss the book. Discussion questions broken down by chapter are available below.


Discussion Questions

Chapter 1: The Kids on the Number 6 School Bus

Kristof and WuDunn write, “personal responsibility must be a part of the turnaround, but so must collective responsibility” (12). 

How does the command “to love your neighbor as yourself” inform our Christian understanding of the importance of individual vs. collective responsibility? 

As Episcopalians, we regularly confess our sins collectively as a gathered community (in person or online), saying “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” Does this inform the way you think about individual vs. collective responsibility in civic life? 

Chapter 2: “We’re Number 30!”

Chapter 2 closes with a discussion of Gorbachev’s “war on drunkenness” in the USSR in the 1980s. “Hope had dissolved,” the authors write. “When life expectancy declined in Russia, just as it has in America today, that was a sign of systemic troubles that patriotic rhetoric could no longer conceal” (24).

The prophets are in the business of showing us “signs of systemic troubles” that we might otherwise not see.“Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil,” cries Isaiah. “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:4,23)

Then as now, it seems difficult for us to see these signs — such as rising substance abuse and falling life expectancy rates — as signs of a larger national systemic sickness. What gets in the way of receiving this message? How have we as Episcopalians played a role in bringing these signs to the attention of our communities? How have we as Episcopalians played a role in allowing these signs to be ignored? 

Chapter 3: When Jobs Disappear

In this chapter, Kristof and WuDunn introduce the concept of social poverty: “Americans think of poverty as lack of income, but educational failure, family breakdown and social dysfunction work together to destroy individual dignity and self-respect and to engender stress and cycles of self-destructive behaviors that cripple entire families” (39). 

Jesus’ familiar words from the Beatitudes suggest that poverty is something more significant than the state of one’s bank account: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Why do you think Jesus used the words “poor in spirit?” How is this related to the concept of social poverty? 

Chapter 4: American Aristocracy

In this chapter, the authors address the myth that the United States has no class system, and explore our country’s profound and growing income inequality. “Our political system responds to large donors, so politicians create benefits for the rich, who then reward politicians who created them,” they write. (51)

In the Magnificat, Mary sings “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

How can the church bear witness to the discrepancy between Mary’s vision and the reality of a political and economic system that rewards the powerful and the rich? 

Chapter 5: How America Went Astray

The authors argue that, while we ought not fall into a sense of nostalgia that tells us things were perfect in earlier decades, “in about 1970 … America went off track, beginning a nearly half-century drift in the wrong direction” (55), away from public programs and assistance. This movement has been buoyed by myths about those who take advantage of assistance, such as the so-called “welfare queen.” (73)

Jesus tells a parable about laborers in a vineyard. He hires three workers at different times of day and while they work different numbers of hours, they are all paid the same fair wage. (Matthew 20) 

When you read this parable, do you wonder if the landowner’s behavior is “unfair?” Does this reveal anything about the tension between the values we are taught as Americans vs. those we hold as Christians?

Chapter 6: Drug Dealers in Lab Coats

Kristof and WuDunn explain how pharmaceutical companies knowingly marketed highly addictive opioid medications for profit, and how these medications — often first prescribed legally by a doctor in a medical setting — have destroyed lives.

Despite the clarity around the drug companies’ role, war veteran Daniel McDowell continues to blame only himself for his addiction (79).

When a group of friends bring a paralyzed man to Jesus for healing, Jesus “saw their faith” and healed the man (Luke 5:17). It seems as if Jesus understands both sickness and healing as things that happen in community, and are not experienced by or cured by an individual alone. We certainly experience this in our church lives, often walking with fellow members as they navigate these challenges. How might this chapter help us understand and address the ongoing opioid crisis in our communities? 

Chapter 7: Losing the War on Drugs

This chapter unpacks the misguided “war on drugs” in the United States, which has not curbed drug fatalities and has unjustly targeted Black communities (88). The war on drugs relies on punishment and the criminal justice system rather than treatment, access to life-saving antidotes such as Narcan and prevention and education.

At the 2019 diocesan convention, we passed a resolution about the opioid public health crisis that commits us to “support people in crisis and work to overcome the crisis’ devastating effects.” How else might we commit ourselves and our congregations to a healing approach to addiction?

Chapter 8: Up by the Bootstraps

The authors discuss the American “bootstraps ideal” that imagines each of us is responsible for and capable of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” 

When the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh, they “cried, ‘Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.’ He said, ‘You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’”(Exodus 5:15-16)

Kristof and WuDunn point to “an increasingly cruel narrative that the working-class struggle is all about bad choices, laziness and vices” when it is clear that external odds are stacked against working people. (101)

Why do you think societies tend to blame those suffering in poverty for their own fate rather than taking collective responsibility for the welfare of all people? How might Christians work against this narrative?

Chapter 9: Deaths of Despair

In this chapter, the authors write: “Hope matters, too. There has been important scholarship in recent years showing that when people despair of their situations and see no way out, they are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors that make their despair self-fulfilling. Conversely, as Esther Duflo of MIT has shown, if they’re given hope that there is a way out, then they are more industrious and the hope becomes self-fulfilling, allowing them to escape.” (116) 

As Christians, this is a familiar concept. Living in the hope of the coming kingdom of God calls us to live in a manner that anticipates that kingdom. What actions can we take to provide hope in the form of safety, comfort and opportunity for the most vulnerable people in our communities? 

Chapter 10: Interventions that Work

This chapter discusses “interventions that work.” Many of these interventions involve charitable organizations and programs that change lives. Our churches engage in these kinds of interventions through our ministries every day. 

However, the authors caution against focusing only on this important charitable work and the heartwarming stories that spring from it. Charitable work and individual generosity is important, but they cannot stand in for systemic solutions and public policy. (139) 

One of our diocesan mission pillars states that we are “called to stand with the vulnerable and marginalized and work to transform systems of injustice.” How might your church outreach programs be enhanced by a focus on changing the local, state and national policies that drive the need for so many of our ministries? 

Chapter 11: Universal Healthcare: One Day, One Town

The authors observe that “the United States is squeamish about sex and reproductive health” and that “we say in America that we love motherhood, but that’s a cruel joke … Something about reproductive health makes politicians and local officials lose their reasoning faculties.” (151-153) Other countries offer much better reproductive healthcare. Why is it, the authors ask, that the United States does not? 

Throughout his ministry, Jesus heals women. In one instance, we see him heal a woman “suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” Taking matters into her own hands, the woman seeks out Jesus, touches his cloak and is made well. Expecting to be rebuked when Jesus asks who touched his cloak, the woman is instead sent out with love and care. “He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5).

Is there something to learn from Jesus about this American “squeamishness” about reproductive and women’s health in the United States? How might the church work to break down these attitudes?

Chapter 12: Homelessness in a Rich Nation

This chapter explores homelessness in the United States and the lack of political will to pursue realistic solutions. “By some estimates, a rough doubling of the size of housing programs for the poor, to $60 billion a year, would solve much of the homelessness problem,” they write, “and the total cost …  would still be less than subsidies for more affluent homeowners.” Those subsidies, which come in the form of mortgage interest deductions and other benefits, equal about $71 billion annually. (165)

The right to land and home ownership is a deeply held American value, but many Americans have been excluded from the programs and systems that make home ownership possible. Similar tensions existed in ancient Israel. Isaiah 25:6-12, for example, imagines a true home on Mount Zion for “all people,” but excludes the Moabite enemies of Israel from the promise.

How can we address the tension between our American claim to believe in “inalienable rights” for all people with the reality that many marginalized people face insurmountable barriers in exercising those rights?

Chapter 13: The Escape Artists

Kristof and WuDunn note that some children of poverty do “make it out.” In examining what factors make this outcome more likely, they point to a supportive community with “multiple eyes on each child.”

Churches and other faith communities often provide this kind of support. When a child is baptized in the Episcopal Church, we promise as a community to care for them.

Sometimes, though, our Episcopal churches represent a small sub-section of our larger neighborhoods. Often, but not always, our congregations represent a more privileged subsection of our wider community. How might we as individuals and as church commit ourselves to better care for all of God’s children in our neighborhoods?

Chapter 14: A Shot in the Face

This chapter presents the reader with the story of Debbie Baigrie and Ian Manuel. “If America since the 1970s has often approached crime, drugs and poverty with an unforgiving ethic of harsh punishment, Debbie’s actions represent an alternative: an ethic of grace.” (188)

Jesus tells us, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke17:3).

How do we balance our Christian call to forgiveness with keeping people safe from those who exhibit abusive or violent behavior? Can our Christian “ethic of grace” be reconciled with our justice system’s “ethic of harsh punishment?” 

Chapter 15: God Save the Family

In this chapter, the authors make an argument for the benefits of two-parent households, and explore the devastating lack of systemic local and national support for American parents, particularly those living in poverty. Parents like Ke’Niya (200) benefit from having extended family to help, while others have faith communities, charities, neighbors, friends or other networks to help fill in gaps.

The Book of Acts gives us a glimpse into the lives of the earliest Christian communities: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:44-47)

How do we balance what we read in this chapter with our church’s commitment to value and support families of all shapes and sizes? How do you imagine the parents in early church communities might have been supported? How might these values be applied today, and what role might the church play?

Chapter 16: The Marriage of True Minds

In this chapter, the authors make a case for marriage as a “social and economic institution that benefits not just children but also the parents themselves. There’s evidence that this is particularly important for men, and that wives sometimes act almost as probation officers, steering their husband away from risky behaviors and toward jobs and childcare.” (203)

Our church honors and includes people who are unmarried by choice, widowed or divorced, as well as people who are married. We have also committed to examine our response to domestic violence (General Convention Resolution 2018-D031), and we support victims of domestic violence who seek to end their marriages. Nonetheless, the institution of marriage is often seen as a necessary building block of a just and equitable society. The Episcopal Church has spent a lot of time thinking about marriage. How might we use what we have learned by promoting an understanding of marriage as a choice? How can we help those who choose to marry lead lives of “mutual joy” celebrated and supported in community?

Chapter 17: We Eat Our Young

This chapter discusses the role of trauma in the lives of at-risk children. The reader is introduced to Amber Knapp, who seemed close to “escaping” her family’s legacy, but loses everything. “How did Amber let it happen?” the authors ask. “Surely part of the answer is that she made awful choices, but research also suggests that addictive behavior is heritable, either through genetics or epigenetics, so that as the daughter and granddaughter of people with substance abuse issues, Amber was exceptionally vulnerable.” (215) 

For too long, it has been commonplace to blame parents for their children’s traumatic outcomes. But as Christians, we believe that it is our collective responsibility to help care for all children. When parents brought infants to Jesus, the disciples ordered them to stop. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”

Some of our churches run early education centers, subsidized daycare, and other programs for young children in the community. How else might we care for children in our communities in ways that prevent trauma?

Chapter 18: Raising Troubled Kids

In this chapter, while the authors argue for the role of government in alleviating poverty, they focus on the efficacy of Annette Dove, who runs a ministry called TOPPS in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. “Grassroots safety nets run by churches or neighborhood leaders have local knowledge and buy-in that goes a long way; local dynamos like Annette [Dove] know who needs a handout, who needs a helping hand who needs a kick in the pants.” (234)

TOPPS provides a beautiful vision of the way church outreach ministries can operate in our communities on behalf of at-risk children when they know their neighbors and ask about their needs. How can your congregation gain the depth of local knowledge that makes TOPPS so effective? Do your congregation’s ministries serve your community’s most pressing needs? How might you go about finding out what your community needs today?

Chapter 19: Creating More Escape Artists

This chapter discusses new efforts to respond to addiction and joblessness in Yamhill, Oregon, including drug treatment, prevention and job-retraining programs, teacher training and vocational and technical apprenticeship options in schools.

What drug treatment and prevention programs are offered in your community? How are your local schools responding to a changing economy? How are teachers being equipped to help their most vulnerable students thrive? 

How is your congregation bolstering these efforts? Where might you find opportunities to do so?

Chapter 20: America Regained

In this final chapter, the authors tell us “the paramount lesson of our exploration was the need to fix the escalators and create more of them to spread opportunity, restore people’s dignity and spark their ingenuity” (249). The authors outline eight “big steps” for embarking on this work. (253-256)

In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

How can our congregations be involved in “big steps” that spread opportunity and restore dignity? How might we make human dignity a fundamental priority of our church ministries and of our local, state and federal government programs and policies?

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