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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.:From out of the past
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

These columns about issues facing the elderly in this country typically go past reporting and analysis to offer suggested solutions. I admit that I am also an advocate.

Still, I was a little surprised recently when a friend asked, "Are you a Socialist?"

I could have replied, "We all are. We just don't understand it."

Instead, I said truthfully, "No, I am a south Georgia country boy, following values that became part of me there."

The rural South of my origins focused on family and community where mutual support and dependency made life possible. Generally, the elderly were respected - even revered - and cared for to the grave. In many cases, they retained financial security by owning "the home place" until death when it was passed on to the son or daughter who had taken care of them. Otherwise, they lived with some family member because it was "the right thing to do." This deeply held sense of "right" is a value, a part of my country culture, centuries old but soon to undergo radical change.

This value is not confined to the rural South. It is found in many places and is as old as the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. British settlers brought it with them to North America and passed it on through generations to me.

The Industrial Revolution was social as well as technological and economic. People moved to go where the jobs were. Families shrank in size. Cities sprang up. Community ceased to be a social reality. Things that are necessary for people to live together could no longer be sustained by family and community. That included care and security for the elderly.

Some of the functions once provided primarily at the community level have passed readily to government, state and national. The crude local roads of the 19th century have largely been replaced by the Interstate Highway System, a massive product of the federal government comparable to the national mobilization for World War II. Local law enforcement still exists, but we look to national agencies like the FBI to protect against today's scarier threats. These are but two of many examples. The point is that issues which impact the entire country require nationwide power for solution.

But, what about individual freedom in this world of systemic solutions? What about individual freedom for the slaves in the old South, for sharecroppers in the newer South, for debt-saddled farmers in every South, for miners in Appalachia, for Southern mill workers until their jobs moved abroad? These people are of my world - my family and friends. For them, freedom was, or is, at best, partial. However, since one person's freedom extends only to the end of his or her nose, freedom is always limited.

Nationwide solutions to nationwide problems are necessary but will in every case be unpopular with some people and possibly infringe on some freedoms, real or imaginary, of others. The support and protection of this nation's elderly are issues of nationwide import and require nationwide solutions the same as national security and the protection of lawful commerce.

Returning to values, I restate an earlier quotation. "The character of a people can be measured by the way they treat their old and their young."

As to the question of which of the modern "isms" and "ists" I "belong" to, the answer is "None of the above." Like other economic systems, they have become belief systems, in a word, religions, to which it is necessary to pledge oneself or be branded as disloyal. I agree with Emil Brunner, 20th Century giant of Christian theology and ethics, who criticized both Communism and capitalism for making the material world central to all reality instead of the spiritual.

Struggle between the material and the spiritual is a constant thread in the Bible. Moses had to destroy the golden calf (bull, symbol of fertility, prosperity). The prophets of Israel for two centuries struggled with the fertility gods (Baalim) of Philistia and Lebanon for the loyalty of the Israelites. Jesus, who died owning only his clothes, said bluntly that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon (the prosperity god of his day). The pattern continues. Preachers peddle a prosperity gospel in spite of the clear teachings of Christ. Economic systems continue to be belief systems.

By the grace of God, I am a Christian, undeserving and often falling short of the sonship to which I have been called. Still, I rise up from falling and hear the recurring call, "Take up your cross and follow me."

For me, feeling the pain of the old and the poor or speaking out on their behalf is part of "follow me."

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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