A friend at church recently loaned me the New York Times bestseller Same Kind of Different as Me, which tells the story of how a wealthy art dealer named Ron Hall and a homeless man named Denver Moore struck up a friendship that changed both their lives. I’m only half way through it, but it’s already instructive on several levels that connect to the work of Acton.
Denver grew up as an illiterate sharecropper in Louisiana, an orphan who loses a series of guardian relatives while growing up and eventually finds himself in a class a notch below sharecropper—the field laborer who isn’t entitled to a share of the crops he works but simply works dawn to dusk for the food, clothing and minimal shelter he’s given on credit. In Denver’s case, since he couldn’t read, write, or do arithmetic, he couldn’t determine how much he owed, what the interest was, what his labor was worth, or even that he’d been denied his right to an education.
Economic conservatives talk a lot about the morality of the free economy, and the power of the markets to better the lives of the poor. It’s stories like Denver Moore’s that underscore why Acton spends so much time talking about a free and virtuous society, about the importance of ordered liberty. You see, in the book, at no point did anyone put a gun to Denver’s head and make him pick cotton dawn till dusk. At a superficial level, he was a participant in an un-coerced labor market (slavery had been abolished generations ago, after all). But any thoughtful look at Denver’s extraordinary story of struggle, despair, and escape will register the fact that Denver’s liberty had been violated in a host of subtle and not-so-subtle ways during his youth. These were like the strands of a spider web: individually they are of little consequence and hard to see, but taken together they have the power to bind.
These are the experiences that many black Americans have heard passed down from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So when they hear facile talk about the power of free markets, the right to work at any wage, the wonders of capitalism, and the like, we shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t gain traction, when it rings hollow in certain quarters.
It’s harder to create the pithy sound bites when doing so, but we need to make the more involved case for freedom—not just for liberty but for ordered liberty, not just for markets but for markets leavened with a commitment to human dignity and human potential, first of all because it is the truth, but also because it is the only way we can successfully expand that circle of citizens passionate about freedom and limited government.
Fortunately, Denver’s story didn’t end where it began, though his journey to the light was a long one. One day, in despair, Denver simply walked away from the patch of rural Louisiana that had been his entire existence. He reached the railroad tracks, met up with a hobo, and soon was riding the rails west. This was the beginning of a long period of homelessness for Denver that at one point landed him in Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison, and not the one featured in a recent issue of Religion and Liberty. This is Angola before the transformation, a place with very little religion, liberty, or hope.
When Denver leaves it a few years later, he is just more of what landed him there in the first place, the only difference being that now he’s streetwise enough to avoid getting thrown back into prison.
What eventually transforms Denver’s life is the face-to-face compassion of some Christians in downtown Fort Worth, who befriend him at a local mission. The friendship at the heart of the book is the one between Denver and art dealer Ron Hall. And what connects their story most directly to the Easter season is that, as Ron Hall tells it, Hall would never have been fit for such a friendship except that first he came to recognize his own brokenness along with his own need for the man wounded and crushed for our transgressions.