by Lyle Lofgren
July 5, 1996

The Okerholms were neighbors of ours, although we didn't socialize with them. They lived on a small farm near Harris, Minnesota. It would have been a subsistence farm if it were more fertile. The three siblings, Charlie, Gottfrid, and Lillie Okerholm, were old when I was young. They mixed English and Swedish when they spoke, so they must have been born in Sweden. Like any siblings who don't marry but instead grow old together, they had a reputation for being peculiar. The neighborhood consensus was that Charlie was the dumbest of the three.

Charlie Okerholm tried his hand at courtship at least once. My mother, Ida, once told me of a time when she was a teenager, sometime between 1910 and 1920. She and her sisters, Svea and Gotha, were walking down the road when Charlie came driving along in his brand new automobile. He offered the girls a ride home. Ida got in the front seat while the other two rode in the back. They'd barely started out when Charlie turned to Ida and said, "Jag skulle väl krama dig." (I really should hug you). Unfortunately for his romantic impulse, when he turned his head he also turned the steering wheel, so the car went into the ditch. All three of the girls had to help push Charlie back on the road, after which they decided to walk the rest of the way home. Ida, of course, was teased for years afterwards.

Farms in the late 1940s were still mostly unmechanized, so neighbors helped each other out with labor-intensive work such as threshing oats or filling silos with corn silage. You even traded labor with peculiar neighbors such as the Okerholms. At that time, a new plague, the European Corn Borer, was panicking farmers. The borer is a small worm that tunnels through the core of a cornstalk, causing it to fall over and preventing ears from forming. The chemical companies had not yet developed a dangerous poison with which to kill it, so all the cornfields were severely affected. The nondescript, brown Corn Borer moth flew in the daytime. We were helping the Okerholms fill silo, and were taking a lunch break. Charlie, off by himself, caught a corn borer moth, held it in his cupped hands, and spoke to it.

"Stackars lilla fjäril! (poor little butterfly!). Is it you that causes the corn borers? Stackars lilla fjäril!"

Charlie then opened his hands and let the moth fly away. My Uncle Paul, who could imitate anyone and saw foolishness wherever he looked, overheard Charlie talking to the moth. We enjoyed a good laugh whenever Uncle Paul told the story of Charlie pitying the fjäril.

Now that I'm older, I'm starting to think Charlie Okerholm, with his sympathy for the moth, was a genuine Christian, a Holy Fool, the opposite of Billy Graham and the  bible-thumpers. Christianity was originally more concerned with mercy than justice, while modern American Fundamentalist Christianity, like the original Hebrew religion, is obsessed only with justice.

Maybe Charlie pitied the moth because it was so hated by the greedy farmers, who planted corn with the expectation that they should be able to keep all of it without sharing. But if the church encourages tithing, why not give tithe to the Corn Borer? It doesn't have an easy life either, starving in drought when the corn is hardly worth eating, and, just like the farmer, cruelly governed by the demands of the seasons. One of the things that made farmers mad was that the borer never rested, even on Sunday. A similar thing happened in Brownsville, Texas, shortly after the Vietnam war. Some Vietnamese refugees pooled their resources to buy shrimp boats from fishermen who individually were making only a marginal living. The Vietnamese showed the native Texans how to be prosperous: cooperate with each other and fish for shrimp day and night, stopping only for short naps once in awhile. The Brownsville fishermen didn't appreciate the lessons in successful fishing, and so they burned the Vietnamese boats.

Mercy is not quite the same thing as excusing anti-social behavior, although the result may appear the same. Our "justice" system extends great amounts of mercy to wealthy criminals, because we don't regard the accumulation of wealth to be anti-social. Take, for example, the recent failures of several Savings And Loan Associations. The officers of the institutions were not prosecuted, even though many had committed fraud. Depositors were reimbursed by the federal government. The result was the transfer of large amounts of wealth from taxpaying lower-middle-class families without significant savings to wealthy families with large deposits. The government bailout covered all deposits, even though the law limits coverage to $100,000 per person.

Conversely, the middle-middle-class people who run our criminal justice system regard the actions of the poor, whether legal or illegal, as anti-social. What, after all, could be more anti-social than a pack of black teenagers with their caps turned backwards hanging around the Mall Of America after dark? And they can't afford to spend as much as the tourists from Topeka.

When Post-Civil-War Reconstruction ended in the late 19th century, in a classic Washington dirty deal, the freed slaves still didn't have either forty acres or a mule. Slavery returned in a number of ways. Since they owned no land, southern black farmers were reduced to sharecropping, a system where the sharecropper somehow was in continuous debt to the landowner. If a black man tired of the hard work without reward that was sharecropping, he would have to face the criminal justice system. Being poor was a prima facie crime, resulting in criminal charges of "vagrancy" or "being in a town without visible means of support." Black males were arrested and, at first, leased out to private enterprise. In Tennessee, they were used by the coal mine operators. In at least one instance, the white coal miners figured out that the justice system was robbing them of their dubious livelihood, so they overpowered the guards and turned the convicts loose. Grand Ol' Opry entertainer Uncle Dave Macon recorded a song about it, "Roll Down The Line." The first verse is:

Way back yonder in Tennessee, they leased the convicts out,
Put them working in the mines against free labor stout;
Free labor rebelled against it, to win it took some time,
But when that lease was in effect, they made 'em rise and shine.

The local miners acted in self-interest, but their actions had the same effect as if mercy were the motive.

The jailers learned that there were problems with leasing prisoners to displace workers in private businesses, so they came up with a scheme where they maintained control: a prison farm on cotton land. Parchman Farm in Mississippi was the most infamous of the prison farms, producing a large amount of cotton. Then the men needed work clothes, so the sheriffs began arresting black women to make the clothing. Trials weren't really necessary, because if you're too poor to afford a lawyer, you must be guilty.

Christianity was originally a ministry to the underclass, and you could argue that, like the New Deal in the 1930s, it prevented violent revolution by making the poor feel less miserable. The 1776 US "revolution" wasn't really a revolution, but de-colonization with the wealthy still in control. The experiences of both France and Russia shows what happens when a true revolution puts the formerly poor in control. They can't handle political power with any sort of restraint, because they're too angry, like the current US plague of Sore White Males. Anger is an unmitigated evil, so Charlie Okerholm's foolishness begins to look not so foolish after all.

After a number of centuries, the Catholic Church, preaching mercy but practicing cruelty, became quite wealthy. After Luther opened the field to competition, though, there was an oversupply of preachers for the available congregants, particularly the poor ones, to support. Calvin, prefiguring Willie Sutton who robbed banks because that's where the money is, came up with a fiendishly evil scheme for preaching to the rich:

1. God is omniscient and therefore knows the fate of your soul.
2. God is omnipotent, and can save any soul. Therefore, the fate of an individual soul is predetermined.
3. "As above, so below." The best indication of a future eternity in heaven is your earthly success.

Voila! The sons of Calvin are on TV every day, preaching Tough Love against Welfare Cheats and advocating mandatory minimum sentencing for poverty crimes. At the same time, they want to get the government off the back of private business so it can create unimaginable wealth for a few of us. Meanwhile, I see the ending of the second Reconstruction era, due to another Washington dirty deal. Blacks are losing what little voting power they had. The chain gangs have returned to Alabama and Florida, providing slave labor for road repair.

I remember a preacher in the Harris Lutheran Church who once gave a sermon on the biblical passage saying that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. "It's in the bible, so it must be true," he said. "But remember that all things are possible for God. He can put camels through needle eyes, and He can welcome rich people to heaven." Then we all sang a hymn while they passed the collection plate.

Meanwhile, there's another bible passage that says that the love of money is the root of an awful lot of evil. And Charlie Okerholm died a long time ago.