The Homeless, Part VI: Struggling Toward a Christian Response
Last April I wrote a paper on homelessness for one of my seminary classes. The recent anti-homeless laws passed in Berkeley (which I talked about in this blog) prompted me to republish it here. This is part 6.
Struggling Toward a Christian Response
Howard Thurman threw down the challenge of our age by posing this question: “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?” (Jesus and the Disinherited, 3). What does our religion have to say for the spat on, the invisible, the dirty, the hungry, the hurting? What good is Christianity for the homeless?
Ultimately only they can provide an answer. No thoughts I offer can be definitive without their voice. As a seminarian, my habit is to talk about non-ontological, relationally based, social psychological theologies of sin. To cast grand visions of shalom from the Garden through the Law and Prophets, to Jesus among the outcasts, to the New Jerusalem. To creatively exegete the culture for contextualized articulations of the gospel. Then roll into a sophisticated, multi-pronged strategic plan for social transformation. All this has its place, I know, but the weathered faces squatting behind a concrete wall somewhere in my head keep staring at me saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” My homeless friends do not want a technical answer about them, they want an answer that is for them and with them. I must begin phenomenologically to speak into the experience of being homeless: bored, chaotic, fearful, lonely, numb, disturbed...suffering and powerless.
If we are to offer something of value to the homeless, it must be done with painful sensitivity that we speak into the flow of suffering. Shifting the focus from traditional theological matters to the situation of the oppressed, James Cone writes, “Blacks do not ask whether Jesus is one with the Father or divine and human….They ask whether Jesus is walking with them, whether they can call him up on the ‘telephone of prayer’ and tell him about their troubles” (God of the Oppressed, 13). In suffering, a person wants to know if anyone is there with you. Cone goes on to say, “Through Jesus Christ they could know that they were people, even though they were bought and sold like cattle” (31). The discriminated and discarded want to know that they matter, that they have value, that they are human. Finally, those who suffer look for hope, searching for a sign that change can come, that someone is fighting on their behalf, and for the strength to resist their own persecution. On this note, Cone is superlative:
“Yahweh is known and worshiped as the One who brought Israel out of Egypt, and who raised Jesus from the dead. God is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed. To know God is to experience the act of God in the concrete affairs and relationships of people, liberating the weak and the helpless from pain and humiliation” (57).
Though he writes specifically from the Black context, Cone’s words extend to oppressed people everywhere, to all who suffer. In his writing we find the beginning of a meaningful response to the homeless that can be offered as love: solidarity in suffering, an affirmation of worthiness, and power for liberation.
We are With You
At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus looks out on the crowds that have walked beside him and is moved. The passage says, “He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (v37). Compassion, in the sense Jesus expresses, is not merely offering some assistance to those who have less than you. “The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean ‘to suffer with’” (Nouwen, et al., Compassion, 3). To all those who suffer, we offer the God who suffers with. Jesus repeatedly became the “harassed and helpless” alongside the people he loved, and epitomized his solidarity through death on the cross. The fact that Jesus not only ministered among the marginalized but identified himself as the marginalized good news offered from a Savior who is a brother and comrade in the struggle.
His solidarity also serves as a lifestyle to model for his disciples. Richard Hayes takes the cross as an emblematic symbol for ethical engagement in the world; “Jesus’ death on a cross is the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world. The community expresses and experiences the presence of the kingdom of God by participating in ‘the koinonia of his sufferings’ (Phil 3:10)” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament,197). Finding ways to empathize and share in the suffering of the homeless is both the truest form of love and the seed for transformation--“but the power of the resurrection is in God’s hands, not ours” (ibid). Those of us who attempt to shift from the dominant culture into solidarity cannot take this transition lightly. We have to accept that our lifestyles have benefited from and contributed to oppression. “Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed...Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture” (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 49). There is no better starting point for entering in than the simple art of listening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed “the beginning of love is beginning to listen.” 
You Are Amazing
When speaking into the midst of suffering, followers of Jesus can declare an unfettered celebration of who a homeless person is. Far more than passive or begrudging affirmation, the Christian declares two sacred truths over the life of the oppressed. First, we know that a human being’s value is not reducible to economic productivity, but rests in the incomparable majesty of the image of God. In the ever-poignant words of Martin Luther King Jr, “The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.” (Strength to Love, 25). Justo Gonzalez has also reminded us that human value--even human righteousness--does not correspond with their legality or criminality. Furthermore, when laws are unjust, it is not the lawbreaker who is in sin but the lawmaker and the law itself. 
Second, we know the paradoxical truth that the homeless are uniquely glorious among all people for Jesus himself dwells in and among them. It is the shamed who have honor in the kingdom, the poor who will inherit the earth, and the hungry, naked, and imprisoned with whom Jesus chose to identify himself. Following this logic to its conclusion leads to a startling revelation. If Christocentrism is the best point of departure for understanding the universe, and if the homeless are to be identified with Christ, then we are wrong to talk about the homeless as “marginals.” Rather, they stand at the center with Jesus as a window into the true nature of reality. In the final analysis, the homeless are not at the margins for to position them as such permits the oppressive society to function as the appropriate ‘center’ off which all deviants should be measured. From a Kingdom perspective, our work is not among the marginalized, but ministry among the centralized!
A third aspect of human nature revealed in scripture should send the privileged to the underpasses and train yards asking for forgiveness. God’s word exposes the lie of individualism and prophetically denounces societies built on its competitive, self-seeking foundations. In its place, the bible offers a vision of humans as wholly dependent on God and designed for interdependence with the entire community of creation. “If there is to be well-being, it will not be just for isolated, insulated individuals; it is, rather, security and prosperity granted to a whole community….Always we are all in it together” (Brueggemann, Peace, 15). Randy Woodley argues that on the basis of God’s creational intent for comprehensively inclusive communities, “sin, in a very real sense, can be defined as the absence of shalom” (Shalom in the Community of Creation, 23). We are, as the King quote says above, brothers. As brothers, we are responsible for one another. Unfortunately, we have abdicated this call since Cain first asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes. As the people of God, the most appropriate postures toward our homeless brothers and sisters is repentance.
 - Quoted by Barry Wade, Ministering at the Margins, 211.
 - See Justo Gonzalez, Mañana: Christian Theology From a Hispanic Perspective.