The Homeless, Part III: The Poor Will Be With You Always
This 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 three blogs ago) prompted me to republish it here. This is part 3.
The Poor Will Be With You Always
Like good moderns, we believe that there are “natural laws” that irrefutably establish how reality works: Newtonian physics, Locke’s “social contract,” and most importantly, the unseen hand of the market. In modernity’s worldview, “the human is considered essentially an economic being, homo economicus. Consequently, the arrangement of economic matters is believed to be the wellspring of contentment or discontent in all other areas of life” (Spretnak, 40). Twentieth century geopolitics were a clash around this narrow pivot point, battling for which economic system--capitalism, socialism or communism--should have preeminence. Unfortunately, no matter how you slice the cake, when humans are reduced to econs that must play by certain rules, major consequences ensue:
“US capitalism is characterized not just by the existence of competition but also by the belief in competition as a mechanism for social progress. Moreover, in order to define success, the system must believe in and rely on poverty as a natural and just state, as an outgrowth of corrupt individuals, that is to say those who are lazy and deviant. Poverty is US capitalism’s grand punishment and a threat that is supposed to motivate citizens to participate and succeed” (Wasserman and Clair, 6).
Because the competitive mechanism and the “unseen hand of the market” have been christened holy laws guiding society toward progress, side effects like homelessness are simply dismissed as unfortunate but necessary byproducts of “the way things are.” As long as GDP is on the rise, this argument goes, the economy is considered a success. There will always be those who cannot win in life’s economic competitions, so we must simply accept the poor and homeless, throw some charity their way, and encourage them to work harder. Any thought of a wholesale elimination of homelessness is therefore anathema to this brand of neoclassical capitalism.
A similar strand of passive acceptance lurks within Christian folk beliefs. Based on only two verses, many Christians fatalistically believe the bible teaches that society cannot avoid poverty. Deuteronomy 15:11 states that “there will always be poor people in the land.” Jesus seems to reiterate this idea in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7 when he says, “The poor you will always have with you but you will not always have me.” These passages, taken out of context as I have done here, are used as the normative hermeneutic principle when considering poverty either elsewhere in scripture or in society. While the context of each verse alone does much to dismiss turning these into universal claims for human society, the overarching narrative of the bible rules it out completely. “The most important observation about the material world to emerge from the creation account in Genesis 1 is that God created it good” (Blomberg, 34). From the beginning, God’s intentions are set toward a world order in which all can flourish. Once humanity fell into sin and poverty entered the world, he continually provided means for restoration. From the tithe and sacrificial system that provided a social safety net (whose statutes frame Deut 15:1), to the redistributive Sabbath and Jubilee practices, to the prophets who continually called Israel to uphold these statutes of justice, to Jesus’ ministry of solidarity and liberation for the oppressed, to the early Church’s communal sharing of property, to John’s revelation of a New Creation in which all have joy and a home in the city of God, the bible is continually rejecting systems of oppression.
The American political economy is not a natural law embedded in the fabric of the cosmos. Nor are the poor simply a fact of the world like the blue shades of the sky. Homelessness is the result of the system we have created. It is not the poor’s destiny. It is our choice.