Do the Homeless know their ABCs?

Among other responses to my last blog post, Drive-by Charity, I received this comment from Matthew:

You seem to have had a lot of personal contact with those in need over the years. As such … you are probably in the best position to answer the following 2 questions:
1. When should one give and not give money?
2. Should one always attempt to share Jesus with someone they meet on the street who is in need?

Now, I am far from being in the best position to answer any questions, much less these questions. However, I may be the best positioned person Matthew has come across lately, so I am going to give these questions my best efforts – which includes consulting with friends who I feel have more experience with homelessness and poverty, as well as the sometimes related issues such as PTSD and addiction – and friends with whom I can search the scriptures, because for me that’s an important part of answering any question.

The first question appears to be the simplest, but I feel it is the more complicated, so I am going to begin answering that one in my next blog post, and continue blogging about it until I am compelled to move on to other issues. Today, I begin with Matthew’s second question: “Should one always attempt to share Jesus with someone they meet on the street who is in need?”

I appreciate that Matthew made a later clarification: “What I meant by ‘share Jesus’ is in the usual evangelical way … you know … the ABC´s (since by simply showing love to the person is also sharing Jesus of course).” Yes! When we extend ourselves in Christ-like love for another, we are sharing Jesus in an embodied way. In this way, we hope that all Christians are always sharing Jesus wherever we go, insofar as we are rooted in the God who is love – unconditional and never-ending love for all creation, including people.

The “ABC’s” for those not in the know are as follows:

  • Accept that you are a sinner;
  • Believe that Jesus died for your sins;
  • Confess Jesus as your Savior.

Christianity is, by nature, a religion that seeks to convert others to belief in the Good News. No matter what nation or denomination, we all adhere to what has been called “The Great Commision” – the instructions of the Risen Jesus recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, including these words:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

However, we do not all agree on exact methods. So for those who are interested in exploring the pros and cons of the ABC formulation, I recommend this article from The Evangelical Movement of Wales.

Having a more general readership, I am going to answer Matthew more generally: all Christians have some version of Jesus talk. When do we bring up Jesus in conversation with someone we are meeting for the first time? And how?

The first thing to remember is that people who are homeless are not different from any other person in essentials. Statistically, one might suppose that a homeless person we encounter in a public place (rather than in a shelter or in some other setting) is more likely to be intoxicated, or more likely to have been longer without a shower – although there are many many exceptions to this, and as Christians, we ought never treat any person like a statistic. The hairs on each of our heads are numbered – God sees each of us in our particularity, and so we ought to strive to see the people we encounter in their particularity, too.

Secondly, we begin with a belief that all people need Jesus. People who are homeless do not need Jesus more; people who think they already have Jesus do not need Jesus any less.

That said, there is a power differential between the person with a home, a shower, a bank account, and a car, and the person without any of those things. Which means that we need to be especially careful. It will be difficult not to be perceived as patronizing when we begin our conversation. It will be difficult not to BE partronizing, frankly.

So with all of this in mind, we listen first. We ask questions that elicit the story that the person we have encountered wants to tell. We listen and discover points of connection with ourselves and points of difference. And, because as Christians we have been formed in worship and scripture and social justice and song, at some point we will find ourselves saying naturally, “that is like what Jesus said about…” or “that reminds me of a hymn I sang as a child…” or “I wonder, if Jesus were here, if he would say…” Enough. In one or two sentences we have put out there: “I, who have been standing here listening to you for the past several minutes, I am a Jesus person in this particular way.”

What will this person we have just met say? What will be their response? Because there is almost always some response, and the response often is an opening up about their current religious views, or their religious history, or curiosity about our own ideas about religion.

After all of this, we are in a better position to discern whether this person already believes as we do (Perhaps for Matthew, for instance, have they already traversed the ABC?), or – if they do not share our faith, are they anywhere close to interested / ready to hear our Jesus pitch? If they seem downright hostile to Christianity, for instance, plowing forward stubbornly as if we have not noticed what they have been saying may just prove to that person what they have already believed – that Christians don’t actually care about people, and are a generally unfriendly and pushy sort. Instead, stick around and listen to their stories for awhile longer and leave them with some lingering doubts about their preconceived notions about Jesus people.

There will be rare and wonderful ocassions when we get to share in words the love of Jesus for someone who was not ready to believe it until just then (or who once believed it but has forgotten.) When that happens, we had better be prepared to pray with them on the sidewalk, even if that is the sort of thing that usually makes us uncomfortable. We had better be prepared to give them our favorite Bible – the one that we carry with us at all times, the one with highlighting and notes in the margins. We had better mean it when we say that we are going to pray for them when we get home.

In fact, we had better pray for them whether or not we said we would.  And to that end, we did remember to ask them what their name was, right?  And told them our own name?

When I met the man at the strip mall the other day, I had been in a hurry to complete several errands before making it home to meet my daughter at her bus stop. I had been intending to drive across town to a local shop that was having a shoe sale, because in spite of owning eight or so pairs of shoes (so many pairs I don’t know the exact number!), I had “nothing to wear” with navy blue. Instead of making it to the shoe store, I spent 45 minutes talking with a man who likely owns only one pair of shoes. As I drove directly home from the mall, I had the opportunity to pray for forgiveness for my inability to discern wants from needs – an inability that stems from no longer having not quite enough resources to meet my needs. I prayed for all people, that we might become better at sharing our resources with one another. And I prayed for the man that I had just met, that he might be safe that night, that he might not be overcome by the cold, that he would one day find a way to kick his addiction to alcohol without being killed by the withdrawal (which can happen all too easily), and that he would come to own that he was a beloved child of God – that he would cease to think of himself as someone who hadn’t “done anything too bad, I guess,” and instead begin to think of himself as someone in whom God delights.

Both of us were called to conversion by our encounter, and I continue to pray that both of us will heed that call.

Learning to forgive – and to be forgiven

In Tales of Wonder, Huston Smith offers this definition of Christianity:

What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you may consider yourself a Christian.

I have immense respect for Huston Smith – he is a man who has sought after God with great passion, and in chronicling his search he blazed trails in post-modernism and in religious studies. Nevertheless, I believe that his definition of Christianity has a couple of problems with it. I will focus here on one: “… and you do not harm others consciously…” with special attention to the word “consciously.”

There is a great variation amongst consciences. Some give little thought to others, and so are unconsciously hurting others constantly in ways that most persons would consider obvious. One of the aims of Christianity is to broaden the consciousness of Christians: we learn to see ourselves more deeply, as well as to see a broader number of people more deeply than we have before – until we grow into an embodiment of God’s love for all people. So for some Christians, it becomes very hard to hurt another person without consciousness of it – because consciousness becomes so deep and broad.

When I turn on a light switch, I am conscious of hurting my sisters and brothers in West Virginia whose streams are choked with debris from mountaintop removal mining. When I get into my car and drive it, I am conscious of the Pacific Islanders already being impacted by rising sea levels, conscious of the animals whose habitats have been chopped into tiny parcels by asphalt roads, conscious of the benefits of the once good autoworking jobs disappearing. And so on. In the 21st century, we are so globally connected that there is little I can do without being tied to another in some way. And as a member of the ever dwindling American middle class, I am often tied to others in a way that benefits me to their detriment.

I am trying to lessen the instances in which I am consciously harming others. But at the same time, I am continuing to broaden and deepen in consciousness – and so more continues to be demanded of me in order to meet the standard of not harming others consciously. Christianity by Huston Smith’s definition is for me a moving target – if he is correct then I have never been a Christian, and can never hope to be one.

Instead, I take refuge in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “… forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” We are ever in debt to God – and to many others. In teaching me to pray for forgiveness, Jesus teaches me that he expects I will continue to stand in need of forgiveness – and that it is always available to me. In teaching me that God’s forgiveness for me is linked to my forgiveness of others, Jesus teaches me that my judgment is what stands most in the way of my own healing. How readily do I model forgiveness when others fail me? When I fail myself?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

FUBAR?

Looking at the Julian Assange case over time, and particularly over the past 36 hours or so, I am reminded of a common “ethics” exercise: a story is told with five characters in it, each of which has arguably engaged in some sketchy behavior – and it is the job of the reader / student / test subject to rank the characters from most to least moral. I first ran onto this device in my high school Sunday school class, and it certainly led to some interesting discussions / arguments — until the day that one of us called into question the entire enterprise of trying to figure out who is “most right” in an impossible situation – which led to a discussion of life as an impossible situation generally. Apparently, the teacher was satisfied that we had finally grasped the point of these lessons, because we were onto a totally new curriculum the next Sunday.

In college, I learned that this sort of “rank the characters” story was used by some researchers as a test of the “level of moral reasoning” test subjects had attained. Which itself is arguably sketchy behavior on the part of the researchers. [If you prefer, for “sketchy” read “hubristic.”]

It was a tremendous relief, when I was nearly 30, to have the disconnect between my education to date and reality as I observed it articulated for me in the first week’s lectures of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Stanley Hauerwas told us that if we had taken “Ethics” as an undergraduate student, then our ethics were probably even more muddled than the average person, and what we were doing in his class would be not simply unrelated, but diametrically opposed to everything we had been taught about ethics before – because as Christians we make particular assertions about reality that form the foundation of our ethical thinking.

The Christian story goes more or less as follows: To all appearances, the world is FUBAR, so that moral behavior is impossible. However, we are convinced that Christ will return and finish the work of mending all creation, which is what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come…” As Christians, we are called to witness to the coming kingdom of God by living as if it were already here — even when it makes no apparent sense to do so. (This is where singing praises to God as the lions chow down on us comes in, to take the extreme example.) We are instructed in what it means to live into God’s desire for the universe in the Scriptures – particularly in that we are called to love God and love one another. And love requires getting your hands dirty; it is uncomfortable, even wrenching; it is done in close quarters – it is not even in the same neighborhood as “be nice.”

Loving up close (as most of us have experienced, whether in marriage or parenthood or caring for aging parents or sharing space with siblings or roommates or ….) means entering into the uniquely wonderful aspects of the beloved – which come as a package deal with their body odor and morning breath (etc.) Morally speaking, we all have our metaphorical body odor and morning breath – blind spots and willful disobedience that are so much a part of us that we cannot much change it. We can cover up those problems we notice (deodorant!); we can ameliorate some problems with daily ritual practices (flossing!); but we cannot make them go away forever. Spiritual dental floss and deodorant do not change the essential truth of our sinfulness, the distance between God’s best hopes for us and our innate tendency to do our own thing to our detriment. Similar to the way that my husband loves my whole person (I admittedly have wretched morning breath, he admittedly notices, but it is by no means anything like a deal-breaker,) God loves each of us in our totality, a “package deal” – but that doesn’t mean he is a fan of our covetous and deceitful behavior.

So – what does this have to do with the Assange case?

I’m getting there, but first, let’s talk a little more about Jesus –

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

Jesus presses the man – when he calls Jesus “good,” does he say this because he knows who Jesus is? Or does he use the word carelessly?

We do not use the word “good” with enough care. This is a particular problem with funeral sermons, in which pastors may feel pressure to give an account of the “good man/woman” who died. None is good but God alone! We should rightly feel uncomfortable when someone says that we are a “good parent/teacher/pastor/etc.” or that we are “perfect” as a wife/husband/cook/etc.

From time to time, my mother says “you are such a good mother.” Who doesn’t want to hear this sort of thing from their Mom? Almost nothing makes me feel better than hearing that! However, it is necessary for my spiritual health to be honest with myself, and so I immediately translate that to something like, “I like how you demonstrate your love for Hannah most of the time. And I have noticed you setting some good boundaries with her. Etc.” Because it would be wrong for me to accept that I am absolutely a good mother – I am also a cranky mother, an inattentive mother, a fell asleep on the sofa while her preschooler watched two and a half straight hours of unsupervised television mother.

Compliments like the one my friend Will gave me not long ago require less translation. “I usually like what you cook,” he commented once on Facebook. I can admit that the food I make usually turns out well. Except for those rare occasions when I accidentally use cayenne in place of curry, say, for instance, and wind up with something utterly inedible. (Note: Most mortals cannot handle 3 Tablespoons of cayenne mixed into 2 servings of brown rice. Even if you do add pineapple and tahini.)

So, back to Assange. I have seen a lot of jockeying around on Twitter – even participated in it – trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong. What shall we make of Ecuador sheltering Assange? What shall we make of Assange not going to Sweden? What shall we make of the veiled threats made by some members of the British government against the Ecuadorean embassy? What shall we make of the not so veiled accusations of the U.S. government against Assange? What shall we make of the nearly global distrust of the U.S. in the wake of drone strikes and other political assassinations, not to mention legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens? What shall we make of the barely contested (even by Assange’s own lawyer) allegations of rape against Assange? And wouldn’t it be fantastic if Assange were not so fearful, but instead eager to stand trial in the United States, in order that we might have a drawn out public discussion of secrecy in global politics? But I can’t help suspecting that if Assange were to be brought here, that discussion might be so censored as to be stripped of all potency – if it ever saw the light of day at all.

I suggest that we will not get very far trying to figure out who is the hero of this story. In fact, if you still believe in the possibility of heroes, I would suggest the Biblical book of Judges as a particularly good corrective. Actually, you could keep on going through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. That 5 book cycle could be read as one long midrashic expansion on the idea that “no one is good but God alone.”

Perhaps the closest we can come to heroes in this story would be the women who have accused Assange of rape. It is always costly to make such an accusation – blaming the alleged victim is never far behind, and any of us would want to avoid people who don’t even know us writing comments about us such as “why was she even in bed with him in the first place?” as if that justifies any behavior on the part of the man that then follows. But it is clear that the case brought by these women is being cynically manipulated for political gain – because few men are pursued so aggressively when accused of sexual crimes – especially not to the point of talking about extradition for questioning.

Let me be clear – The only thing that would delight me more than rape finally being taken seriously (and Julian Assange’s treatment being a harbinger of a change in global, or even British policy to that effect) would be if MEN WOULD STOP RAPING PEOPLE. Seriously. Quit it. The circumstances are never important – you are not ENTITLED to the use of ANYONE else’s body. Never. Not for any reason. No matter who it is. Sex is a gift, every time. If it is not freely given, then you are a thief.

But I am well aware that though we may reduce the occurrence of rape, we will not eliminate it – not through human efforts. No one is good but God alone. And we may reduce political posturing, but not eliminate it. And we may reduce the use of publicity stunts in order to evade justice, but not eliminate them. No one is good but God alone.

This is a very muddled story – it is not something that we are going to sort out in bursts of 140 characters or less. The number of players getting caught up in this web is ever expanding. Like so many things in life, the deeper you dig, the more impossible the situation appears: FUBAR.

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With God, no one is FUBAR.” (Mark 10:26-27) [A loose translation, I admit. But fundamentally accurate.]

Watching athletic contests, we have become too well accustomed to taking sides, to cheering on one group or person and tying our hopes exclusively to them. But we could easily learn another lesson from these contests – that our allegiances in such cases are arbitrary, even accidental. Why do I cheer for the Durham Bulls? Because they are the only professional team playing in my home town, and I can see their games most easily and affordably. They aren’t more virtuous than other baseball clubs, or more deserving in some way.

As we keep our eyes on the drama that has now moved to the Ecuadorean embassy, let us ask ourselves – to what extent are our allegiances arbitrary? To the extent that we identify with one or another player because of our social or cultural location, or because of our life experiences or education, at least to that extent we are unlike God in our judgments. We are unable to see into the human heart as God does – to love each individual as completely as God does – instead of people we see victims and villains. We may call them tossers, liars, cynics, power hungry, duped, blackmailed, blind, cowards, naive, traitors, rapists, murderers, untrustworthy, incomprehensible… God calls them beloved.

As you and I throw our stones, may we pause to remember that none is good but God alone.