Originally posted at the Vineyard Justice Network. Check out their website for loads of inspiration on how we can promote social justice as charismatic Christians!
What is a Kingdom approach to thinking about anti-homeless legislation? How should we navigate the ethics of state and/or city laws that make feeding the homeless or sleeping in your car illegal? Should the fact that we worship a homeless man on Sundays make any difference?
Evan B. Howard is a spiritual director, professor of Christian Spirituality, and former Vineyard church planter. He shares his helpful Kingdom perspective on these questions, as well as why he’s advocating for Colorado to pass the Right to Rest bill on March 14.
HOMELESS RIGHTS: A CHRISTIAN CASE FOR THE SUPPORT OF COLORADO’S RIGHT TO REST
BY EVAN B. HOWARD
Every night, people–many people in Colorado–try to sleep outside. Homelessness is a simple fact, not only nationally, but also locally. Let’s take Denver, for example. No matter how you do the math–counting homeless persons and shelter beds available–there are at least a thousand people every night who must sleep outside in Denver.1
Most of us do not really notice many of our simple acts of physical survival. We pull up the covers when it gets cold. We get up and relieve ourselves in our bathrooms, rooms which we also use for hygiene purposes. We prepare our meals in kitchens and eat them in dining rooms. We store our possessions in houses or apartments. But what if we do not have access to these rooms, these “private” places? If private places are unavailable, we are obliged to perform these basic acts of survival in “public” places. We sleep on streets or under bridges or in a vehicle, near to light if possible to ensure safety. If commercial establishments allow only customers access to restrooms, we are obliged to relieve ourselves in alleys. We store (hide) our possessions in a small thicket of bushes in a city park. We gratefully receive food given to us wherever it may be offered. We do what we must to survive.
Yet most of these acts of survival are illegal in Colorado. It is illegal in many cities to lie down and cover oneself with a blanket at night outdoors or to sleep in a vehicle. The worldly possessions of homeless persons–wallets, important papers, and more–are regularly confiscated, often in the presence of the owners, and thrown into dump trucks. People have been arrested for indecent exposure while relieving themselves in alleys. In some cities, it is illegal to offer food to a number of homeless people in public parks.2 The passing and enforcement of laws prohibiting these basic acts of human survival functionally criminalize the fact of being homeless. “Homeless rights” proposals, like the Right to Rest Bill up for consideration in Colorado,3 work to decriminalize personal survival in public spaces and give homeless persons an opportunity to live a reasonable life.
I believe that we Christians have a responsibility before God to support homeless rights. In light of the current situation, our approach to the homeless must not be merely an expression of compassion, but must also be a pursuit of justice. Let me explain.
FIRST, GOD IS CONCERNED ABOUT GIVING PEOPLE HOMES
From the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, we see a God who is interested in giving people a home. God places Adam and Eve in a cozy garden. God leads Abraham to a new home in Canaan. God delivers Israel from the hand of the Egyptians, leads them through the wilderness (forty years of portable tent-city living!), and establishes them back in their home. Psalm 68: 6 declares that God, “gives the desolate a home to live in.” Finally, in the book of Revelation we share in the excitement of the fulfillment of history as humanity proclaims, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” The heart of God is to provide security, community, and an environment where humans can thrive in the midst of ordinary life.
Indeed, this sense of the value of “home” is so strong that the choice of Jesus and the apostles to live as itinerant ministers is described as a deprivation of normal life. Thus Jesus warns those who might choose to follow him without considering the costs carefully, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:20 // Luke 9:58). The apostle Paul describes the conditions of his missionary work similarly: “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless.” (1 Corinthians 4:11). Homelessness in Scripture is here described as a voluntary deprivation. God’s desire is that people have a “place” to live.
This is why offering hospitality to people experiencing homelessness is praised in Scripture. Isaiah 58 describes the “fast” that God highly values:
6 “Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7 “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 “Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Likewise, Jesus praises those who visit him in prison, or feed him when hungry, or welcome him when he is homeless proclaiming that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
God is the loving Father who makes a home for the people of his creation and who desires that we follow his example in offering hospitality to others who may not have homes. And indeed, Christians have led the way in providing shelters for people suffering without a place to sleep.4 But I believe that we must take a further step.
SECOND, GOD IS CONCERNED ABOUT JUSTICE, ABOUT HUMAN BEINGS PROVIDING ONE ANOTHER FAIR ACCESS TO THE BASIC NEEDS OF HUMAN LIFE.
Christian care is not merely a matter of visiting the orphan and widow in distress (though it is that; see James 1:27). It is also about advocating for the just treatment of those who tend to suffer under our political and economic systems. Thus the Lord lifts up Josiah as an example, declaring that “”He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” Declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:16; see also Isaiah 10:2; Amos 5:10-15; Malachi 3:5). God seems particularly concerned that the most needy among us–those with the least power in any given system: the poor, the alien, the widow, and so on–receive fair treatment and that they do not have their basic livelihood threatened by the nature (or abuse) of the social structures of any given culture.
Perhaps a couple of particular laws might illustrate this principle. In Deuteronomy 24 the people of God are instructed that,
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before theLord your God. You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deuteronomy 24:10-15).
So, what is going on here? Here we find someone making a loan, but unable to keep the collateral offered in security of this loan. Why? Is this not unfair for the lender? The point is this: it is one thing to offer a luxury item as collateral for a loan, but it is entirely a different matter to lose one’s very means of survival (a blanket/cloak, the wages for the day). To deprive the poor of their basic acts of survival is to “incur guilt.” This is not just a weakness of compassion, but rather this is a matter of injustice committed to the poor who in the eyes of God has a right to a blanket, to daily wages.
Similarly, a few verses earlier God commands the Israelites that “No one shall take a handmill or an upper millstone in pledge, for he would be taking a life in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:6). “Taking a life in pledge.” This is the point. A millstone was a family’s means of creating bread. No matter how desperate a poor person might be, we are unjust when we deprive another of the possibility of fulfilling their basic acts of human survival.
God created human beings in his own image. Human beings are the peak of God’s creative work. As such all human beings are worthy of treatment with dignity. If an artist were to make a magnificent vase–very beautiful and very delicate–and place it upon a mantle, we would be offending the artist to roughly grab the vase off the mantle and toss it around carelessly. To mistreat the artist’s precious creation is to violate one’s relationship with the artist. And so it is with God. Why have we claimed that slavery is wrong? It is a violation of the dignity of a human being and as such it is a violation against the God who made us.
To make it a crime for a family experiencing homelessness to cover themselves in the cold, for someone to seek shelter in their vehicle, to sit or lie down in a public space when they have no reasonable access to private spaces, to have their belongings thrown away as “encumbrances” is itself a crime against the heart and laws of God. And just as William Wilberforce and John Woolman followed God by advocating for the rights of slaves to the freedom to make a life for themselves, so I believe we must, as Christians, support the rights of people without housing to perform–and thus to decriminalize–the simple acts of survival that most of us perform in our private places, but that homeless people are obliged to perform in public places.
There are many issues I have not addressed in this brief argument. The relationship of shelters and services to “rights,” the issue of employment and many other questions need to be explored and have been.5 I address more issues in the “Few Thoughts” provided here. My hope is that through this essay we can view homeless people and their plight with the eyes and heart of God.
Evan B. Howard, Ph.D. is the founder and director of Spirituality Shoppe, a Center for the Study of Christian Spirituality. He is affiliate associate professor of Christian Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches at other institutions. He is the author of The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality and leads workshops and seminars on Christian Spirituality worldwide.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!
1 See http://denverhomelessoutloud.org/2015/12/04/resurrection-village-forced-down-by-police-betrayed-by-treehouse-development/ for this summary. I am aware that figures for both point-in-time counts and shelter beds can be disputed, but the summary contained here is a fair representation of the current situation.
4 As a review of the names of the organizations listed in the Denver Homeless Shelter Directory will demonstrate. See http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/cgi-bin/id/city.cgi?city=Denver&state=CO.
5 For a review and response to many of these questions, see https://coloradohomelessbillofrights.org/about/r2r-faq-3/. For a selection of helpful resources on the history of homelessness, criminalization and other issues, see http://coloradohomelessbillofrights.org/resources/.