Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Without shelter, but not homeless

A slight departure from my normal posts about the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Here is a piece that ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Christmas Day, written by John Wright, a pastor, professor, and dear friend.
By John Wright
Friday, December 25, 2009

Our culture tends to reduce human beings to an economic calculation. We find our meaning solely within history. Even acts of generosity conducted in the “holiday season” find their moral rationale within a frame of immanence. Sentimentality can easily overtake the virtue of generosity. Nothing tugs at our hearts more than the idea of a child waking up without a present on Dec. 25th.

The frame of immanence limits our ability to describe the world and each other truthfully. We can see how our language presses against its imposed limits when we talk about “the problem of the homeless” – a phrase accepted by advocates and detractors alike. The limitations of such language appear when we recognize that those to whom the phrase supposedly refers are neither “homeless” nor “a problem.”

When one spends time with those who live without property rights, one discovers that they are not “homeless” at all. Those who live without shelter construct homes, places of human belonging and life. Sidewalk space is transformed by a candle or flower or a picture of a loved one; an exterior wall of a warehouse provides marginal but real protection from theft.

If permitted by city officials, tents sprout up to allow privacy and protection from temperature variations. Trusted neighbors become invaluable; neighborhoods develop distinct atmospheres. These neighborhoods become places of mutual care and lively social interchange. Life without property rights does not mean a life without a home.

Nor is it apparent that those who live without shelter are “a problem.” Problems certainly exist when one lives without the property rights that wealth affords. Irregular food supplies can occur and boredom can become oppressive. One must find facilities for bodily needs. Protection from theft and violence from criminal and legal sources alike can be pressing.

It is not apparent, however, that those who live on the streets are a problem. When one actually looks, one sees human beings much like other human beings. It is not property rights that make us human. Those who live on the sidewalks only become problems when human life is reduced to an economic calculation – when humans serve an abstraction that we name “the economy” rather than understanding economic transactions exist to serve human beings. Our present frame differs radically from our culture’s Jewish, Greek and Christian roots. To live without property rights has been historically seen as a virtuous practice that benefitted the person and the whole society. The very fact of the presence of those without shelter called into question the pretensions about human flourishing that come with property rights. Such persons provided a sign that we cannot reduce the significance of human life by collapsing it back into mere historical and economic processes. In lives that embraced poverty, all saw that human life signs some mystery beyond itself. Those who lived without shelter were therefore received as gifts, not construed as problems.

Perhaps it is possible to retrieve this heritage of receiving the poor as a gift, not as a problem or a duty. Perhaps to do so would allow us to see ourselves and our contrived systems of economics and governance more truthfully. Christians have no choice in the matter. To fail to receive those without property rights as a gift is to deny the story that we tell about the birth and life of the Son of God. We repeat the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth as a transient in a makeshift home as the turning point in the history of the world. Christians see in those who live without property rights as a sign of the love of God revealed to humanity in the form of the poor Christ child at Christmas.

For those who do not tell the story of the birth of the Christ child as their story, those who live on the streets may still function as a sign. As Southern California society deals with the lessons of the real estate meltdown, we may see in those who live on the streets a sign that material possessions are fleeting and transient. Shelter and jobs and accumulated wealth can quickly dissipate – but life still goes on. Life points beyond itself for its final End.

There is no “problem of the homeless.” When such phrases are used, we have already lost what is most important – the ability to name the world truthfully. When we receive those who live without shelter as a gift, we see the gift of all human lives, lives vulnerable, fragile and sinful and dignified, strong, and good. Perhaps in those who live without property rights, we can see a sign that refuses the collapse of all that is into material processes. Perhaps in those who live without shelter that wealth brings, we can see a sign that a Mystery of Love, not a frame of immanence, is the ultimate Word.

Wright is a professor of Theology and Christian Scripture at Point Loma Nazarene University and senior pastor of the English-speaking Congregation, The Church of the Nazarene, in Mid-City San Diego.

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