Thursday, July 24, 2014

Making Local Justice

“What I want to know is, “ Mark asked pleadingly, “why has God forsaken us?”

Mark and his wife Diane, a homeless couple, has just been forced to move from the camp that they had peacefully dwelt in for years.  They have nowhere to go.  A summer storm blew through Portland the last couple days and because they had nowhere to legally set up their tent, they were soaked the other night, hiding for cover, and now they have no dry blankets or clothes.

 They came into our church’s day shelter yesterday freezing.  We were able to give them a warm meal and a change of clothes and some dry bedding… but Mark’s question lingered.  He said, “I’ve been praying.  I’ve been seeking God for help.  Why won’t he help us?” 

Honestly, I gave some pious answer about waiting and God’s timing isn’t our timing.  But I wasn’t really being honest to him.  I woke up at 6 this morning with his question haunting me.  I couldn’t get any more sleep, so I want to be honest with you today:

The reason Mark isn’t being helped by God is because God has already given the power to help him to His people, the church, and the church isn’t interested.

It isn’t that the church isn’t interested in justice.  But they would rather take sides in the Israel/Gaza conflict rather than be there for their neighbor who lives in their community.  Which is odd to me, because it seems that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we are to show mercy to the one whom we come across, not write a blog post for them, nor re-post a video that touched us about justice.  Justice isn’t about making a public position, but about creating a context where people are free to live. 

I’ve been reading Walter Breuggermann’s book Peace the past couple weeks, and in that brilliant short book he makes the point that there is a difference between order and justice.  Order is what Pharaoh had, with his slavery and his taskmasters.  God had to reach in and make chaos of that order so that He might establish justice.  Order is what we have in our cities, and the city councils keep order by creating laws and policies that move the homeless out of people’s sight, that fundamentally make it illegal for those human beings to exist.  The police, many of whom believe the homeless to be naturally criminals, will move them on, dehumanize them, take their possessions, and even arrest them for the crime of being unable to pay rent.

The church of the United States can stop this.  We will be judged, not by how we respond to justice issues overseas, but by how we create justice in our neighborhoods.  We can create justice for the homeless in their communities.  Here are some simple steps.  Not all the steps are easy, mind you, but creating justice never is.

1.  Get to know the homeless
We can never help create justice if we do not know those whom we seek justice for.  You can go to a day shelter like what my church, Anawim Christian Community, has.  There are shelters like this where the homeless can exist without harassment in almost every major city of the United States.  Go and listen.  You can volunteer, or help, if you like.  But your primary goal is to listen to the homeless and find out about their lives.  What are their struggles, what are their joys, what are their hopes and what keeps them from obtaining their hope?  As we talk with the homeless we will find out that, just like housed people, a few may be criminals, but most are not.  We will find out that we really enjoy spending time with some of these folks.  We will find out who can be trusted and who can’t be.  And we will find out the policies and habits of our city that make their lives miserable.

2. Write letters
Find out what laws have been passed in your community that the law enforcers use to oppress the homeless in your area.  In Portland, there is a camping ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone to sleep outside.  While it could be used against children pitching a tent in their backyard, the lawmakers intended to use it against the homeless, and so “sweeps” regularly happen where the police tell the homeless that they have to move.  There is nowhere for them to move to.  Some police in Portland will tell the homeless to move out of their city and never return—the city they were raised in.  If a number of people wrote letters to their city council demanding that the homeless be treated like the citizens they are, instead of piles of garbage that need to be cleaned up, the city would change their policies.  If people wrote to the local newspaper demanding that the homeless not be harassed by the police, then lawmakers and the police will listen.  But it will take a lot of people, over time, doing this.

3. Provide jobs
Most of the homeless want to work.  But getting a job without an address, or a shower is almost impossible.  Going to an interview when the stress of everyday life makes one desperate and anxious and so an unlikely candidate for hiring.  Our church hires the homeless to care for our landscaping and to do our janitorial work.  Some folks might need some supervision or training, but they are grateful for the work, learn fast and work hard.  Often churches see the homeless as objects of charity rather than people who need a chance.  Instead of hiring a company to maintain your property, go the extra mile and hire some homeless folks. 

4. Offer housing
When Jesus spoke of helping the homeless, he didn’t talk about giving them a dollar, but inviting them into our home. Me and my family of five live in a six bedroom house.  We specifically purchased this house so that we could take our extra rooms and welcome the homeless to live with us.  We have had as many as eleven folks live with us.  I am not suggesting that everyone who reads this take so many people in, but many of us have extra room where we could take someone in.  I would suggest not bringing in a stranger, but someone you learn to know and trust at a shelter.  Because what the homeless really need is an opportunity

5. Create a Network of Churches
Most of our churches are small and have little finances or resources.  But groups of churches are able to do what an individual church cannot.  A group of churches can establish a day shelter in areas of town where the homeless population isn’t being served.  A group of churches can establish a regular meal for the local poor to eat.  A group of churches can collectively go to the city council and request that they no longer harass the homeless, to stop treating them all as if they were criminals and not citizens.  A group of churches can listen to the homeless, find out their needs and help them with the resources they have collectively.  In one area of town, we listened to the homeless and provided a winter shelter.  In another area of town they didn’t want a winter shelter, but propane stoves to keep warm in their tents.  Our church networks were able to provide these services.

6. Support your local ministries
If you live in a city in the United States, there are local ministries to the homeless in your area.  Some of these ministries are being attacked by local laws to prevent them from bringing justice to the homeless.  Other ministries are attacked by neighborhood associations or local neighbors who assume that they are “brining criminals into our neighborhood.”  Anawim stands strong for the homeless every day, but we are attacked and we struggle with too little to go on.  Go to your local ministry and find out what they need.  Almost certainly they need financial help (we struggle to pay our rent every month).  But they may need more volunteers or more donations.  They may need some encouragement.  They may need someone to stand up for them against those who complain about them in neighborhood meetings.

7. Tell Stories about your Homeless Friends
As you learn about the lives of the homeless, tell people about their stories.  Not just the bad things or the oppression they face, but talk about their everyday triumphs. Post stories on FB, talk about them at neighborhood meetings.  The homeless are our local citizens and their victories are our victories.  If they get a job, if they were able to get their identification that has been lost for years, if they were able to obtain housing, if they were able to get a medical problem resolved, talk about it.  Let your friends and your neighbors know that homeless people are good people.   That they are your friends.  And that they are deserving of love.

If you'd like to know more about Anawim Christian Community, a community church for the homeless in Portland and Gresham Oregon, what we do and how you could support us, go to

Monday, July 21, 2014


Scholars of Mosaic law note that the sets of laws are often grouped according to the ten commandments.  That there are laws about proper worship, and then laws about roles.  There are laws about killings and laws about sexual mores and laws about justice.  But sometimes you get groups of laws that don’t seem to be connected at all, like in Deuteronomy 22:

A woman shall not wear man's clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.
If you happen to come upon a bird's nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it.
You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, or all the produce of the seed which you have sown and the increase of the vineyard will become defiled.
 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.
 You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together.
 Deut. 22:5-11 (New American Standard)

These laws just seem completely random.  But they aren’t.  In fact, the connection between not wearing another sex’s clothes and having a parapet on the roof gets to a deep theme in the Old Testament.  All of these laws have to do with setting proper boundaries.  That God created a natural order to things, and that things separated should not be mixed.  It is obvious that a roof on which people work and sleep (which they did in the ancient world, and in many places in the world today) should have a wall to protect people.  Even so, the OT claims that there needs to be walls placed between the sexes, walls placed between seeds, walls placed between species and walls placed between kinds of seeds, because mixing them brings disaster.  It is for this reason that there are food laws in the OT, and laws which declare that certain nations must be enculturated (perhaps up to 10 generations!) before they can be full citizens in Israel.  There must be an absolute border between Israelites and Canaanites, which is why the Canaanites were no longer supposed to exist as a race.  Some boarders cannot be crossed for any reason.

And yet when Jesus came on the scene, he seemed to have a different point of view.  The law that separated lepers and non-lepers, Jesus just ignored, touching lepers.  The laws that separated Jew and Gentiles, Jesus often ignored.  The laws that held men and women in different roles Jesus sometimes ignored (which is why Mary was allowed to have the male role of student, although Martha wanted her to take a more proper feminine role).  And what about Canaanites?

And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed." But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, "Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us." But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, "Lord, help me!" And He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." But she said, "Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus said to her, "O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed at once.  Matthew 15:22-28

At first, Jesus seems to be affirming the border of the Mosaic law—there is a firm distinction between Canaanite and Israelite, and they shall never pass.  In fact, Jesus calls her a dog.  But when she accepts this term, and claims that even dogs get crumbs, Jesus does a complete turnaround.  Why?  Because faith—trust and devotion to God—trumps all the other borders.  Borders mean nothing when there is faith and love.  In as much as the OT law affirms borders, Jesus breaks them.  Jesus insists that the very things that are separated by walls—male and female, Jew and Gentile, Moabite and Israelite, leper and healthy, sinner and saint—are no longer separated, but are, in fact, united by faith and love. 

And yet we have trouble with this even today.  We Christians want to re-establish borders because ultimately our love and faith isn’t strong enough to overcome our instinct to set up walls.  We want to distinguish Christian and non-Christian, homeless and housed, male and female, Jew and Palestinian, citizen and illegal immigrant, belonging to the right church group or the wrong one—all the very kinds of borders that Jesus did away with.  As quickly as Jesus takes down our walls and replaces them with love, we build new ones. 

We can either have walls, or we may have love.  We may either have borders or we may have a unity of faith.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Second Chance

He sat them down and began to lecture them about the necessity of the suffering of the Son of Man of Daniel. That the Son of Man would be declared guilty by the judges and bishops and the seminary professors and he would be sentenced to death, killed, and after a three day appeal would be resurrected. He spoke to them without metaphor, but straightforwardly. After he was done, Peter gently took him aside and told him that such things could not happen to him, the Messiah. Jesus turned toward all his disciples and raised his voice for all to hear, “Get away from me! You are not Peter, but Satan! Stop tempting me to take the easy route! You are speaking of God’s plan, but of human achievement!”

Then Jesus called the crowd to gather around him, beside his disciples, then he addressed them all: “Do you think that I have the way to life, the way to enter into God’s kingdom? Then listen here: If you want to be a part of my school, you must give up on all the things that make up your life, accept that you will be killed as a revolutionary and go where I go. Since I am going to die, you must accept that for yourself as well. If you want to preserve your life, then you will lose it. If you lose your life for Me and my school, then you will retain your life. If you surrender your life, you will obtain resurrection. Sure, you could gain everything in the world you want—happiness, security, wealth, fame—but what good is any of that if you lose your life in the long run? Suppose someone had a gun to your head and wanted all you had for your life? Isn’t it better to give all of that up, so you could live and obtain your stuff and happiness another day? If anyone is fearful of speaking about Me before this sinning and faithless people, then the Messiah will dare not speak his name on the final day when he comes to rule the Father’s kingdom with all of God’s power behind him. Mark 8:31-38

Eternal Life
Jesus’ goal was not to die, although it may seem like it in the above passages. Rather, Jesus’ goal was what is called “eternal life”. This eternal life is not life in heaven, as spirits floating around singing. It is a second chance on life.

In our current life, we are compromised from doing all we could for God. We live in a corrupted world which strives to encourage us to do evil, to disobey God. We have corrupted bodies which have corrupted desires and illnesses and weaknesses that the body encourages us to sidestep by doing more evil. We live in a context of temptation and injustice and weakness.

God is offering resurrection. This means that we will come back after death into bodies that are uncorrupted and incorruptible. We will be living in a context without injustice, and temptation is kept to a minimum. We will be given an opportunity to live for God without weakness, in full strength and spiritual authority.

And some will be chosen to rule over this utopia. The Messiah will be chosen among people to rule over God’s kingdom and He will chose many to rule with Him. The ones whom He will chose will create justice for all, provide the context of life for everyone. This is the dream of the New Testament. It is the goal of Jesus.

God’s Justice
But God doesn’t give this kind of resurrection, this opportunity to everyone. Not everyone deserves to rule, not everyone can handle the power that will be given to people to rule. Not everyone is prepared to deal with people as they are. God is careful to choose the people who will create His utopia, and these will be given a second chance on life.

Who are these people that God chooses? God’s selection process begins first of all with those who didn’t really have a life to begin with. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a chance of a good life. Perhaps they surrendered the chance of a good life. But God is looking for those who suffered injustice in their lives. They did good for themselves, for their neighbors, for God’s kingdom, but they received shame and punishment for the good they did. God will not look for the rich and powerful, the famous and lauded. They have already had their life. God will be looking for those who gave up their life and give them another chance.

Jesus’ Example
Jesus is the one who surrendered his chance at life for others. He could have lived a quiet, but happy existence as a carpenter in Nazareth. But he chose to give up on the good life so that a better life could be granted to everyone. Jesus gave up on life, on happiness, on a good retirement, on hope of a peaceful death. Jesus surrendered all the great possibilities to live in shalom. He did this, not because he couldn’t have lived in peace, but because he saw so many who didn’t have the chance. So he gave up on life to give others a chance.

And this is exactly what Jesus is calling us to. If we want to have a better life, we have to give up on the one the world offers us. Yes, for some of us, perhaps we could have a solid job, a quiet existence, a good family, the American dream. But for many, this life is out of reach. Jesus is asking us to give up the good life, so we could give an opportunity for a better life for others.

• Just like Jesus, we are called to give up the pursuit of the “good life”, the American Dream.

• Just like Jesus, we are called to live in rebellion against the world political system which denies peace and justice for so many.

• Just like Jesus, we are to allow ourselves to be persecuted, to be punished for doing good.

• Just like Jesus, we are called to even die in our innocence, to die because of our life in God’s compassion.

These who give up their shots at the good life to live and die for others, they will be given the second chance.  They will be God’s rulers in the coming revolution.

As It Was Prophecied
This is also nothing new. There are only a few places in the Old Testament that talks about the resurrection of God’s people, and every passage speaks of God giving a second chance to those who didn’t have a life to begin with:

o Psalm 22—The author of this Psalm is surrounded by enemies and killed, but he relies on God for deliverance. God then gives him a second chance at life, which is happy and good.

o Psalm 37—The people of God suffer under oppression because the wealthy wicked are causing them to live in poverty. The point of the psalm is that God will give the poor who wait for God a second chance at life without such oppression.

o Daniel 12—The people of God are under a terrible trial and oppression. They are surrounded and destroyed and killed by their enemies. God destroys their enemies and resurrects the killed, giving them a second chance to live under God’s rule.

Jesus sees the fulfillment of these prophecies, but he adds one more factor. There are some who will choose to suffer, who will chose to die for the sake of God’s kingdom and righteousness. These will also gain resurrection with those who had no choice to suffer. And some of them will rule in God’s kingdom.

Who get resurrected? The rejected by the world.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Your Salvation is Too Small

Think big
If your salvation includes forgiveness, but not healing, then your salvation is too small.
If your salvation includes heaven, but not a restored earth, then your salvation is too small.
If your salvation includes Christians, but not sinners, then your salvation is too small.
If your salvation includes freedom of worship, but not food, shelter and hope for the poor, then your salvation is too small.
If your salvation includes resurrection, but not the eradication of oppression, then your salvation is too small.

If your salvation includes reconciliation between God and man, but not reconciliation between enemies on earth, then your salvation is too small.
If your salvation includes a peaceful worshiping community, but not the destitute, then your salvation is too small. 
If your salvation includes purity, but not love, then your salvation is too small.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why are the Homeless Such Trouble to Our Society?

This week I was told that the homeless need to get a job and stop whining.  I was also told that the homeless should use the ability to get on their feet and to get a life.  I was told that the homeless were scary and that church people didn’t want to approach them.  I was told that they purposefully get in the way of good, middle class people by walking their leashed dogs on public sidewalks, by holding signs asking for help, by sitting or sleeping in public parks.  By quietly resting in their cars in a church parking lot.  Yep, those homeless are a troublesome lot.

The police do their best to get rid of them.  In the Portland area, they have been moving the homeless on every few days in the hopes that they would just move out of the city.  If a homeless person leaves their camp in public area, a garbage collector gathers their items and throws them away, letting them know that they need to move on, that public space isn’t a place for camping.

A viral video this week shows a policeman fiercely beating a homeless woman who wandered into traffic:

Why is there so much conflict between the homeless and middle class society? 

Susan Fiske, a sociologist of no little repute did a series of experiments a few years ago.  She and her colleagues put hundreds of average Americans in an MRI (not at the same time, I assume) and then displayed pictures of different kinds of people before them and measured the brain’s emotional response to these different people.  Rich people stirred envy, people in nursing homes stirred pity, middle class families stirred identification and illegal immigrants typically stirred disgust. 

 Dr. Fiske was attempting to develop a chart which laid out these instant brain reactions clearly, but, she said, there was one problem.  One group had such a severely strong reaction against the dozens that they tested for, she found that they had to be taken off the normal chart.  She said that every time the homeless were shown, the brains of the average Americans they studied instantly showed two strong reactions: that of disgust and that of objectification, of being non-persons.  Susan Fiske said, “Every time a person saw a homeless person they acted as if they were looking at a pile of garbage.”

(The description of this work and the quote is found in Susan T. Fiske’s video here:   She also describes this study in her book Envy Up, Scorn Down,  )

What we must realize is that our disgust of the homeless isn’t a result of the many reasons we have for why they are bad people.  Rather, our irrational disgust is the source for the many reasons we avoid the homeless, we fear the homeless, we don’t hire the homeless, we want them off our streets and we don’t stop the police from harassing the homeless. 

As long as we refrain to see the homeless as people, this prejudice and punishment will continue.  As long as we do not actively refute our irrational disgust of homeless people, we will fear.  As long as we do not reject our negative emotional response to the poor we do not know, then we will do nothing about their poverty.  Because no one assists a pile of garbage.  They just move them around.