‘Give to the one that begs from you and do not refuse one who wants to borrow from you”-Matthew 5:42
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”-Matthew 5:44
Homelessness is a critical social problem that has plagued American cities and towns for centuries. According to author Bruce Jansson, homelessness became a increasingly visible issue in the United States in the 1980s after the de-industrialization of manufacturing jobs and the privatization of mental institutions. Since then, homelessness has become a population that nonprofits and churches have been interested in helping and/or serving. Several charities in America raise money to serve people experiencing homelessness, nonprofits have invested resources in advocating to end homelessness on both the state and national level, and homeless ministries remain an integral part of many church’s community outreach efforts.
While many facets of our society have developed and sustained a soft spot for people experiencing homelessness, there are countless myths and assumptions about the population that has impacted the effectiveness of social service and public policy to address the critical social problem. Some of these myths include:
“Homeless people choose to be homeless.”
“I don’t want to give money to homeless people because I don’t want to support their bad habit.”
“Homeless people are dangerous and are likely to commit crime.”
These myths and assumptions are based on both ignorance and bigotry. Our society has long believed that poverty is a result of personal failure and a lack of morals rather than systemic inequalities. This explains why many Christians assume that homeless people always need to be ministered to and taught moral values. It also explains why there is an automatic presumption of guilt for homeless people, which results in the criminalization of the population. Finally, because the perceived face of homelessness is an African American adult, much of the the demonization and fear of homelessness is motivated by racism.
These assumptions and biases of homelessness have an impact on how people, and in particular how Christian people, serve the population. While there are many well-intended ministries and services, there are traces of paternalism and exploitation from those who are serving that further stigmatize those experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, homeless people are often seen as nuisances to avoid (and sometimes feed when it is convenient for our own self-fulfillment), rather than valuable human beings who are struggling against oppression.
We like to help homeless people at our own convenience, but when they are building tents in our neighborhoods so that they can rest, we treat them like terrorists who are taking over own community and destroying our ways of life. Our service towards homeless people is inconsistent, convenient, and bigoted, because we don’t truly care about helping them or valuing them, we just care about making ourselves feel good as Christians. So many of us aren’t concerned with getting to know homeless people, because we feel as if we know everything about who they are because of their condition, which we see as their own fault.
When Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Mount about giving to those who beg from you and later about loving your enemies (Matthew 5:38-48), it means more than just the surface-level charity during the holiday season or the convenient meals that are provided on a few Saturdays out of the month. It means truly giving to others without expectation of return. Furthermore, when Jesus speaks of loving your enemies, he is talking about those who may irritate you and disrupt your way of life and your values. To so many of us, this includes those who are homeless, because of our societal biases and bigotry towards them. What does loving them mean? It means valuing them. It means building a larger table and humanizing them. It means challenging your biases and realizing that your perspectives and assumptions about the population are wrong and that you need to unlearn your paternalism.
When I go to church, I often hear about the challenges of being Christian in professions geared solely towards generating wealth and how greed and power are great temptations in fields where profit in the end goal. When Christians often talk about work that can compromise one’s faith, high paying and prestigious jobs are high on the list. When I was in college, I was skeptical of Christians who sought to make more money for the sake of status and power and believed that they had the greatest challenges of anyone in justifying and reconciling their career choice with their faith. That was until I realized how prideful and vain service work can be when it is focused on boosting one’s morale and image.
We live in an age of social media and self promotion in the midst of great social injustice and global disparity. Today, it is easier to show others the good work you are doing and promote your status as a good person. Furthermore, because social justice work and volunteerism are trendy, it is “hip” to promote yourself as benevolent and committed to racial and economic justice. It is easy for someone like me to feel good about myself for working in a field where I can advocate for issues relating to criminal justice, because it’s the popular and trendy thing to do. The problem is that when the desire and enthusiasm for justice and service is primarily based on fulfilling a trend and establishing a status, one loses humility and secrecy, disciplines that measure one’s true intent and commitment.
Whether one “helps people” professionally and/or voluntarily, justice and service work pose unique challenges for one’s faith and morality. While the desire of material wealth and financial exploitation may not be a challenge, the lust for fame, praise, and paternalism will be. If your “do-gooder” work becomes about your own self-promotion and Christian celebrity status, you are no better than a rich man who constantly seeks for more wealth and power for his own compulsion. If your service work is focused on exploiting and demonizing those in poverty in the name of ministry, you are no different from a banker who financially exploits those who are poor. If you advocate for homelessness to collect a paycheck but refuse to acknowledge the homeless person down the street, what better are you than those who are blatant about their disdain for those in poverty? Finally, if your activism work is centered around #blacklivesmatter hashtags and attending rallies, but you continue to criminalize black people for your own safety and comfort, how committed to racial justice are you?
It’s not enough to be a Christian who dedicates your profession to helping others. Furthermore, being in that position does not make you more moral and compassionate than others. Helping professions offer their own unique challenges and temptations to following Christ. I used to think that majoring in Social Work was an example of being altruistic but then I realized that altruism is extremely difficult and uncommon, because rarely do people do things without some expectation of reward. To understand what it means to be altruistic and to serve selflessly, you have to look at the example of Christ.
Whether you are a wealthy businessperson or an underpaid social worker, you must reflect on your motives and intentions for the work you do and avoid the temptations that will make you more prideful and less humble. Furthermore, you can serve and do good even if you make a lot of money and can be exploitative and greedy even if you are on the front lines fighting for justice. Check your intentions and behavior. Do good work. Sit down and be humble regardless of your profession and status.
The Christian church has played a major role in American History. From the First Great Awakening in the 18th century to the culture wars of the late 20th century, the church has influenced and has been influenced by the politics and culture of American society. While the number of Americans identifying as Christians has declined in recent decades, it remains the country’s most prominent and practiced faith.
Many Christians since the late 20th century have argued that America has abandoned many of its Christian values that defined the nation since its inception. Sects of evangelicals have suggested that cultural revolutions of feminism, gay rights, and secularism have destroyed the moral fabric of the country. Christian political factions like the religious right (usually aligned with the Republican party) has opposed many policies and ideas that they feel has made America less “Christian” including gay marriage, abortion, and sex education. These Christians have condemned many changes to American life and have argued that they are living to please God and not to accept and conform to society’s ideals.
While other evangelical (and some non-evangelical) Christians have had different perspectives about the policies and ideas in America, many have preached about their role in the world. Citing scripture, they argue that they should not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1). Unfortunately, many church institutions have looked more like America than Christ. While Christians speak vocally about living for Jesus and not for man, so many are deeply submissive to and defending of, the ideals of Americanism. Below are 4 ways the church looks more like America than Christ:
- Patriotism: Christians are often condemning of others who don’t share their patriotism and uphold a belief that America is God’s chosen country. When football star Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutality, many Christians condemned him as if he were behaving in a sinful nature. The Christian outrage to Kaepernick is one example of how too many Christian communities believe that to be a follower of Christ is to be fully submissive and supportive of America. The problem is that America was never destined to be God’s chosen country.
- Militarism and violence: Those who serve in the military and fight overseas are some of the most celebrated and esteemed members in Christian communities and preachers are some of the biggest supporters and lobbyists for American wars. Furthermore, Christians are quick to label civilians in war-torn countries as enemies and often advocate for some of the most vicious and vile policies against those deemed to be threats to the American people. When Christians see Muslims as enemies to defeat rather than neighbors to love, it demonstrates their loyalty to the militarism of their country rather than to the message of Jesus. When Christian military soldiers are viewed as more valuable in the church than other believers, it shows the deep lust and desire for war and militarism over the advancement for the Kingdom of God. While people serving in the military should be honored and supported when they return from war, they are not more valuable or worthy of appreciation than other Christians. Furthermore, Christians should not be the biggest advocates for war to defend the state. It is inconsistent with the gospel of Christ.
- Racism: Racism is America’s original sin and it has conflicted our country since its inception. Historically, Christians have served as both some of the biggest opponents and most ardent defenders of racism. In the 20th century, many Christian universities upheld racial segregation and fought against any efforts towards integration. My Alma mater, Abilene Christian University was segregated until the early 1960’s and when it did start to integrate, it treated black students harshly and churches affiliated with the university refused to allow black students to attend their church services. Rather than taking radical actions to follow Christ against the practices of the world, they sustained themselves as one of the biggest agents of institutional racism. While overt racism is no longer socially acceptable in American society, subtle and colorblind racism is. As society has celebrated and advocated for colorblindness and the censorship of black voices, the church has conformed to the world by avoiding discussions and engagement on racial issues. Many Christians are simply unwilling to speak honestly about racism and examine how institutions including the church are agents of systemic racism, which is consistent with the practices of America.
- Sexism: In our society, qualified and experienced women are routinely denied opportunities to accommodate less qualified men. The church mirrors such marginalization when women are denied leadership in the church for men who are more spiritually immature and less qualified simply because the bible, as they argue, advocates for male leadership and female submission. The church also reinforces society’s sexism through its defense and silence of domestic abuse and rape. Preachers are regularly celebrated and defended for their abuse of women while their wives are shamed for speaking out. This is not unlike the larger society where prominent men are defended and supported during rape allegations while women victims suffer ridicule and shame. In many cases, such women’s livelihood and future are jeopardized because of their willingness to speak out against the promiscuity and rape-culture of men who abuse them. Rather than challenging the sexist culture that bleeds American society, Christians celebrate and uphold sexist customs that marginalize women and limit their capabilities.
Usually when Christians in America complain about the evils and godlessness of American society, they are referring to the acceptance of secularism and/or different views of sex and sexuality in our society. They fail to recognize how their racism, sexism, patriotism, and other evils represent and reflect the nature of this country. Furthermore, such Christians are unable and unwilling to recognize that their defense of such evils are contrary to Christ. It is time for the American church to reject the American gods of racism, sexism, patriotism, and militarism for the sake of following Jesus Christ.
Over the past few years, America has witnessed several high profile cases of police killings of unarmed black men and women. The names of the victims include Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and Philandro Castille. Almost all of the high profile shootings have resulted in police officers being found not guilty in a court of law, sparking outrage and organizing from groups like Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have responded by organizing Blue Lives Matter, which has served as an apologist for police killings and an advocate for the revitalization of the“law and order” rhetoric of the later half of the 20th century.
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers across the country have celebrated the bipartisan work accomplished over the past few years to fix what they see as some of the “unintended consequences” of the “tough on crime” movement in the 1980’s and 90’s. The problem is that in many cases, these consequences were intended. Politicians knew what they were doing when they imposed lifetime barriers to housing and employment for people with criminal backgrounds and subsequently ruining people’s lives. They increased sentencing and implemented policies that gave ex-offenders the same limited rights that a black man or woman had in Mississippi in the 1950’s and much of these laws were passed soon after legal segregation ended.
There are major policy changes necessary to end the mass incarceration and criminalization of black and brown people because these systems are deeply embedded in America’s racist society. Yet there are things that white private citizens can do to stop directly contributing to the sustained criminalization of black and brown people (both police shootings and incarceration). The reality is that white (and black) people are responsible for much of this criminalization through their reliance on police to solve problems, their demonizing of prisoners and drug use, and their inability to understand the rippling effects of mass incarceration. As a Christian, I believe that the church can and must play a major role in changing the narrative and dialogue around criminal justice and become a critical agent in fighting against the 21st century enslavement of black and brown brothers and sisters. There are 6 ways to avoid contributing to the criminalization of black and brown people:
- Get to know your the community you are living in: Many white churches plant themselves in poor and minority communities without the intention of truly getting to know the neighborhood including the people that dwell there. As a result, they live through fear and rely on law enforcement to solve disturbances including drug abuse and alcoholism, many of them relating to mental illness. When you build relationships and understand the dynamics of a community, you will learn people’s experiences and struggles, which will cause you to respond to situations differently. Knowing your community saves lives and prevents people from being further criminalized.
- Don’t rely on the police: Police officers are incapable of and unqualified to solve many of the problems in minority communities. While police play a vital role to enforce the law, they are too often relied upon to be social workers, teachers, counselors, and general problem solvers. While many white people frequently call the police for problems and are generally greeted with positive responses, black and brown people do not have that luxury because they are viewed as automatic threats to law enforcement. Police have criminalized countless numbers of black and brown people for drug abuse and other disturbances that are mental health related. Police, not being experts on mental health, shoot first and ask questions later. Relying on the police is contributing to this system of criminalization and state execution of black and brown brothers and sisters.
- Educate yourself on systemic racism: White people must educate themselves about systemic racism if they want to “help” or be a part of the solution. Without knowledge, ignorance and oppression will prevail. When sympathetic whites understand systemic racism and the policies that enforce it, including the war on drugs and mass incarceration, they can be more informed about ways in which oppression manifests itself in small and minor ways.
- Recognize your bias and role in criminalizing others: As a white person, you must recognize your bias and role in contributing to systemic racism and the criminalization of blacks. Whether or not you intend to do so, when you label black people as “thugs”, hold your purses in elevators, double-lock your car doors when driving in “urban” communities, and suggest that people in poor communities need repentance, you are contributing to and supporting a culture that sees people of color as dangerous threats. Furthermore, you are agreeing with and supporting the idea that their lives don’t matter. The bias you have is what law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and other agents in the criminal justice system live by and put into practice.
- Think about how prison destroys people’s lives: Prison is a form of slavery. It is an inhumane system that prevents people from exercising rights and deprives people from being human. While there are certainly people whose crimes are so heinous that they need to be removed from society, prison is not a necessary option for most people. Don’t be quick to call the police and/or press charges on peopled engage in suspicious or disturbing acts. You may be ruining one’s life.
- Think about alternative responses: It is important that you think critically about alternative ways to address crime. Support diversion programs and funding for research that seeks to discover more adequate responses to gang violence and drug abuse. Learn from communities of color about the challenges around criminal justice and listen to the solutions that they suggest.
In the age of social media, there is more awareness and understanding to the age-old reality of police brutality and criminalization of black and brown people. As groups like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, and others pressure elected officials and the public to do something about the state sanctioned violence against black people, it is essential for white people to stop contributing to the criminalization of black people. Attending a Black Lives Matter rally or claiming to be an ally on social media does not prevent you from absorbing the same oppressive worldviews that our criminal justice system lives by. You must be intentional and willing to recognize and address how your ignorance and privilege contribute to the criminalization and oppression of black and brown people.