People of Faith Must Hear the Cry of the Poor

“Soup kitchens and hospitality, though wonderful, do not go far enough. There needs to be more advocacy which affects political and societal structures. We need a social movement which incorporates the most prophetic aspects of the Judeo/Christian tradition and other religious traditions to bring homelessness and poverty to an end.”

“Dumpster Dive.” An angel visits the desolate streets frequented by the hungry and homeless. Painting by Jonathan Burstein

 

Interview by Joan Clair

 

In her book, Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches, Laura Stivers explores ways that people of faith can build a prophetic movement to overcome homelessness and economic injustice. She calls for churches to go beyond charity and develop a new level of solidarity with homeless people.

The ultimate goal is not only to create homes and economic justice for all, but also to nurture a new sense of compassion and sharing as an alternative to a society based on self-centered materialism.

Her book comes at a promising moment when many religious leaders are speaking out against the nation’s rising economic inequality and calling on government officials to stop balancing the nation’s budget on the backs of the poor.

Many religious traditions state that God has chosen a “preferential option for the poor,” and that people of faith must hear the cry of the poor and join with them to overcome injustice.

A recent letter from Catholic professors at Catholic University and other Catholic colleges criticized Speaker of the House John Boehner for his economic proposals involving cutbacks to programs serving the poor, elderly and vulnerable.

The letter stated, “Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the church’s most ancient moral teachings … from the apostles to the present, the magisterium of the church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.”

This preference for the poor cuts across faith traditions. Huston Smith, a renowned professor of world religions, discusses the third pillar of Islam — charity. According to Smith, Muhammed instituted a graduated tax on the haves to alleviate the poverty of the have-nots in the 7th Century AD. The haves were called yearly to distribute 1/40 of the value of their possessions to the poor.

Yet, U.S. government officials have turned their backs on these teachings to choose a preferential option for the rich.

In her book, Stivers examines what it might look like if people of faith actually made a preferential option for the poor.

Elizabeth Bounds, professor at Emory Univerity’s Candler School of Theology, wrote, “Laura Stivers never wavers from prioritizing a view from the margins, calling for solidarity with those experiencing suffering and dislocation.”

I interviewed Stivers about her views on homelessness and theology in September 2011. Stivers is Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Dominican University of California in San Rafael. She received a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union and an M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

 

Street Spirit: What do you want to see happening in churches and other places of worship to bring about the compassionate and just society you envision?

Laura Stivers: There needs to be more advocacy. Soup kitchens and hospitality, though wonderful, do not go far enough. There needs to be more advocacy such as organizing for living wages and low-income housing, advocacy which affects the political and other societal structures. We need a social movement which incorporates the most prophetic aspects and voices of the Judeo/Christian tradition and other religious traditions to bring homelessness and poverty to an end.

 

Street Spirit: In the book Small Miracles of Love and Friendship by Yitta Hallersham and Judith Leventhal, one is advised to think of the panhandlers living on the street corners of New York City as “little angels.” Are the roots of this way of thinking in the Judeo/Christian tradition and other religious traditions?

Stivers: Jesus himself could have been considered  homeless. He was the son of a carpenter. Carpenters did not own land and so they were from the lower class. Many of Jesus’s disciples also gave up their homes to follow Jesus. All shared and there was not hunger among them. Jesus emphasized community and sharing to all who are in need, a very different focus than today’s preoccupation with individual salvation.

 

Street Spirit: Peace Pilgrim, an activist, once gave away all her possessions and began a pilgrimage for peace across America. She said, “The price of peace is to abandon greed and replace it with giving, so that none will be spiritually injured by having more than they need while others in the world still have less than they need.” Do you think having more than one needs while others have less results in spiritual injury?

Stivers: Goods don’t buy happiness. Happiness results from living simply in communities of care and concern and in harmony with nature. Working for more and more unnecessary possessions blocks right relationship with one’s self, and with God, nature, and other beings, both human and non-human alike.

Instead of playing outdoors among leaves and dirt, being in nature, more and more children are indoors in front of a computer. So many people have more than one home while others have none. In addition to causing spiritual malaise, materialism and overconsumption are tied to social and environmental injustice.

 

Street Spirit: Why does there appear to be so little sympathy for the homeless even in this economic turndown? There seems to be more concern for the middle class. We see negative attitudes towards the poor and homeless even among so-called religious people and church-goers.

Stivers: In my book, I talk about the American belief in meritocracy, that is, that we are in the positions we are in based on whether or not we have worked hard enough. In America, we are taught to believe that if we work hard enough we can achieve anything. Consequently, people believe that if a person is homeless or poor, he or she hasn’t worked hard enough and is to be blamed for the position he or she is in.

 

Street Spirit: You mention other attitudes in your book which lead to lack of empathy for and blaming of the homeless and the poor. What are other examples?

Stivers: The American emphasis on individualism can also lead to blaming the homeless poor. People with privilege tend to think they made it on their own —apart from the privileges they were born with and the structures that helped them to succeed.

Growing up near Harlem in New York City, I encountered homelessness and poverty at an early age, but I was brought up in an upper-middle class family. I came from a healthy home and my education was paid for. I did not get where I am today on my own. My self-esteem was never low as a result of the effects of abuse or poverty. Not only do people with privilege not realize they didn’t make it on their own, they also do not understand that structural factors make it difficult for many to achieve the so-called American Dream.

It is not a coincidence that many homeless people grew up in poverty. When hardship hits, such as job loss, divorce, or injury, these individuals do not have the safety net of family and friends with privilege and wealth to fall back on.

 

Street Spirit: Yet it seems that prior to the New Deal, many of the same negative attitudes towards homeless people were in effect. However, as a result of the Great Depression, these attitudes began to change. Social programs were instituted to help the homeless and poor. Why in the current recession is the opposite happening? Why is there less help for the poor, homeless, seniors and the unemployed?

Stivers: During the period in which the New Deal was created, there was more belief and hope in progress, the idea that we were always moving forward. Today, there is less hope that the younger generation will do better than their parents. People are sensing an America in decline. Policies that helped create a middle class and supported the ability of people to be housed and cared for medically are being eliminated or defunded.

While economic globalization and outsourcing of jobs is a factor in the decline of the middle class, domestic economic policies that have weakened labor, decreased the safety net, made tax policy more regressive, deregulated finance, and privatized and defunded multiple public goods have done even more to put many families on the edge.

People are feeling financially insecure and fearful. Many Americans thought they had made it to the middle class in part due to cheap credit and rising housing prices, but with the recession they are feeling the pinch. Rather than viewing this vulnerability from a structural lens, they lash out in anger at “low-income renters” who they think will bring crime and drugs into their neighborhood and at the homeless or people on welfare who they think are lazy and don’t deserve handouts.

 

Street Spirit: Michael Kazin’s book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, laments the fact that the left has lost its ability to effect change and says the passion of the left is needed for a transformation to greater material abundance and social harmony for all.

Stivers: There is not enough organized push from the left to hold politicians accountable to the interests of the poor and working class. Today labor has less leverage. Churches used to be a more powerful voice for social change, but the mainline churches that had some progressive voices are losing members.

Conservative interests have organized and powerful think tanks and political groups who lobby politicians and craft media messages that convince Americans that their interests are in line with the rich.

Politicians who are open to a more progressive policy agenda also want to stay in office. Unless the left gains a deeper power base to ensure that a more progressive agenda and message will keep these politicians in office, many of them will end up acquiescing to a more conservative political agenda that does not address the socio-economic injustices in our country.

 

Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches

by Laura Stivers

Published by Fortress Press, 2011

Haiku: Left Untold

by Joan Clair

Blankets on the street,

sleeping bag against a wall —

stories left untold.

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