Friday, May 23, 2008

The Least of These

I've been fermenting and fomenting a post in my head for the last couple of days. I am doing this because of a post I found through the Bilerico Project that led me to a post over at POZ magazine. In this post, lay leader Bill Day out of San Antonio, was arrested for participating in the controversial needle-exchange program. It is so controversial in Texas that the state has made the activity illegal. New York City has a wonderful non-profit organization called the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center that engages ways to decrease the harm that affects those to whom Jesus might classify as his "least of these" (Matthew 25:40).

So this has got me thinking: who exactly would be those Jesus might say are the "least of these". One might assume that would include the poor and disenfranchised. And I would surely agree--but the poor fall into so many categories. The disenfranchised is a category all its own that is usually left up to interpretation. Would all the disenfranchised be included in this list? What about the folks who purposefully fall into that category rather than those who accidentally fall into it through no fault of their own? It's this category that has me wondering.

Would drug users who shoot heroin through their veins be part of the disenfranchised? Did they opt out of reality? Did circumstances fall upon them that encouraged them to make that decision? And then, once addicted, should we have less compassion on them because getting off heroin is very difficult, but not entirely impossible?

Or how about prostitutes? Especially young ones? Do they fall into the disenfranchised category? I lived in NYC for about 10 years and was fortunate to participate in a street outreach to homeless youth, many of which were gay or transgendered. Of those youth, many have been solicited for sex in exchange for money or a place to spend the night. One youth told me, "You do what you have to do, when you're living on the streets." And few of us would disagree with that. However, why would a youth be on the street in the first place? Many homeless youth, who self-identify as gay or transgender, while in their teen years risk being thrown out of their parents house--esp those who are religious. There are estimates that suggest 25-40% of the homeless youth self-identify as gay or transgender. Would these kids, some through no fault of their own, be classified as true disenfranchised?

Or how about illegal immigrants? Just this week, 52 immigrants were arrested and are facing deportation in Arizona. What about the families of those arrested? The women and children? Not having a breadwinner come home to provide for them leaves them destitute, impoverished, and at risk. Does our nationalism give us an excuse to break apart families and leave them in such a horrible situation?

It is a controversial discussion when we think about those who 'deserve our support' and those who 'get what they deserve'. Where do you draw the line? Do we make anything our government declares to be illegal the litmus test for our compassion? Or, do we point and say, as some might do to an overweight person at the all-you-can-eat buffet line, "Hey, fattie--got heart disease yet?" In other words, do we hold back our compassion on anyone we determine (at face value) can help themselves?

As we educate ourselves on the challenges of the disenfranchised, many of us learn that it isn't so easy to determine who can help themselves and who can't. Given the advancement of science, we're learning that some of us are hard-wired in ways very different than we are. And, given the challenges of obesity, consumerism, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and pride, is it any wonder that there are so many people who have fallen through the cracks. When someone does fall through, how responsible are we to help them out?

I believe Jesus tells us how responsible we are. To him, it's very simple. When he tells us that when we care for and defend "the least of his", we are actually caring for and defend Jesus himself. And, when we fail to do so, we are failing him. Why would the Son of God so link himself to the raggamuffin's and ne'er-do-wells of society if he didn't think it was so important to care for them? Maybe because it is so important to him, that Jesus tells us this very thing.

In Christian soterilogy, there is a tenet called Substitutionary Atonement. Many Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, taking our sins upon himself and offering himself as a sacrifice to God. As a result, when we believe in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. For those who hold fast to this salvation narrative, is it any more difficult to look to Jesus as taking the lives of the disenfranchised upon himself and telling us, that if we don't care of them, we're not taking care of Jesus?

Okay, so if this is so--and Jesus has told us that if we don't care for the poor and suffering, then we'll go to hell (he really says this!), then how exactly do we care for them?

There are many ways we can do this--and some would argue, many ways we shouldn't do this. Handing out clean needles to heroin addicts prevents them from acquiring deadly diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. Is cleaning the needles encouraging more drug use? Is it condoning it? It is buying time for the drug user to get clean?

Or how about outreach services to prostitutes that provide limited health care, such as STD screenings and food or a place to spend the night, free of hassle? Does offering these services condone the activity? Make it more attractive to stay in it? Or does it buy time for the prostitute to leave that way of life?

Would providing legal aid to immigrants condone their presence among us? Would it encourage more immigrants to come to America, use our healthcare system, and make a better life for themselves at our expense? Or, would it help alleviate the emotional cost of broken families? Would it help poor women whose husbands have been arrested and/or deported, feed their families?

How do the laws of caring for illegal immigrants speak to our faith? If Jesus were walking down the street and stopped to aid an illegal immigrant by offering him a piece of bread or a place to sleep, should he be arrested? Do you think the State's actions would be justified? Do you think Jesus' actions should be criminalized? As of right now, there is a legal Act that does just this.

When we speak of our faith and what it means, does it mean more to be an American, caught up in its consumerism and prosperity gospels than it does to help the helpless? If Jesus were an illegal Mexican fallen down, beaten and unconscious, what is our responsibility to him? I don't think I need to actually answer that question. If you're familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, then you know the answer.

But what about prostitutes and drug users? Can you imagine Jesus shooting up with a needle late at night in a Lower East Side tenement? Or, could Jesus be the face of a runaway teenager sitting on a stoop in Greenwich Village looking for a place to sleep, and being willing to do anything than spend the night sleeping on a park bench in Washington Square Park?

If you can imagine that far, then let me also encourage you to answer this question: What are you going to do about it?

Go here to see what some folks are doing about immigration. Go here to see what a non-profit in the Lower East Side is doing about it. Go here to see what one church in NYC is doing, go here to see another. Go here and here to see outreach efforts to homeless youth.


Bil Browning said...

As the founder of Bilerico Project, I see posts all the time that are written in response to something we've written.

This has to be one of the best I've ever seen.

So many of us conveniently forget about "the least of these" as laws get passed to make the lives of the destitute and downtrodden even worse.

Question: As much as George W has done to lower the standard of living for the lower and middle class - throwing the poor even further into despair and leading the dog-paddling middle class to the bottom of the lake - will his actions get him condemned to hell under the "least of these?"

Bo said...


Thanks for your kind words. Your blog is wonderful and admittedly, I only recently found it. I am glad you're around and I look forward to the news and columns written there.

To answer your question about Dubya, God's mercy is wide and great--and totally dependent upon God's compassion (thankfully). The challenges of being a President are vast and, as one of my favorite philosophers, Peter Parker, has said, "With great power comes great responsibility." (Okay, so that was a joke but the quote is important to me.)

Dubya has a lot of responsibility--and to determine who gets what, in a triage sort of way, almost makes whatever decision he needs to make very unpopular to the group who gets less. Still, by and large, I believe he is responsible for creating and sustaining an immoral war (where too many have been killed and simply written off as collatoral damage) as well as setting up moral boundaries by scapegoating gay folk (and others) as if gay marriage is actually a threat to anyone while covertly removing boundaries against corporations that cheat and swindle the poor. Hypocrisy is always ugly--but it's worse when one misaligns priorities. When the poor and disenfranchised are sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed, then we've taken Jesus' words and turned them inside out all the while claiming that their actions are Christian. To me, that's like slapping the face of Jesus while winking to others.

Moreover, this presidency has allowed a system of abuse so vast to permeate our nation, that for generations we'll be living with a threat of economic stress and a classism where too many poor may rise up against the small elite and cause great harm. Brian McLaren writes about something called a Suicide Machine whereby we have created a system of unsustainability in our resources and resentment from the classes that may destabilize our economy. I think we're living in the birth pangs of that machine now and it's going to get ugly.

Anyways, sorry for the long reply. I prolly should have replied to your George question with something shorter like, "Well, maybe- but fortunately for all of us, God is full of compassion and I am sure, in the end, we'll all be surprised about who gets in to heaven and who doesn't."