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The Politics of Poverty

Sermon - 6/01/08
Susan Ban (Executive Director of Shelter Care)
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 6:20-31
Matthew 8:20

Luke 6:20-31:  Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the son of man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.  But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”


From the translators of the Scholars’ Version, the Jesus Seminar:

Congratulations, you poor!  God’s domain belongs to you.  Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast.  Congratulations, you who weep now!  You will laugh . . .


From John Dominic Crossan’s translation of Matthew 8:20:

“Every fox has a den.  Every bird has a nest.  Only humans are homeless. 


In 1987 with the establishment of the Stewart B. McKinney homeless act, Congress created the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.  Stewart B. McKinney funds are federal HUD allocations granted to local communities.  In our community they underwrite a broad scope of local programs designed to end homelessness – from youth services, drop in centers, housing programs and specialized programs that serve adults with mental illness or other disabilities.  The interagency council was formed in 1987 and kept a very low profile until 2003.

In December of 2003 the USICH was given new life under director Philip Mangano who announced the development of a comprehensive Federal approach to end homelessness.  “We can no longer tolerate the homelessness of so many of our neighbors.  Our commitment is to fulfill the promise of a home for every American.”  Mangano and USICH announced the “Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness”.    Director Mangano is passionate about ending chronic homelessness and has criss-crossed the country many times to rally support for developing ten year plans.  Today more than 53 states and territories have adopted ten year plans – and more than 200 local communities have done the same.  Lane County adopted our local ten-year plan to end homelessness last year.  The State of Oregon will be adopting an Oregon Plan this month.

Mangano has stated, “We are not content to manage the crisis, or to maintenance of the effort, or to accommodate the response.  We were called to one goal, one objective, one mission – to abolish homelessness.”

As someone who has worked in human services with programs that struggle to end homelessness for more than 20 years, I appreciate the passion and national attention now granted to a social disgrace that was ignored for many years.   And, I can report that there are some good things that have come out of this national focus. 

Project Homeless Connect is a USICH initiative.  In Lane County we have hosted two Project Homeless Connects.  This is a one-day event at the fairgrounds where homeless and at-risk-of-homeless individuals and families can come to receive medical care, haircuts, a great meal or two at the café, and information about all kinds of resources that are available to them.  The guests at these events are grateful and feel supported by the community.  The community that volunteers outnumbers the 1000 guests and becomes engaged with homelessness in a very personal and practical way. 

Another USICH initiative is a service design called “housing first” where individuals who have been chronically homeless – on the streets for years – are placed in permanent housing without restriction.  Once housed, services that support housing stability are “wrapped around” the individual slowly but surely addressing the issues that contributed to a history of homelessness for the individual or family.  We have several “housing first” programs in Lane County.  St. Vincent de Paul offers one for veterans.  Looking Glass has a program for homeless youth.  And my agency, ShelterCare, provides “housing first” support for 28 individuals who have been chronically homeless and have a diagnosis of severe, persistent mental illness.

The USICH initiatives are hopeful and where they have launched, the results are significant.  However, there is an under-story to this national press for ten-year plans and a focus on chronic homelessness.  And this is where politics and poverty collide:

· During the entire period since 1987, the poverty rate has climbed in the United States.  Today, many more families at risk of homelessness.

·   The focus on chronic homelessness – the visual picture of homelessness so many of us have of disheveled men or women on street corners – has meant a redirection of resources away from programs that serve the “hidden homeless” – families who are doubled up or sleeping on couches, in cars, in tents.

· There is no funding attached to these new initiatives.  The goal, in fact, is to encourage local cities, counties, and states to find new resources and new ways of doing business to fund new programs.

· The rules about “eligibility” have changed.  HUD’s definition of ‘chronic homelessness’ has gotten progressively more restrictive.  To be eligible for the HUD-funded programs now, one must be a disabled adult who has been homeless for over a year or for four times in the past three years.  Our most recent HUD site review added yet another layer.  One might meet the exact terms of the HUD definition, but if he or she has been hospitalized or served in a crisis program or is being released from an institution, there is no entry to the program unless the individual spends a night or more on the street or at the mission. 

Our USICH representative told a group of us two weeks ago, that HUD simply couldn’t continue to be the organization charged with funding homeless programs.  Other public agencies need, now, to “pick up the tab” for these programs. 

For those of us providing these services in Oregon, that news comes as a bitter pill – we are hard pressed to look to our state, our county or our local cities as a source of new and substantial funding for the initiatives now required by HUD if we are to retain our current funding.  

So will we end homelessness?  I don’t think so.  Will we stop trying?  Never.

Poverty is a constant for compassionate humankind.  Deuteronomy reads, “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth.”   The gospels report that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.”   From the beginning of our Judeo-Christian tradition, a poverty-awareness has been an ingredient in the recipe for righteousness. 

And just as politics influences poverty and homelessness today, the politics that contribute to poverty were very much a part of Jesus’ time.

When the gospel proclaims, “Congratulations you poor!  God’s domain belongs to you!” who do we understand the poor to be?  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” is he describing the monk whose vow of poverty has nourished a life of prayer on a pastoral hillside?  Is he advocating a life-style choice for discipleship as he did when he sent his disciples out to preach in the villages and told them to take only one cloak? 

These spiritual understandings of poverty have a very rich and rewarding role in the catalogue of faith we inherit.  But there is a danger that we may sentimentalize the gospel vision of poverty in a way that hinders our full understanding of Jesus’ ministry and call.

New Testament social historians tell us that poverty and deprivation in the first century were “urgent, actual and devastating realities.”  The peasant class was fast becoming marginalized.  Families that had once known the security of land and inheritance were being forced to give up their land for taxes.  They became indebted to the urban rich and many were forced into lower caste, itinerant occupations.  They went hungry.  They often had no roof over their heads.

Roman occupation was particularly hard on the Jewish peasants.  The combination of taxes to Rome, taxes to the regional governor, and tithes to the temple amounted to more than one-third of a person’s income.  One writer notes, “In our day this amount would be considered excessive.  For the poor Palestinian peasant it was positively staggering.  It nearly wiped out the middle class – leaving only the very poor and the very rich.”

In a time when the poor are getting poorer and the rich are doing quite well – when an itinerant preacher speaks on a public plain to crowds of disenfranchised and frustrated peasants and says, “Blessed are you who are poor, Blessed are you who are hungry,” one imagines that the listeners knew intimately what poverty and hunger meant as disruptive and frightening forces in their life.

It is possible that Jesus, himself, had a first hand experience with poverty.  The religious rules of his day designated acceptable and unacceptable professions – clean and unclean occupations.  One’s work qualified one as acceptable, marginal or outcast in relationship to community.  The class of carpenter carried a marginal status in the first century.  On the list it fell somewhere below acceptable peasant occupations and above those that were deemed unclean and outcast occupations.   Carpenters were not independents in Jesus’ day.  Others pressed them into service.

“Blessed are you who are poor.”  One New Testament writer, John Dominic Crossan has provided an insightful word study to help our understanding of this saying of Jesus.  There are two words in Greek that mean poor.  One word refers to the poor of the peasantry, the lower income bracket of the first century.  The other word – “ptochos” – is used to name the destitute, the outcast, the underclass, and the miserably poor.   When Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor” the Greek word that is used in the early translation is “ptochos” or “destitute.”   An accurate translation of this passage might be, therefore,   “Blessed are you who are destitute.  Blessed are you whose stomach cries out for food.  For yours is the kingdom of heaven.  God’s domain belongs to you.”

Crossan writes, “In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the systems’ own evil operation.”  Crossan translates Matthew 8:20:  “Every fox has a den.  Every bird has a nest.  Only humans are homeless.”

As Christians and as spiritual sojourners we are called upon to hear the gospel word as it comes to us in chilling, fresh and challenging terms.  Jesus’ words on that hillside long ago challenge us to be conscious of and honest about the harsh realities of economic deprivation that harden the lives of so many in our community.  We are not asked to redirect the poor or pity the poor or judge the poor.  We are simply told by Jesus that the poor are blessed.  God’s kingdom belongs to the poor.

Frederick Herzog has written, “If we do not turn our attention to the oppressed, we will never understand the Gospel . . .. Theology today must begin with an identification with the wretched of the earth, the marginal figures of life who are still struggling for personhood and dignity.”

I think Philip Mangano and the United States Interagency on Homelessness are wrong in their belief that homelessness can be stamped out in ten years.  There is something inherent in human nature and the societies we build that leads to the sad reality, as Deuteronomy says, “There will always be poor people in the land.”  

However, I think Mangano and USICH are right in their passionate appeal to our hearts, minds and practical sensibilities to work innovatively and effectively to address the conditions that create poverty.  Our calling as Christians and disciples of Christ is to heed Deuteronomy’s challenge:

“If there is a poor man among your brothers . . . do not be hardhearted or tightfisted . . . rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs . . . I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

May it be so, Amen.


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