Jeannie Alexander and Lindsey Krinks, published in The Contributor
“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.” Isaiah 10:1-2
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:1-2
Dorothy Day spent her life serving and walking with the poor, unemployed, and dispossessed. Her writings and actions are venerated by many, but she claimed a lowly place for herself and even said, “We confess to being fools and wish we were more so.” Today, we echo that confession. We are fools, and impractical ones at that. Our ways are not successful and will never lead to wealth. They often yield no impressive results or conclusions. They are messy and broken and impossible. You see, it is not considered “practical” to believe that mercy, love, and community are a large part of the answer to suffering, violence, and poverty. After all, mercy isn’t very useful when it comes to “capturing outcomes.” Recently, we were told that we were idealists, but how idealistic is it to cling to a life of mercy that leads to catching pneumonia from our displaced brothers, to spend more than we can afford on toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for our sisters who live in tents, to invite someone in and then have our possessions stolen or ruined… and then to invite them back? The ways and works of mercy are often impractical, messy, and mysterious—just like the cross of Calvary.
By the standards of the culture in which we live, it is easier to ignore or ticket someone for sleeping in a pool of their own urine than it is to pick them up, clothe them, give them something to eat, and provide them with shelter, but this is exactly what Christ asks of us. It is easier for a church to simply file a trespass warrant giving police the authority to arrest anyone found on church property “after hours” (pray tell, when is the house of God closed, when are we not to offer sanctuary?) than it is to embrace the dying alcoholic living on your church property by refusing to turn the guns of the state against him. But this is exactly what the non-violent Jesus calls us to do if we dare to follow his way.
Christ called us to live by grace and mercy, not merely by the letter of the law. In fact, if Christ were to come today with “no place to lay his head,” we would likely find him in our missions, our courthouses and jails, in a campsite facing imminent destruction, selling his plasma in order to survive, or trying to sleep sitting up on a sidewalk bench—not in some spacious church (lest he was eating at their soup kitchen) or a renowned university (lest he was mopping their floors). But instead of attending to the stranger as the Good Samaritan did, we pass by. But why? Are we too sophisticated? Are we slaves to our busy schedules and meetings? Are we convinced that this is someone else’s job? Which god do we serve? Certainly not the One who was considered an illegitimate child, who was a foreigner in the land of Egypt as a babe, who was run out of his hometown for preaching good news to the poor, who was a sojourner who lived off the charity of others, who pitched his tent among sinners, outcasts, and prostitutes, and who was tried as a criminal and executed by the death penalty.
During the week leading up to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus traveled to the city of Jerusalem and as he approached it, he began to weep, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). Then he entered the gates of the city, embracing the conflict and suffering that would lead to his death. Let us also enter the gates of the city, lay down our worldly wisdom for the foolishness of God, embrace the conflict and suffering of those who are impoverished and oppressed, and weep with Christ. Let us weep for the unborn baby in the womb of a mother who must prostitute herself to afford housing in a filthy motel room. Let us weep for the impoverished men and women who had everything they owned destroyed by a city who values entertainment over hospitality. Let us weep for the uninsured whose wounds fester, whose cancers flourish, whose diabetic feet are amputated. Let us weep for the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the blessed, and let us weep that we are far from them, for theirs is the kingdom.
Yes, theirs is the kingdom where people aren’t arrested for their poverty, their skin color, or their status. Theirs is the kingdom where grace and mercy reign over retribution and punishment, where justice translates into more than court fines and time behind bars. Enter the gates of the city with open eyes and open ears lest we miss our Christ in our breadlines, in our missions, and in our jails.
Enter the gates and listen to the story of one of our friends. We’ll call him “Carl.” Until recently, Carl camped just south of the city in Fort Negley Park. He lived in a humble yet well-built structure that provided warmth and gave him a safe place to store his meager possessions—food, kitchenware, important documents, clothing, bedding, and a few books, including his baptismal Bible. No one really bothered Carl or the others who camped nearby. Metro police even came to check on them during the cold spell to see if they needed to come indoors. But on Wednesday, February 24th, Carl returned to his home to find his camp being raided by Metro Parks Police. They dismantled his home, piece by piece, and when Carl protested and asked to get a few of his possessions out before they destroyed them, he was taunted and told that he would be ticketed if he said anything—that he was lucky he wasn’t getting arrested. Piece by piece, they destroyed his home before his very eyes. They disposed of his blankets, food, documents, records, and Bible. He was left with the shirt on his back and the bag he was carrying on a night when the temperature was below freezing. Did I mention that Carl went to his camp to retrieve one of his blankets for a homeless woman downtown? Did I mention that it was also Carl’s birthday? Five other individuals also had their homes and personal belongings destroyed without warning by Metro Parks Police. Not only is this unacceptable, unconstitutional, and illegal, it is also immoral.
Do we not remember the Fresno case just two years ago where the city, as well as the California Department of Transportation, were sued by hundreds of homeless residents for raiding and destroying their personal possessions without notice? The courts of California ruled that such activities violated the constitutional rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment that protect individuals from unreasonable search and seizure and awarded the plaintiffs a multi-million dollar settlement. Other cities such as St. Louis and St. Petersburg now provide storage facilities for people’s belongings that are collected by police officers and the city. It is interesting that the law enforcement individuals who destroy and take people’s possessions often claim that they are just trying to help, just trying to “prod” homeless individuals toward housing, as a recent NPR article put it. It would be one thing if we had empty, accessible units of low-income or subsidized housing for our homeless friends to move into, but today, the only empty units of housing in Nashville are our foreclosed homes and our luxury condos. So how can we “prod” people toward housing when we have none? How can we “prod” people toward traditional shelters when they are full, when they split families apart, when they cannot accommodate pets and cannot even ensure the safety of people’s bags and belongings?
Can we not see the irony? Our city—Metro Nashville—claims to be “executing justice” when they lock up homeless individuals for petty offenses and unpaid fines. But where is the justice when Metro’s own employees—the very ones charged with upholding the law and Constitution—break the law in a way that devastates the lives of others? Metro should be ashamed. Let this be a call for a public apology, for repentance, for compensation, and for change. And if those calls go unanswered, let this be a call for attorneys to step up who are interested in taking the case of those who had their belongings unjustly destroyed. Let us be wary, though, of thinking that ultimate “justice” and “change” will come from the Metro Courthouse. As theologian and boot-leg preacher Will Campbell would say, “Prison is all that society and law know to do when there are violations of its codes, values, moralities, prejudices. Society and society’s law cannot acquit, liberate, reconcile, free, resurrect.” True mercy, restoration, and liberation cannot be legislated, but legislation can, at its best, promote such things.
As demonstrated above, there seems to be some confusion as to the Constitutional rights of the poor and homeless in Nashville. So let’s discuss such rights. First, of course, is the aforementioned Fourth Amendment right that protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure. Next, there is the Eighth Amendment which clearly states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted.” Then, there’s the Fourteenth Amendment which declares, “No State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So what of our homeless friend who was give a $1,000 fine for smoking a joint? What about our homeless friend who is prevented from entering dining establishments because he must carry all of his worldly possessions on his back, while students with backpacks are welcomed with open arms? And what of the fact that our skin color and socio-economic status protects us from getting a ticket for cutting across a downtown parking lot and carrying a cup of wine from gallery to gallery during the Downtown Art Crawl? And what of tourists drinking bottles of beer on the street corners of Broadway, falling drunk out of their cars while the police look the other way, the other way toward our homeless sister who sits intoxicated and crying on a bench and who is then arrested? Our homeless friends have no such protection and no such privileges. There is no equal protection in our economically segregated society. The poor are not a protected class, and so they are targeted and crucified day in and day out in the interest of improving the quality of life for those who can afford luxury condos and honky-tonk vacations.
How can our homeless brothers and sisters comply with the law when the laws change depending upon who is committing the so-called violation? How can they comply with the laws when police officers issue the homeless “green tickets” (Metro citations) while telling them that such tickets “don’t mean anything” and then offer to throw the tickets into the campfire of the person to whom they are issuing the ticket? How can a person possibly enjoy equal protection of the law and due process, when they are told a citation is “meaningless” only to find two months later that such a citation has caused them to incur significant fines that they cannot pay, which will then lead to jail time that is surely unjust under any but the most Orwellian system?
If we are going to charge Nashville’s citizens with trespassing for cutting through parking lots, let us charge everyone in equal proportion: the business man running late to work, the tourist looking for a short-cut. If we are going to charge Nashville’s citizens with public intoxication, let us charge everyone in equal proportion: the bar-hoppers, Titans fans, and “art crawlers.” If we continue, however, to violate the Constitutional and civil rights of our poor and homeless citizens, let us not be surprised if civil disobedience and public non-violent protests begin to bring such injustices to light. Unjust laws and policies must be resisted, especially by those of us who are no longer ignorant to the plight of the oppressed.
But for those who have made it this far and are still hindered by a misreading of Romans 13 and think that being a “good Christian” means being a “good American citizen” who always submits to the law of the land, let us be clear: Moses, an agent of civil disobedience, did not submit to Pharaoh when he demanded that his people—oppressed, enslaved minorities—be freed from bondage. Mary and Joseph did not submit to the governing authorities when they fled to Egypt because King Herod was murdering baby boys. Jesus did not heed the religious laws of the Sabbath when he healed the man with the withered hand, when he, out of hunger, picked grain for himself and his disciples. One could even say that Jesus’ resurrection was an act of civil disobedience against the state—the Roman Empire—who crucified him. Our criminal justice system which revolves on retribution does not, itself, submit to a God of restorative justice, and is therefore fallen. In such a broken, fallen system, there are unjust laws that must be resisted by people of all faith traditions who value mercy and love, especially those who claim to live in light of the Christian tradition. Campbell says, “If one thing is clear in the New Testament it is the central theme of the triumph of grace over law. While St. Paul stopped short of a rigid antinomian position, a complete disregard for the law, he did make it clear that to abide in grace is more radical than to abide by law.” And for those outside of the Christian or Jewish traditions, consider the words of the Dali Lama: “When I see beings of wicked nature overwhelmed by violent negative actions and sufferings, I shall hold such rare ones dear, as if I had found a precious treasure.”
Yes, to read Romans 13 outside of its context subsequent to Romans 12 will assuredly lead one to a misunderstanding and misapplication of scripture. God always, without exception, calls us to stand with the oppressed and lowly, never with the oppressors and persecutors:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind … Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, Cling to what is good … Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble … Repay no one evil for evil. (Romans 12: 1-17)
Likewise, Matthew chapter 25 calls us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, offer sanctuary to the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the ill and infirm, and visit the prisoner without qualification or exception. Nowhere is the imperative given to feed the hungry, except for the prostitute turning tricks for another fix; clothe the naked, except for the hopeless alcoholic who has soiled himself for the third time in one day; give drink to the thirsty, except for those trespassing on McDonald’s property; give sanctuary to the stranger, except those who are illegal; visit the prisoner, except for the child molester; care for the ill, except those lying in a gutter dying from “self-inflicted” AIDS and Hepatitis C. The fig tree-killing, temple-clearing, whore-loving Nazarene calls us to choose mercy and grace over law. To follow the way of Jesus is to choose a difficult, impractical, heartbreaking life that stands in direct contradiction to the life that the dominant culture calls us to embrace. But if we do not choose this difficult, impractical heartbreaking life, if we do not respond to the suffering in our city, then we should ready ourselves, for one day Jesus will turn to us and say, “For I was hungry and you arrested those who tried to feed me, I was weary and you told me to move along, I was a stranger and you deported me, I needed clothes and you wrote me a citation for indecent exposure, I was sick and uninsured and you refused to treat me, I was in prison and you abandoned me.”
Every time we refuse to embrace the broken and dispossessed, we deny the resurrection of Christ. Every time we turn to the false power of the state to coerce and imprison our brothers and sisters instead of choosing the redemptive power of love and grace to heal our brothers and sisters, we turn our back on the resurrection.
While there is talk of creating a “homeless court” in Nashville that enables social workers to intervene for homeless individuals who are arrested (or about to be arrested) for petty offenses, maybe our city should simply stop arresting individuals for such. After all, our outreach workers already spend a good deal of their outreach time in court advocating for individuals who are trying to get their citations for “trespassing” (cutting through a parking lot) and other things dismissed. Such advocating is important, but it takes our few outreach workers off the streets. Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas could settle this by declaring that homeless individuals will no longer be the targeted recipients of “quality of life citations,” which include public urination (when there are limited public restrooms), obstruction of a passageway (when a homeless individual can’t sit on the sidewalk with her backpack but a businesswoman can sit with her rolling suitcase), no trespassing or sleeping in public parks (when there is not enough shelter space for everyone in our homeless community), no public feedings by persons without permits (when men, women, and children are malnourished), and the list goes on. Rather than paying $1,000 a night to arrest and hold a homeless individual in jail, maybe our city should invest in more street outreach workers, more public restrooms, and allow police officers (and lieutenants) more freedom to partner with social services systems. Maybe the very existence of our “Quality of Life Ordinance” is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment because such an ordinance is clearly concerned with the quality of life of a selective group of citizens and does not provide equal protection under law to the homeless community. And the “burden” of these responsibilities and changes should not just fall on Metro, but on all of Nashville’s citizens, especially faith-based communities.
But what happens when Nashville’s churches do not heed the call to see Christ in the stranger and to be the Good Samaritan to our brother or sister who is lying in a pool of his or her own urine? And what if we don’t just pass by; what if we stop to take action by calling the police because we don’t want to see this oh-so-disgusting visage of a human wreck die on our property? Tell me brothers and sisters of Christ, what better place is there to crawl to in order to die than the sanctuary offered by the living and resurrected God on the holy, sacred grounds of a church, particularly if you have nowhere else to go? But then again, perhaps your church is merely a business, as instruments of Caesar would have us believe. Perhaps this dying man has not crawled to sanctuary, perhaps he has crawled to Gehenna.
On March 19th, The Tennessean ran an article entitled “Nashville churches consider ban on trespassers” by Nicole Young. The article quotes a Paragon Mills Church of Christ member attempting to justify the church’s decision to sign a trespass waiver as saying: “We have people gathering on our front steps engaging in what appears to be drug deals. We have vandalism on an almost constant basis. One day, we even had a homeless guy walk in on us during a meeting.” Imagine that, a homeless man dared to walk into the sanctuary of church. What paragons of Christian virtue to decide to hand over your brothers and sisters at the point of a gun to the courts of empire. I weep for the churches of Nashville and their lost opportunity to embrace the living Christ. If we are the body of Christ, why then do we not feed the stranger, and bind his feet, and love him as the precious child of God that he is? How often have we scorned an encounter with the living Christ, an encounter where we could have found in the body and eyes of the beaten, the broken, and the damned, the God whom we claim to serve? “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37) You stone those who are sent to you, and you are not willing!
And as for you our brothers and sisters at Woodbine United Methodist Church, who may now decide to sign the ban because you do not want to see a man die on to grounds of your church: in the name of Christ, do you hear yourselves? Have we all become so blind that we cannot see and deaf so that we cannot hear? Would you followers of Jesus really rather see this poor soul die surrounded by the walls of a prison than in the embrace of the body of Christ because you cannot bear to look at him? Do not sign the ban; we will come and take this offensive child of God from your sight so that you will have to look on him no more, but be warned, you stand in the place of the rich man who turns from Lazarus at the gate.
We speak not just to Paragon Mills or Woodbine, but to all churches in Nashville; for the love of your God, transform, repent, turn around, all of you churches who have signed or are considering signing such bans, repent! That church property does not belong to you, do not be fooled by the lies of the Deceiver; that church property belongs to the living God, and there is not one material thing contained in that church or on its grounds that your God values more than a single human life. Do not be as the Sanhedrin, turning to empire to do your dirty work for you. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts” (Mark 7:6, 7).
There are examples within our community of churches who indeed embrace the living Christ. McKendree United Methodist Church has refused to sign a trespass warrant, and Otter Creek Church of Christ has offered to organize volunteers to clean up the property of any downtown church who agrees to pull their trespass warrant, and to consider funding port-o-potties so that our brothers and sisters can pee with dignity. And Amos House Community continues to offer outreach support and training.
Let us learn from our friend Carl who had his camp destroyed. Carl does not believe the police are the “bad guys” and neither do we. In fact, we work closely with many Metro PD officers, lieutenants, and commanders to help provide outreach support for the homeless individuals they come into contact with. While we do not condone the crooked ways of our empire, we acknowledge that we are all children of God operating in a broken system, whether we are homeless individuals, police officers, prison guards, students, physicians, or inmates. The second we begin to demonize individuals we view as the “other,” whoever “they” may be, we lose sight of the very things we claim to be pursuing, namely justice, mercy, and reconciliation. You see, the very day that Metro Parks Police destroyed Carl’s camp, the February issue of The Contributor hit the streets with a poem by Carl expressing his appreciation for the police. The same night Carl lost his camp, he remembered a birthday card that was given to him by one of his customers who also gave him a birthday cake. With hot tears drenching his face, he opened the birthday card to find $100. You see, the next day when Carl was speaking with a friend, mourning the loss of everything he had, he said, “Yet in all things, in all suffering, I will rejoice.”
Maybe it is foolish to think that we should stop ticketing and arresting members of our homeless community for petty quality of life citations. Maybe it is foolish for Carl to say that without a home or his possessions, he will rejoice. But if it is foolish, it is the holy foolishness of God that shames the wise, the strong, and the powerful and paves the way for the kingdom of God.