I have opportunity to speak pretty regularly, mostly to highly educated, relatively rich young people. It’s always a little unnerving to see people nodding off as you speak, but I’ve come to expect it … except when speaking in certain contexts. By far and away the most attentive audiences I’ve ever spoken to have been inmates in a maximum security prison. Extremely alert, engaged and respectful. Would that all wealthy, educated, upstanding, church-goers have the passion for God and his word like a murderer serving a life sentence.
Last night I attended a Bible study at a homeless shelter in San Jose, CA led by my friend Andy Singleterry. One of the things I love about people who have lived on the streets (like people doing time in prison) is their sincere spirituality, their love of God and their knowledge of his word. Many of the homeless I’ve had the privilege of interacting with can quote vast bodies of Scripture backwards and forwards. I guess there is something about life in jail or on the streets that draws a person to the feet of a Homeless Convict who didn’t have a chance to serve time because of the speed with which he was executed by the State.
A theology I find common among the faithful, believing poor, however, is a view of God’s sovereignty which is frightfully all-encompassing. Last night, a guy named Eric said it pretty clearly, “I got the lottery to stay in the shelter tonight.
That’s God’s hand. And when I don’t, well that’s God’s hand too.” Herbie, who had just been released from prison 24 hours earlier and whose Bible looked as worn as he did agreed, launching into a sermonette on predestination. Sanni chimed in as well. All of them stirring one another up with the idea that God ordains everything that happens, even if its prison or street life (I must concede here the one guy who didn’t chime in was Cotton. He slept contentedly in his chair the entire time just like a college student in one of my talks. However his slumber was likely brought on by days of sleeping in 45 degree weather on a wet sidewalk).
The disturbing thing about so many of my poor friends and acquaintances is that they believe that their hunger, homelessness and hardship are part of God’s will for them. He’s in control of everything, so they receive with poise their “lot” even if it includes a wet sidewalk instead of a shelter bed (or a home for that matter).
It’s true that many of the poor face hardship because of a complex mix of circumstances – some circumstances which they contribute to and many other circumstances which were foisted upon them. The majority of the world’s poor are poor because they were born losers - that is, poverty and instability were the birthright they inherited the moment they took their first breath, and they have remained poor because the inertia required to break out is simply too great or requires the alignment of too many things outside their control – especially in the developing world. Things like access to health care, education, employment, transportation, etc. are simply not available to them. And I would guess that some of my acquaintances around the table last night were born into family situations, environments, and systems which actively worked toward their impoverishment and which very few of us coming from places of immense opportunity, stability and relative fortune can comprehend.
I don’t necessarily hear the poor dismissing their part in their circumstances (though denial of our part in the messes we make is a natural impulse of rich and poor alike). Some of the poor I find extremely humble, owning way too much of the responsibility for their hardship. For people like Eric to say that his street life must be part of God’s mysterious plan, that God must have ordained things like a father’s abandonment, lack of adequate health care as a kid, an uncle’s abuse, mental illness, etc – this may be the safest theology when suffering, but it smacks of falsehood and being overly-simplistic.
When predestination is mixed with poverty and suffering it produces acquiescence to the malevolent powers at work in this world and inside us which keep us stuck. It seems to me that God’s intentions for us are far greater than our theologies will allow us to believe. What does his kingdom coming to earth look like for the poor, the prisoner and the homeless, and why would Jesus charge us to pray for and strive for his kingdom and his justice/righteousness on earth if his perfect and mysterious will was really for people to be stuck for years sleeping on wet sidewalks.
Shelter beds are at a premium in the winter. Homeless essentially put their names in a hat to see who gets to sleep on a mattress in the shelter and who gets to sleep outside another night.