A Sacrifice of the Heart

If you are a person who knows what it’s like to be poor, have you ever noticed how quick people of privilege are to attribute aspects of poverty to something that has absolutely nothing to do with your financial situation?  Such as, for example, your mental health?

I live in a city of approximately 26,000 people, 30% of whom are at poverty level.  Most of the poor people in this city are reasonably happy and healthy.  This is one reason why I enjoy the unique city in which I live.   But it appalls me how readily some of my wealthier friends will assume that my current poverty must have been caused by a mental health problem, a drug or alcohol problem, or (quite simply) a moral failing. 

Although I will be the first to admit that I have mental health issues requiring treatment, I find it disturbing how often these issues will be cited as the reasons for my impoverished condition.  Many of the wealthier people who say such things would become much crazier than I am, if they, too, were to suddenly lost their shirts as quickly as I did in the year 2004.

The people who most often allude to this fallacy will usually make no attempt to actually understand my condition.  They are clearly looking for a scapegoat — something beyond the scope of their experience that they can use to shift the blame away from the realities of poverty that they do not wish to look at.

“Hey Bob, I really hate to bother you for another loan.  I know you’re busy, but my car just broke down terribly.  I need it to get to work, and I just can’t afford the bill.  Is there any way at all you can help me?”

“Well, Bill, I know you always pay me back, but I’m getting to be a little bit bothered by the fact that you’re not many progress.  Don’t you think it’s high time you dealt with your mental health, so that you won’t be so chronically down on your luck?”

friend in needOnce again, this is classism – pure and simple.   It can be incredibly frustrating when one is doing their best to maintain a healthy relationship to society, and the frequent setbacks endemic to poverty are dismissed as signs of poor mental health.  Of course one’s mental health suffers when encountering such setbacks.  But poor mental health does not cause those setbacks.  This is only an assumption on the part of those whose lives are such that they never have to experience such setbacks, and thus don’t know what those setbacks are like.

In short, they don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

Now here’s another thing I’ve noticed.  It is often assumed that someone who experiences a life crisis that hurls them into abject poverty — or even homelessness — has gotten there as the result of a moral failing.

“Obviously, Bill screwed up.  Nobody gets from where he was to the streets that fast without having done something wrong.   That being the case, I have no sympathy for Bob whatsoever.”

“Amen, Brother Bob.”

But the reality is that many people of privilege are extremely slow to let go of what they’ve got. In many cases, their natural stinginess is the reason why they’ve managed to accrue so much in the first place.  But many poor people, knowing what it’s like to be poor, will give another poor person the shirt off their back.  I myself have been known to give my last twenty dollars to another poor person if I felt they needed it more than I do.  When I do so, I am confident they would do the same for me, if the tables were turned.

A lot of people become poor as the result of something good that they have done — something that a rich person, under the same circumstances, might not do.  For example, if one’s mother or father is in poor health, perhaps dying, a person who is lower middle class might have their parent come live with them, despite having to take on added medical expenses.   A rich person, under the same circumstances, will often send their parent to a retirement home.

Granted, the richer person can afford to send Mom or Dad to the retirement home, and the poor person cannot.  But if you were aging, ailing, and dying, where would you rather be?   In a retirement home among total strangers?   Or with your kids whom you love, knowing that they love you too?  Where would you rather die?   With your children by your side?   Or not?

It is not a moral failing to take care of an ailing parent.  It is actually an act of self-sacrificial love.  Love, in its purest form, involves sacrifice.   When one sends one’s dying mother to an “old folk’s home,” what sacrifice is involved?  Only money.   But when one invites their dying parent to come live with them, that is a Sacrifice of the Heart.

I find it ironic that people of poverty often are more giving and more loving than people of wealth, and yet in our society it is often assumed that poverty is an effect of moral failing.   While moral laxity can certainly lead to poverty, it is definitely not the case that poverty necessarily results from it.

When Jesus appeared on the earth, who did he generally hang around?   Rich people or poor people?   Anyone with a cursory background in Scripture will know that he hung around the dregs of society, the outcasts, the lepers, the pariahs, those who were so dirt poor they were ostracized and vilified by the Pharisees and Saducees of their day.

If the first arrival of Jesus Christ were to have occurred today rather than two thousand years ago, you know who He would hang around?

The homeless people.  For my homeless brothers and sisters are the lepers of today’s society.  Let them in!   Let all of us in — before it is too late.

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Treasures in Heaven

In my blog, I often discuss how homeless people are stigmatized in our society.  I  have also identified myself as a Christian. But the identity of a Christian is spoiled by stigmatic perception every bit as much as the identity of a homeless person is thus spoiled.   Therefore, I think it’s about time I did my part to diffuse a few of these stereotypes.

I almost fear telling others I’m a Christian, because I am often assaulted immediately with accusations of being a sexist and a homophobe.   But what is more germane to the present-day purpose of this blog is how much classism seems to run rampant in American Christianity.  This is especially evident in what is often called the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel, in short, is a particularly inviting deception that equates spiritual blessings with material success.  Of course it is entirely conceivable that once a person decides to live according to spiritual wisdom rather than careless foolishness, one might find oneself advancing in material gain.  If one, for example, has been blowing all of one’s money on drugs, hookers, and other forms of escape, one would naturally notice a pleasant increase in one’s financial status once such expenses have ceased.  The Proverbs of Solomon are all about that distinction.  However, we find such wisdom in many sources other than the Bible; and I for one would submit that most of the Proverbs are merely common sense.

Besides, it is also quite plausible that a person can be extremely happy living a minimalistic lifestyle with very few possessions at all.  In fact, in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, we read of a young man who had “great possessions” who walked away from Jesus in sorrow when advised that he should give up all he owned in order to inherit eternal life.  Does such denial of worldly goods equate spiritual blessing with prosperity?  Obviously, the opposite is the case.

treasuresConsider also these very famous Scriptures:  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)  “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10).  And without bothering to quote every word, passages such as James 5:1-11 and Luke 16:19-31 hurl severe warnings in the direction of the wealthy.  But where in the Bible are such warnings thrown in the direction of the poor?  Nowhere.

To the contrary, Luke 6:20 includes the words: “Blessed are you who are poor.”  Where in the Bible do we find the words, “blessed are you who are rich?”  Again, we find them nowhere.

A proponent of the Prosperity Gospel will almost always cite Jeremiah 29:11 from the New International Version of the Bible, as follows:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11
N.I.V.

Although it is true that the word “prosper” figures in this translation, a quick scan of several other popular translations will reveal nothing of the kind. In the English Standard Version, for example, the phrase “plans to prosper you” reads “plans for welfare.” The same phrase in the time-honored King James reads “thoughts of peace.” So this single verse, taken completely out of context in a modern American translation, is hardly a valid rationale for a deception as extreme as the so-called Prosperity Gospel.

In the Bible, once again, where exactly are material acquisitions equated with the kind of provision that brings real fulfillment, inner peace, personal happiness, and eternal security?  Nowhere, really.  The only time when material gain is cited as a blessing from God is in a context where the greater blessing would be the evidence of God’s love; for example, the last chapter of the Book of Job.   And love, according to 1 Corinthians 13, abides forever.  Material blessings vanish at the grave.

In conclusion, I would contend that we who are spiritual ought to set our affections on the things that are above and beyond our material disposition (Colossians 3:2), rather than on the passing pleasures and comforts of this world.  The expression, “you can’t take it with you,” ought not to have been coined in vain.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moths and vermin destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where moths and vermin do not destroy,
and where thieves do not break in and steal.

For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21
N.I.V.

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The Voices That Count

In the sixties and early, pre-Watergate 70’s, we heard a lot about the Generation Gap.  It seemed that the schism between those who represented the Establishment, and those who had “dropped out” or represented what we called the counter culture, was much too wide for the sake of constructive communication.  Much tension occurred as a result, and it often morphed into violence.

That gap was called the Generation Gap because those who comprised the Establishment were substantially older than those of the emerging counter-culture.   But today, I find ourselves immersed in an even more serious gap than the age-based gap — a gap that is based on class.  

Speaking in general terms, it has not been uncommon for there to be a millionaire in office.  But a cabinet composed largely of billionaires?   That’s a new one on me, as of 2016.  And I’ve been watching this kind of stuff go down since the sixties – since before Watergate – since before the War on Drugs.   

And what about on the other side?   Poverty has abounded forever.  But for so many poor people to lack roofs over their heads?   For poverty to engulf the disabled and the developmentally challenged?  The Class Gap has never been so wide.

There has always been division – but not like this.   There has always been tension – but this is unprecedented.  And what about communication?  It’s almost impossible for those in the privileged classes to even understand what the impoverished are trying to say.  This creates frustration among the underprivileged, and frustration turns to anger, turns to outrage, turns to hate.  I see a lot of outright hatred emerging from those who struggle,  as they turn to those whose material and monetary wherewithal make them better equipped to help balance the scales, and receive only insensitivity and indifference in return.

I have lived almost sixty-five years, and I have watched this trend worsen.  We tend to frame our differences around race, gender, culture, ability, sexual orientation and age.  But seen through a lens less often considered, many of these differences really boil down to differences in socio-economic class.

I have worked for the wealthy, and I have generally found them to be very nice people: courteous, accommodating, and caring.   I have also been down and out, and have lived on the streets, where the tension is much more intrusive, and etiquette is held to be unnecessary — so much so that any use of it is often viewed to be hypocrisy.   On the other hand, the language that is commonly used for communication on the streets is often regarded as crass or even abusive among those for whom such communications are unnecessary.

A poor person who is broke, who finds five dollars on the street, will naturally see it as gift for which to be grateful.  But when I told a person who was wealthy that I had found five dollars, that person literally shouted: “Shut the f—k up!”   Once when I was renting a room from a very wealthy landlord, he came down and saw me counting the pennies on the table.  Scowling in disgust, he shouted: “Stop that!”  When I was in a similar position, and I asked a friend for five dollars, he replied: “Five dollars is not going to solve your problem, Andy.”  But five dollars could have kept me alive another day.

I saw five homeless people die overnight, having preexisting medical conditions, unable to withstand one more night in the cold.  Had any of them had but five dollars, they could have gotten inside a bus and slept throughout the night.   Granted, the problem of homelessness would not have been solved by five dollars.  But a far greater problem might have been solved — the problem known as death.  

This is why frustration mounts, for that same person was perfectly magnanimous toward me when he wasn’t hung up on needing to “solve my problem.”  Nor was I asking him to provide a solution, as though nothing but a detailed plan to get me off the streets would be satisfactory.  I was only requesting a small amount of money, fearing an overnight death in the cold, as I had seen my other friends die.  So naturally, it is easy to rage and roar at the rich in light of such a constant cold shoulder.  But to do so does little good for the cause, for some have done so with violence.   

I have written a musical that explores the effects of classism, social stigma, and homelessness on the youth of today’s America.  I conceived of this musical because I have been there.  The impoverished may not be able to afford tickets to this musical once it is finally produced.   But the impoverished, the homeless, and the underprivileged, are not the ones who need to see this production.  Those who need to see it — at least according to its author’s intent — are those who have never experienced the energy of the streets, nor of the outdoors, of Nature, and the terrifying adventures thereof.  I write from a position of one unsheltered, and I write to the sheltered – not to shatter their shelter, nor scatter the remains of their relics abroad to destruction, but to show them the shamelessness of those who are without, that they might be moved, and share of the shelter that is within.

The gap created by class distinctions and social stigma in America has always been wide.  Throughout history, it’s been very wide, and a very difficult one to bridge.  But it can be bridged — and it must be bridged — if America is to endure.   After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  But we do nothing to strengthen our weak links.  We throw our elders into poorly run board-and-care homes, rather than care for them ourselves.  And some of the shelters into which we throw our homeless are little more than glorified prisons.  Should we really be that quick to discard from our company those who have lost their homes?   

viktor frankl
Viktor Frankl

Many of us who have escaped the horrors of continuous homelessness seem driven, or even desperate, to convey a message that at first may appear to be unintelligible.  A similar dynamic took place, on a much more grotesque, grandiose scale, when those who survived the Nazi concentration camps emerged with a sudden upsurge of vigor.  Viktor Frankl reports that many such survivors entered immediately into massive consumerism, guzzling beer and gobbling down huge helpings of their favorite foods, of which they’d been deprived.  In Frankl’s case, he launched wholeheartedly into the book that became Man’s Search for Meaning.  They who have survived the conditions of homelessness often display a similar spike of renewed motivation, drive, and sense of purpose. 

The gush of enthusiasm with which we who have survived the conditions of homelessness often seek to reveal the hidden secrets of the Homeless Experience can be off-putting.  But the message itself is little more than a restatement of time-honored principles that have helped hold this nation together for over two hundred years.  I did not coin the phrase: “United We Stand; Divided We Fall.”  Still, because of the frustration we tend to express when we feel we are not being heard, and the violent, hostile nature of a conspicuous minority among those who seek to express it, they who have the power to do something about the matter quite naturally turn their ears to more appealing voices.  If only they knew that in so doing, they are shunning the voices that count.