Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Culture, Gospel, Homelessness and the Middle Class

Some may be offended by my description of homeless culture, because I am giving to them a cultural norm which, in some ways, seems immoral. Some may feel more distant from the homeless than they were before. Some may feel justified in blaming the homeless for having the culture they do. What I have tried to do is to explain why they have this culture, not to justify it, but to explain it. Yes, some of these cultural mores are strictly immoral, no matter how I may explain why it seems necessary to the homeless.

However, to blame the homeless for these cultural mores is to neglect our own cultural excuses for immoral behavior. Why do we think that if a person is unable to pay a utility company that they should be charged more? This is not only immoral, but idiotic. This would make sense if the person was refusing to pay, but if they are unable to pay, why charge them substantially more? Because, in our society, money is the base commodity of value. This means, first, that to charge someone is to communicate the value of something, whether it be an ice cream bar or a late payment. But this means that those who have less money are fundamentally less valuable, and so they have less say as to how society runs than those who have more money, who are clearly more valuable. This is a value of American middle class and upper class society, and it is basic to how it works. This leads to immoral actions because it is a fundamentally immoral principle. We can justify it by explaining economic theory or the development of politics in American society, but we cannot justify it.

The fact is, Jesus and the gospel stands apart from every culture. Every culture, from the standpoint of the gospel, has positive points and negative points. Every culture has their ethical aspects and their immoral aspect. From Jesus’ perspective, one culture has no real right to judge another culture, because they are both blind to their own immoral presuppositions.

For this reason, Jesus’ first public word is to repent and believe in the gospel. We need to look at our own culture and see the repentance we need to do, more than point at other cultures and complain about how immoral they are. We need to recognize what Isaiah recognized, “I live among a people of unclean lips.” Our culture has corrupted us by their own evil standards and thus we have participated in the everyday evil of our culture. It doesn’t matter if you are homeless or wealthy, white or black, immigrant or citizen, European or Asian or American or Hispanic or Slavic or Indian (East or West)—every culture is immoral, every culture has its good points. We can analyze them objectively against either a common standard or God’s standard as communicated by Jesus, but we cannot say that our culture is better than theirs. Nor do we have a right to swallow up one culture because of its immoral aspects or because of its incompatibility with our own.

Rather, we need to encourage all cultures to follow Jesus. Yes, we want people to believe in Jesus, but we also need for the world to realize that Jesus points us to a better way for us to live with each other. Not everyone will believe in our theology about Jesus. This doesn’t mean we need to write them off as human beings. Not only do we need to give them assistance when they need it, but we can show them the way of Jesus as a way of life.

An excellent example of this is Alcoholics Anonymous. Almost every principle of the 12 steps are actually principles of Jesus that are re-contextualized to secular language for addicts. It speaks of dependence on God, repentance, reconciliation, community, accountability, forgiveness and even evangelism. It is not a complete gospel of Jesus, but it is a contextualized semi-gospel that speaks to and revitalizes a hurting sub-culture. A gospel of Jesus, as marginalized as it is, as weakened as it is, is still powerful enough to bring healing.

When most people approach homelessness, they do one of two things. Most will just try to meet the most basic needs that are easiest to fulfill. This helps the homeless in their day-to-day needs, but it does not, in reality, alleviate their poverty, nor bring real transformation.
The second approach is to try to make the homeless middle class. This approach is done by both Christians and non-Christians alike because our cultural values and beliefs are actually stronger than our gospel values and beliefs. We don’t see Jesus’ gospel as actually redeeming the homeless in the needs they have, and so we offer them the middle class, which specifically meets what the middle class thinks the homeless needs most, which is, interestingly enough, accommodation to the values and standards of the middle class.

That which is most frightening to the middle class is that the homeless might not want their values, that they are fundamentally of a different culture. So they want to train them to be like the middle class, and give them “mentors” or teachers to train them to be middle class. I think this is in error, for they will be teaching them not only the positive aspects of the American middle class values—hard work, following laws, etc—but also the weak aspects of the middle class—self-reliance, importance of the nuclear family, a skewed money value.

Rather, we need to do as Jesus said. We need to first evaluate our own culture by the gospel, repent of our own wrong values, before we can tell others how they should rightly live their lives. (Matthew 7:5—“First take the beam out of your own eye and then you can see clearly to take the speck out of theirs.”) We need to repent of our own cultural blindness.

Then, when we approach the homeless or any other culture, we must attempt to give them the values of the gospel and not our own cultural values. We can offer them the deliverance of Jesus, not the deliverance of our powerful, but oppressing, society. We must separate our culture from our gospel, to offer a pure, undefiled religion that comes from God and not our values that mix in.

Then, when we truly understand the gospel apart from our values and have repented of our immorality, can we translate that gospel into the language and culture system of another culture. When we have gone through the process of cultural repentance and gospel conversion ourselves, then we can understand what it means when we ask others to do the same. And when we do so, we do not do it on the basis of a culture that feels that they have a “burden” to replicate their culture, as if their culture is what saves. Rather, we offer the gospel as those who are poor ourselves, and in desperate need of the salvation of Jesus ourselves. We come, not from a place of power, but a place of humility, seeing our own weaknesses and seeing Jesus as the real answer.

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