Justice and the Homeless–A Faith perspective

I’ve been asked to participate in a panel discussion on the topic this evening for the Annual Meeting of the Madison Area Urban Ministry. Here are my thoughts in advance of the conversation:

After I agreed to participate in this panel discussion on Justice and the Homeless, A Faith Perspective, I ended the call and began to think. Was there something unique about the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that could offer insight or a new perspective to this group? I assumed others would talk about Jewish and Christian scriptures and I didn’t simply want to repeat what they had to say. I certainly didn’t want to argue that somehow an Anglican/Episcopal approach to those scriptures was better or more insightful.

So my mind immediately turned to history and I began thinking about periods in the history of our tradition that might inform our conversation. I thought first of the sixteenth century, the point of origin for the Church of England. I think one can detect there a pattern that continues to hold true, at least to some degree. It’s often claimed that the English Reformation began with Henry VIII’s desire for Anne Boleyn and for a male heir. There were other sources, among them reformers who sought drastic change to doctrine and practice. Among their chief targets was the wealth of the church, which they argued was squandered on lavish lifestyles, when it should have been dedicated to the poor and other needs in society. They were also deeply concerned that wealthy landowners were forcing farmers off their land and converting it into pasture for the cash crop of sheep’s wool. When Henry began looking for new revenue sources, he attacked the monasteries, using the writings and preaching of those reformers as cover. The monasteries were dissolved, the wealth came to the crown and to his courtiers, and much of it was squandered in Henry’s foreign policy adventures. It did not go to help the poor.

That’s the dynamic in Anglicanism I would like to highlight. Yes, there’s a strong prophetic voice calling for justice for the poor and the homeless. But we have also been closely associated with political and economic power, both in England and here in the US. That dynamic continues to play itself out. In fact, one of the significant economic justice movements of our time, Occupy, confronted not only the economic power of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange; it also confronted two prominent Anglican/Episcopal Churches—St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and Trinity Church Wall Street. In each case the institutional church turned a cold shoulder and either participated in or instigated police action against Occupy protestors (the evidence is not clear in either case).

Yesterday, a judge in Manhattan found a group of protestors guilty of trespassing on Trinity Church property (Trinity is one of the major landholders in lower Manhattan). Among those convicted were a retired Episcopal Bishop, George Packard, and an Episcopal priest.

There is a lively debate in our church over the events leading up to yesterday’s court decision. Trinity does enormous good throughout the world with its enormous wealth. Located on Wall St., part of its mission has to be to minister among those who work in the financial sector. And granted, it did provide hospitality to Occupy protestors. It also provides ongoing hospitality to homeless people in its neighborhood.

My suspicion is that in the history of most of the religious traditions represented on this panel, one could discern something of the same dynamic—preachers and prophets proclaiming, “let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” while business people, robber barons, or rulers acted rapaciously to accumulate wealth and power, and in the process displaced people or caused homelessness.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Like other traditions, the Episcopal Church, nationally and locally, has done great things on behalf of the homeless, as we seek to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to live out our baptismal vows. Sometimes such efforts have been criticized, not least here in Madison. But we persevere, sometimes at great cost, as happened earlier this year when a priest and parish administrator were murdered in Maryland by a homeless person who had been a guest of their food pantry.

If we have a unique perspective, it may be that we are better situated than other traditions to seek to build bridges between those disparate groups, the 1% and the 99%. That we fail to do so shouldn’t lead us to abandon the effort, even if we fail so spectacularly as we did yesterday in Manhattan.

 

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More great publicity for the Episcopal Church

As if we didn’t have enough to deal with as General Convention approaches. Today, judgments came down in unrelated cases but in each, the property rights of the Episcopal Church were protected.

The first is the more troublesome for the Church. It pitted the wealthiest parish in the church against a group of Occupy Wall Street protestors, including retired Bishop George Packer. The protestors were found guilty of trespassing, and sentenced to 4 days community service (one received 45 days).

It should never have come to this. The Church, and by Church I mean the Episcopal Church and its episcopal leadership, should have found some way to mediate this dispute without it going to court. It’s bad for the Church, it’s bad publicity.

The other judgments had to do with the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear property disputes from parishes in CT and GA. I’m sure there are more working their way through the courts, at great financial cost to all.

Where’s the good news of Jesus Christ in all of this?

Oh, by the way, the Episcopal Church welcomes you.

Occupy Trinity Church, Part III

The debate goes on and on. Apparently the actions by #OWS over the weekend, the interventions by Bishop Sisk and Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori, and the arrest of Bishop Packard have aroused passions. One only need read the comments thread on Jim Naughton’s Episcopal Cafe article to see that things have gotten interesting.

Naughton referred to “An extremely insightful essay” written by Tom Beaudoin at America in which he ponders the theological meaning of private property when it comes to churches:

I think we have a very important theological matter before us when Occupy, through its religious-leader allies, is saying to Trinity Wall Street: We in Occupy — as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement — can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place, with negligible negative financial impact (Trinity is a verywealthy community), and with a rare and time-sensitive influence, by using this particular private property to host the next stage of Occupy Wall Street, and let’s meet to talk about the liability issues and any other concerns you have, let’s have that dialogue starting immediately, but in principle we have a substantial theological point worthy of your consideration.

The presumption in this theological claim, which I think is correct, is that no Christian church is – on the very terms of its theological existence – permitted to fall back on the mere invocation of “private property” without also a theological conversation about the spiritual significance of what that concept means and how it is being used.

There are several interesting issues in this statement. The first has to do with how “private property” relates to the property of an Episcopal parish, which as we all know to well by now, is held in trust by the parish for the diocese, and by the diocese for the national church. It may be different in Trinity’s case because of its unique history with an immense land grant coming from Queen Anne in 1715. Nonetheless, even here there is a question of “who owns the property.”

But aside from that question, there is the question of “private property” itself and that is probably what Beaudoin is getting at. I used to enjoy telling my students that “God is not a capitalist.” No matter how hard conservative Christians try to spin scripture, to derive capitalism, or even the notion of private property from Hebrew or Christian scriptures takes considerable finesse and exegetical hijinks. In Hebrew Scripture, in fact, there is no sense of private property at all. The land is owned by Yahweh, distributed to the people, given a sabbatical every seventh year, and in the fiftieth year, the Jubilee, whatever land was alienated from its original inhabitants, for debt or sale, or whatever, is returned to its original occupants.

But the question is not what private property may or may not have meant in scripture. Beaudoin is challenging the use of “private property” as Trinity’s defense against the use of its property by #OWS. And here I think he is doing some theological legerdemain. For in fact, what he is arguing is not that #OWS is challenging Trinity’s claim to private property, but rather their mission. Read this carefully:

We in Occupy — as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement — can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place,

In other words #OWS, or Beaudoin’s articulation of it, is not challenging Trinity’s defense of its private property, but of its mission. And this is a different thing. I haven’t read Trinity’s mission statement, and I don’t think that matters much. Trinity has enormous wealth and has done enormous good across the world with that wealth. My guess is that all of those in #OWS would be supportive of Trinity’s work in Africa and elsewhere. But it also has a mission to its particular context and that is Wall Street. Among its members and among its lay leadership are people from all walks of life, including investment bankers and CEOs of banks and financial firms, yes, the 1%.

There is a great deal of discussion about how Jesus would respond to #OWS. Well, in fact, the gospels are quite clear. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and tax collectors were probably the first-century equivalent of the 1%.

My hackles are raised whenever anyone, someone on the outside, whether lay or clergy, attempts to define the mission of a congregation, church, or even denomination. It is the height of arrogance to do so. Mission should be contextual and reflect the life of the congregation. It may be appropriate to ask questions about that mission, to invite an expansion of that mission, but to say that an outside group “can better meet your mission” is nothing more than hubris.

Occupy Trinity Church

This isn’t going to end well, and once again, the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church is not acquitting itself particularly well.

I’ve blogged about the relationship between Trinity and the Occupy Wall Street protestors before. Things have only gotten more tense in the last month. There was actually something of a moment of grace last week, when retired Bishop George Packer and his wife, accompanied by the Rector of Trinity and his wife, visited the OWS encampment. After conversation, many of the protestors attended services at Trinity. Read about it here.

Unfortunately, that was only a temporary break in the growing tension. On Friday, Bishop of New York Mark Sisk and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori weighed in, urging the protestors to abandon their demands that Trinity allow them use of a portion of Duarte Square for their encampment.

These events brought front page coverage in The New York Times and increasing debate among Episcopalians about the controversy. Elisabeth Drescher offers her perspective here.

Today, Bishop Packard, who has been advocating more loudly on behalf of the protestors, was arrested for entering the disputed area of Duarte Square.

As Drescher points out in her essay:

Trinity Wall Street and the Episcopal Church are, it seems, trying to maintain a delicate balance in their approach to Occupy Wall Street, and their consistent ministry to participants in the movement is laudable. Their active chaplaincy, preaching, and material support has been a powerful reminder of the moral role that churches and other religious groups continue to play even as institutional religion becomes more and more irrelevant in everyday life. Indeed, Trinity Wall Street and many other Episcopal Churchcommunities, have made clear that “being church” is much more than maintaining a building where fewer and fewer people gather to worship for an hour or so on Sundays. They have illustrated the Christian understanding of the call of the faithful to be Christ’s body in the world throughout the Occupy protests, and this has made me proud to be an Episcopalian.

Unfortunately, with the responses from Sisk and Jefforts Schori, as well as the ongoing response from Trinity, the Episcopal Church seems once again to be coming down on the side of the powers that be. For Trinity, that might not be surprising given the amount of real estate they own in the area. I also know well how difficult it is to maintain program, ministry, and perspective in the midst of ongoing protests, so I am not unsympathetic with the position Trinity’s leadership finds itself in. But I believe there ought to be some room for compromise, some creative response to the situation that would begin to shape a vision of what church might be in the twenty-first century.

I find it especially troubling that all those goes on as I prepare a sermon on Mary, and reflect on her words in the Magnificat:

he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Bishop Packard’s blog is probably well-worth following.

We’ll protest Wall Street, but we won’t feed the homeless

I came across this little nugget. The makeshift, apparently gourmet, kitchen at Zucotti Park closed for several days because the workers thought they were serving too many “professional” homeless people alongside the protestors.

Our experience in Madison over the last months seems to indicate that homeless people found food as well as shelter during the protests here. Numbers at the men’s shelter were quite low for several months, and our monthly meal saw lower numbers than usual, as well. My guess is that Ian’s Pizza and the unions with their free brats were filling lots of empty stomachs, and not trying to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving.

Barbara Ehrenreich on Homelessness and #OWS

Why Homelessness Is Becoming an Occupy Wall Street Issue | The Nation.

What occupiers from all walks of life are discovering, at least every time they contemplate taking a leak, is that to be homeless in America is to live like a fugitive. The destitute are our own native-born “illegals,” facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. They are not supposed to soil public space with their urine, their feces, or their exhausted bodies. Nor are they supposed to spoil the landscape with their unusual wardrobe choices or body odors. They are, in fact, supposed to die, and preferably to do so without leaving a corpse for the dwindling public sector to transport, process, and burn.