If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
Yesterday, in local news, the Lewis County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of Ordinance 1338, prohibiting encampments on county land.
Given that I have been opposed to the ordinance, I thought I would share my thoughts on being a loser.
Public comment was certainly mixed though I would guess that over two-thirds of the room was in favor of the ordinance. Some opposed, some felt the ordinance was a good first step, and others felt strongly that it didn't go far enough.
I think I could confidently say that everyone was likely all in agreement that there is a real and serious problem. Just what the underlying cause of said problem exactly is had as many theories as people in the room. There was no agreement as far as I could tell about the ultimate cause of the issue. Some, myself included, consider housing unavailability to be the immediate largest contributing factor. Others believed it was due to addiction. Some believed these homelessness are outsiders shipped to our area. Some said mental illness. Others said people just straight up want to be homeless, etc. The list goes on but those are probably the major sticking points.
There's a lot of strong feelings on this issue. Business and property owners have valid complaints. I myself live in the historic district where we've experienced our property being tagged, our garage being broken into, and having a vehicle stolen.
It's obvious that more than a few would prefer Gather not exist. Or at least not provide services toward this particular population. I'm not going to lie, that wasn't a fun experience. I left the meeting ruminating on the different responses to the same problem. My thoughts are not completely collected on any of this but I did have a few strands of thought that I think might be profitable to think through.
Years ago, we had a really bad cold snap and temperatures got in the low teens. The cold weather shelter at the time couldn't take everyone in so Gather functioned as an overflow shelter. I worked one night keeping an eye on things. We had around 20 or so people spread out across the main floor in sleeping bags. My instructions were simple: doors lock around 10PM and I was asked to keep an eye on a specific couple who were high risk of having sex if I didn't pay attention to their whereabouts. Pretty simple. Lock the doors and prevent sex. I can do that.
The most surreal part of the evening was the time leading up to when the doors were required to be locked. There were several people finishing up their smoke break outside before coming in for the night. Technically I was allowed to let anyone who wanted in any time during the night but people weren't allowed to come and go as they please. Once in, they were in for the night.
One woman in particular stood out that night. I'd say she was in her early 20's. She wasn't dressed for the weather and had been hanging around the door, acting like she wanted in but refusing every time I offered. I ended up talking about the situation with one of our program residents who looked at her just standing outside the door, "Oh her? Yeah, that's what meth will do to you. It'll make you think it would be better to get a fix out there and freeze than to go without and be safe."
Apparently she was waiting to see what her options were. A little before closing time I watched her wander off into the cold. I have not seen her since, but the memory surfaces every now and then.
Responses to this story, and many more like it, are where I find the greatest amount of division across not only our community, but also our churches.
Given America's cultural background, many will have an idea of what sin means. You may have even heard the phrase "Hate the sin, love the sinner", though I think that appears to have fallen out of usage recently.
The concept of sin can conjure up a lot of strong feelings. From the pious, to the church adjacent, and even among those of no faith at all. Sin is a touchy subject.
It's here that I think reveals the biggest differences among how people respond to another person's poor choices or illicit actions.
The greek word translated "sin" is harmartia. It simply means to "miss the mark". The problem with getting into specifics of what it means to sin, to miss the mark, is that sin is multifaceted and comes in various different "forms", so to speak. Here are a few examples of those forms:
Aside from these, there are sins of omission and commission and so on. There's a lot I'm glossing over here and the purpose is just to expose how wide and deep the concept of sin can be. When Christian's talk about sin, the context is important to capture because the "form" of sin, or the driving factor can be different. The concept of sin as just something bad that a person does is a seriously naive take.
The divide grows even wider if you consider how different "flavors" of Christianity view a person's default state. Is humankind's condition one of total depravity? Are people generally good but fallen? Is it somewhere in the middle?
I'm not interested in writing a systematic theology here even if I was qualified to do so. But I do want to point out that, among Christians, there are different weights given to different aspects of how Christian's perceive the world and those in it. In short, when judging the condition of another person and their actions, people often are weighing a multitude of factors.
Furthermore, Christians of all types will give enough weight to some factor that it gains the title of primary or root cause. Christians have become very adept at thinking they are determining the root cause of a person's failures.
I bring all of this up because many people will have a theory about why this woman was making such an obviously poor choice. Some will highlight her personal decisions (or lack thereof). Her desire to sin. Her freedom to choose for ill or good. Perhaps some will decry her lack of personal responsibility. Others may excuse her poor judgement as none of your damn business. Or perhaps, others will desire to know more about what kind of environment or background she came from to better determine how those factors have impacted her decision making.
While I myself am sympathetic to the latter, it's not a primary or foundational heuristic for how I approach this problem.
I don't have a "God's Eye View" of people. I certainly can't see into the heart of others. I am completely ignorant about how the things a person thinks or has experienced will ultimately factor into their good or poor decisions.
I've seen addicts get clean and turn their lives around. I've seen self-confessed "pieces of shit" become new people who have themselves supported others in turning their lives around. I've been threatened and cursed out by those suffering from schizoaffective disorder. During a service, one very drunk individual I escorted out went so far as to start lecturing me about "fucking Christians" and was surprised to find out that I could myself, out-lecture him as I was fluent on the subject.
In short, my theological take on humanity is this: people are complicated. Some are terrible and some are great. Some I have hope for and others I can only hope to have hope for them. There are enumerable factors that have contributed to the person I see before me and I have no way to ultimately unthread this ball of yarn.
Matthew 5:45 reads:
He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
If the God I love, the God who is love, does not withhold the sunrise or rain from the evil, who am I to withhold offering basic goodness just because someone lives in utter self-imposed ruin? To do nothing is itself a sin of omission. I, we, have an obligation. Not just to our own, but also to our community. Our culture. Our humanity.
I can hear the complaints already about how addicts need to be left to the consequences of their own actions. They need to learn to want to get clean and do the right thing. Providing basic care only enables their folly.
To which I would respond, if you lived in an encampment with 20 other people who shit where you willingly ate and slept, and that wasn't enough to push you to turn your life around I would argue nothing short of death would. We're not exactly operating on purely rational terms here.
[Post-Publish Note: I added the word purely here to clarify.]
I watched a woman not dressed for temperatures in the teens wander into the night looking for a fix. Others might say that women needs to experience the risk of death to learn. I would say that offering her warm shelter isn't co-signing on her behavior and whatever one thinks of personal responsibility many would have to at least agree that it requires appropriately functioning faculties, which can't reliably be considered in play in many of these cases.
[Post-Publish Note: In my desire to capture my thoughts, I mischaracterized the unhoused here. Outside of specific mental health issues, many unhoused are exercising their decision making skills with a form of logic that does make sense, even if it's hard to understand. It's just that the options in their control are all terrible.]
My thoughts on this are unformed and rushing out faster than I can process at the moment. But I'll leave you with these words by Dale Allison Jr in his book The Historical Christ and Theological Jesus regarding the person of Jesus:
"For his faith in the world to come did not take him out of the world but rather, from what we can tell, all the further into it. He did not proclaim the wonderful things to come and then pass by on the other side of the road. He rather turned his eschatological ideal into an ethical blueprint for compassionate ministry in the present, which means that, in addition to saying that things would get better, he set about making it so."
And a little further on:
"Jesus' eschatological hope and his humanitarianism cannot be sundered because they were both products of his infatuation with divine love. God's loving devotion to the world requires that it not suffer disrepair forever, and God's love shed abroad in human hearts, a love that fosters self-transcendence, cannot wait for heaven to come to earth: it must, before the end, feed the hungry and clothe the naked."