On Saturday, May 21, the supposed “End of the World,” I watched a homeless man, probably no older than I am, get arrested on the corner of 18th and Chestnut in Center City Philadelphia by plain-clothes police officers. I had passed this young man probably only 20-30 minutes earlier on my way to put more money in my parking meter. He sat on the sidewalk quietly and peaceably holding a sign telling passersby that he is homeless. On my way back, from a distance I noticed two other men dressed plainly, but with an air of authority speaking to this man. As I got closer, I saw his hands bound by handcuffs. I passed them, disturbed, thoughts of “what should I do here?” running through my mind. Should I approach and ask what this man was being arrested for? Should I challenge these men of authority? What would happen? Would it do any good at all? Instead, I walked a little farther away and watched feeling dismayed, helpless, and incredibly guilty. Don’t I want to be and claim to be an advocate for the voiceless, marginalized, and oppressed? How could I just stand there, watching injustice happen and do nothing? After they took him away, I walked farther down the street and stopped to talk to another homeless man on the street. I told him about what I just saw and asked if he knew anything about it. He told me that it happens a lot, people who are homeless often get arrested just for sitting on the sidewalk. “Sometimes businesses call them into the police because they feel like it isn’t good for business.” I can imagine. Customers seeing homelessness right outside the name-brand stores they enter to spend money on things they probably don’t need is definitely not good for the free market.
During the last month, I have been taking a class on the New Testament book of Acts with a group called the Alternative Seminary. The Alternative Seminary is affiliated with a nonprofit advocacy group called Project H.O.M.E. that offers services, housing, and a voice to the homeless of Philadelphia. These last two weeks, these partner organizations have been calling their friends to political advocacy for the homeless in Philadelphia. New legislation is being written specifically to target the homeless who sit peaceable on sidewalks and in parks in Center City Philadelphia and enable the police to cite and arrest anyone homeless on the streets. The bill essentially makes homelessness a crime and I watched an arrest happen last weekend even without the legislation passed that makes it legal. Project H.O.M.E. is calling friends and neighbors to fight this bill and I thank God that the Spirit is moving in people who will stand against injustice that is so against the teachings of Jesus.
I sat in my class tonight among people, like me, committed to living lives of simplicity, compassion, and justice. I live with a community of women and surround myself with friends who are advocates for a simpler lifestyle that works against these oppressive systems of capitalism, individualism, and greed. These are the values I hold and things I so strongly believe in. Poverty is a system of injustice and violence inflicted upon people by greed, neglect, and by political and economic systems of power. I watched it in action. And I know, beyond any doubt that these systems are corrupt, oppressive, and entirely against the upside-down kingdom of God that Jesus preached about in which the meek inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor and the peacemakers are called children of God. But tonight, one of my classmates asked a question that completely shook and disturbed us all to the point that we ended the evening praying, “Thank you, God, for disturbing us.” When we preach the good news of Jesus, of a God who offers refuge and justice to the poor, who calls us to live simply and care for the poor and give voice to the voiceless, who summons us to love our neighbors and live counter-culturally to the powers of this world; when we preach this good news, call others to follow and they do, when these systems eventually come down (and I believe they will come down), then what? THEN WHAT? The questions are no longer, “are these systems corrupt and oppressive?” and “is the spirit of God calling us to work against them?” We know they are and that He is. The question is, are we prepared enter the likely painful process of picking up the pieces after we’ve broken them and work to create something that is “of one accord” with the Kingdom?
That is a really scary prospect that requires a great amount of faith in a God that desires redemption and transformation. When the capitalism system, the biggest, most powerful, and one of the most oppressive systems of our present world, crashes, the effect will probably be that people will lose jobs and we will have to find new solutions to living with and among each other. The world will be completely turned upside-down, “destroyed” if you will, broken and in a state of confusion as it was in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and in Acts 19:23-41 when rioting was the effect of Paul’s disrupting of the market with the power of the gospel. What if the “fires of destruction” predicted in end times theology are the people of God in the Spirit of God bringing down the powers of injustice and oppression that dominate our world? What if the New Jerusalem is not something God just waves his magic wand and “poof!” there it is, but something that we work to bring to life from the ashes?
I believe in a God of love, grace, redemption, and transformation because I have experienced all of those things in my own life. But to experience them, I needed to be broken first. To experience love, I needed to feel loss. To experience grace, I needed to be humbled. To experience redemption, I needed to feel deep responsibility and remorse. To experience transformation, I needed to die to myself. So now, I ask myself what I ask all people of faith, when we move with the Spirit of God and break the yokes of oppression, are we willing and ready to pick up the pieces, keep trusting and listening to the Spirit, and creatively care for our neighbors and our enemies who have fallen?