Writing about a new law banning panhandling in certain parts of town, JWH writes:
The church hasn’t been great at “ending poverty”–or, for that matter, living up to the sort of example the saints point toward. But our record is pretty clear on this: it is no crime to be poor.
Some will say that I’m being imprecise–that this law and others like it do not make it a crime to be poor.
But anti-vagrancy laws have been part of American public life since the 18th century. We have, time and again, tried to hide the poor by criminalizing their public appeals in one way or another. And these laws have always been resisted by that tradition of people from all faiths who believe that the beloved community is possible.
As uncomfortable as they may make us feel, we cannot get rid of our homeless neighbors by outlawing their existence. “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said–not as a concession to inevitable inequality, but as a charge to remember Torah. Rabbi Jesus expects us to know how the verse ends: “The poor you will always have with you, therefore be open handed to them.”
If I’ve learned anything from a decade of living at Rutba House, it’s that Christian hospitality is about all of our needs. The beggar needs money; the homeless need homes. (They often need much else besides.)
But I also need them. We each need them because we cannot be saved without them.
John Chrysostom said, “But none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor.” From my own experience, I don’t think he was touting some sort of spiritual dependency on someone elses need. He was pointing us toward the heart of Jesus’ message.
We are saved by grace, rich and poor alike. But we are saved from self-destruction to participate in a family where whoever gathered much will not have too much and whoever gathered little will not have too little because each of us will have according to our need.
To criminalize the poor is not only to harm our most vulnerable neighbors. It is to endanger the soul of our city.
And that is something we should all stand against.