Monday, May 23, 2005

"Who sinned, this man or his parents?"

So I watched a man tear apart a sign for the first time this morning. Funny to finally see it, since I see the evidence of it daily, but never considered it actually takes the action of someone walking over to someone else's property, and then appropriating it for thier use. But I saw it this morning.

In Houston, the homeless mostly gather along the freeway. The underpasses on the Katy Freeway, which I basically live up and down in my daily excursions around a segment of the SMSA, are the "major intersections," for all intents and purposes. At least they are the best place to snag spare change from car windows, which is about the only way you'll get it in Houston. Most of the people doing this have signs, signs that tell some kind of story ("Homeless." "Hungry." "Travelling to...." "Please help my children."). And almost always, in what seems an almost Reaganesgue gesture (since he introduced the phrase into American civic life by ending every speech with the invocation): "God bless." Sometimes this is done on pieces of cardboard; sometimes on the little plastic yard signs that dot the green space along the freeway. Signs advertising specials and store close outs and opportunities to make money at home. The signs people plant by the hundreds, like mushrooms, and which make you realize it isn't just the highway that's ugly. And that archaeologists centuries from now will think we revered something called Clorox, and that plastic yard signs were totems of immense power, because we made them both so endurable.

Usually I see the homeless with these signs, and think nothing of where they came from, except that its a mark of industrialization that homeless people can lay hands on markers, when presumably all their spare change goes to food or drink or somewhere besides a Marks-A-Lot. And I never even gave a thought to where the signs came from, until I watched the man wrestling one off its metal stand. At first I thought he was trying to pull it up, that the sale was over or something, and his boss had sent him out to remove the ugly little sucker before business began again. But he yanked it loose and carried it away, holding it in front of him to read what it had said. I figured he'd use the blank back later, and find a place to sit for the day. I wondered what the printed sign meant to him; because his action was a sign to me, a sign that nothing has really changed since Roman days in first century Palestine.

The way scholars explain it today, Roman society was shaped rather like a funnel resting on its base. The bulk of the people were spread out equally across the base, but "equally" in this case meant equally impoverished. At the pinnacle of the funnel, which had a point more than an open spout, sat the Emperor, the Caesar, the kaisar. Down from him, in descending order of wealth, was everyone else. It was a very narrow group of wealthy, a very broad group of poor; desperately poor, for the most part. The distribution may be a little broader 2000 years later; but the arrangement hasn't changed much at all. And more and more, especially in America, we still value people based on what they mean to the economy. We still speak, at least in public discourse, of what things cost, and of the economic impact of issues, whether its warfare or child-rearing. On NPR this morning there was a story about school lunches, and completely glossed over in the discussion of what middle-school kids will eat and why, was the idea that school cafeterias now had to bring in revenue, had to generate income. Everything, it seems, is for sale; and as a society we are not only comfortable with that, we expect it as a matter of course.

"Rabbi, why was this man born blind? Who sinned, this man or his parents?" John 9:2, REB. It's an old assumption, and still a prevalent one: if you are poor, it is your fault. The system, or creation itself, is "good." Therefore whatever error creeps in must be your fault. Failure to receive the blessings of creation, failure to be "good," is preached as sin. At least at the lower levels of society; at the upper levels of society, the fault is with the system. The wealthy and powerful can afford to press the system, to demand their needs be satisfied by it, to insist that any error lies with the pastor, the teacher, the school principal, the mayor, the President. But people at the bottom, the people without power: it is not society that fails them, their failure is a result of their own sin. Thus do we arrange a system that comforts the comfortable, and afflicts the powerless.

And so mega churches preach the gospel of prosperity; and don't have much use for people who can't come to them. The UCC churches here in Houston built a public housing project many years ago. It is located, coincidentally, near one of the largest mega-churches in Houston. For a few years that church bought turkeys to give to the residents of the housing project (and others) at Christmas. And because most of the residents didn't have cars, the church delivered the turkeys to them. One year, however, the church stopped delivery. The church decided instead that the people should come to them. They couldn't, of course; and the church wouldn't let our church members pick up the food; which made us realize the mega-church wanted some pro quo for its quid. And so the arrangement ended. The system always makes sure that those who operate it, remain comfortable.

Which is why it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. That reference to the needle, by the way, is literal. In the Sunday School of my youth, comfortably in the middle-class, we were assured that the "eye of the needle" was a narrow passage way along a well-traveled path, and that overladen camels could not get through it. The message was softened, in other words, to mean "too rich." A camel trying to take too much with it, in other words, would not pass; but we could certainly carry "just enough." A bold distortion, based on an ignorance of the original Greek. The word in Matthew and Luke is "rhaphis," which means a sewing needle. Jesus meant just what he said; and he meant it in precisely this context: "With God, all things are possible."

But we prefer to think that things are only possible with our efforts; or at least, our judgments. We prefer to think the system is fine, that we are the problem; that it's all a matter of self-actualization, or personal development, or internal cleansing, or just better adherence to doctrine. We prefer to think a lot of things, instead of considering the simplicity of the presence of the kingdom, and the goodness of creation. All of creation: male and female; plant and animal and soil and water; rich and poor. It's not a matter of getting ready to live in it. It' s only a matter of living in it. Living in it as it is, not as we have made it. Isaiah railed at God for not being present enough: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence....!" But Isaiah also invited us all to the table, to buy food without money, wine without price. Which is better: to wait for the theophany of the Lord? or to "announce good news to the humble, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison"? That's been the message since at least the 5th century BCE. Does that mean it has never come true? Or just that we have yet to recognize that God really means it, and that we should really proclaim it?

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