is homelessness dehumanizing?

I have this friend (not the guy in the above pic) who is making the choice as to whether to remain homeless or not. Yesterday I spent a chunk of time doing my best to advise him to make the decision slow, that he had time. I told him to take a week and rest and pray and stay with me as a guest. While I was talking I dropped some bit on him about how dehumanizing it is to be homeless. Today I’m trying to reconcile that statement with my conscience. I stick by it, but why? This is America and a person should be able to live in any economic situation just the way they want to. Isn’t it really just as dehumanizing to sit night after night on a leather couch glued to a plasma screen television as it would be to be standing in front of a homeless shelter smoking and thinking about how to sell yourself to the public downtown the next day?

I remember watching episodes of the sci-fi television show Babylon 5, sometimes cursing the writer for preaching in some episodes that any existence miserably lived is really no existence at all. That person should have the choice to die. The trouble with that idea is that it completely objectifies the person in question into an idea. You can do that in sci-fi. In the real world we as persons are always connected—even our act of disconnection is itself a choice connected with the proximity of other persons.

But on the other hand I know that my ethic assumes that a human being has innate purpose and that a loving God reveals that purpose within the communion of the Church. By viewing humans theologically am I objectifying them to fit an idea? No, it’s worse than that, or better depending on your perspective. I’m preaching that humans are not truly autonomous beings who control their own destiny at will. God is revealed in His action and that action involves creation and restoration. The mystery of His work is the way in which He works through our wills to accomplish His purpose, even when we choose a different plan than His. God is bringing about a New Heavens and Earth and is humanizing us into the image of His Son Jesus Christ.

Looking at my friend’s decision theologically is puzzling and causes me to pray. I don’t believe he needs to live homeless, but I am not in his shoes. I do not share his mental agony over what to do with his gifts and calling. I have my own mental agonies. He has lived on the streets on and off for years now and is a survivor. He doesn’t drink or use drugs and has no mental illness to speak of. He makes friends wherever he goes and can give and receive of himself easily. He just can’t sit still. He’s got to do the things the way he’s used to: selling his blood plasma, doing medical studies, and pitching his idea for passersby.

I think of homelessness as dehumanizing because in a very real way the person is stripped of dignity and is forced to live under constant scrutiny and suspicion. My friend says that his idea has become like a gambling addiction. He always feels that gold is just below the surface, just beyond reach. Something really good will happen to him, he’ll get a break and he’s sure that it will happen this year, and then it turns and again he’s left in a new space, but with nothing. I tried to tell him that the gold is not really in the ground but in himself. As soon as I said it I felt like the words sounded trite. Like I was trying to psychoanalyze or something. The words didn’t change him. I don’t even know if they really fit. My friend is already making plans to hit the street again. And I curse myself for trying to fix him. I pray that something I said or just my friendly demeanor meant something. My friend made it clear that when he leaves he still wants to be in contact, and that’s good.

I told him that I’m worried about what the streets are doing to his health, that he’s not a kid anymore. He knows. He kept telling me about how right I am, but about how stubborn he is. All I could do was suggest that he take time, a week, before heading back out there, but I don’t think he can even do that. I haven’t seen him today. He’s probably selling plasma and scoping out the city. My hope lies not in my own truth-telling, hospitality, kindness, but in the grace of God to work in little ways in my friend. My friend’s rational assent does not involve a will to change. I’ll pray for his safety, for future possibilities, and that someday he’ll see something in the Kingdom that he’s lacking.

My own stubbornness is a reminder to me of God’s miraculous ability. I’ve spent the better part of my life as a miserable addict. Nothing anyone could say, none of the truth I knew was right, and not even the pain of the addiction itself seemed to have any effect on me. After two years of going to meetings and listening I finally stopped starting up the addiction again. Continued sobriety is contingent upon daily spiritual connection, so yes I have hope for my friend. He didn’t get this way overnight, or as the result of one decision, and neither did I. I need to keep my eyes on God’s renewing work, and believe in that rather than despairing over the frailty of my words. I’m grateful for whatever time I have with my friend, and I’m prayerfully, expectantly, willing God’s Kingdom way here now.

“Since you obviously want something from me, you cannot be serious in expecting me to judge you harshly. But can I give you any supporting counsel? You say you plunge deeply into the Bible in vain. You say you also pray in vain. You are clearly thinking of a “final step” but you shrink back from it. Have I understood you correctly? First regarding your prayers. How do you know they are in vain? God has His own time and He may well know the right moment to lift the double shadow that now lies over your life. Therefore, do not stop praying.

It could also be that He will answer you in a very different way from what you have in mind in your prayers. Hold unshakably fast to one thing. He loves you even now as the one you now are. . . . And listen closely: it might well be that He will not lift this shadow from you, possibly will never do so your whole life, just because from all eternity He has appointed you to be His friend as He is yours, just because He wants you as the man whose only option it is to love Him in return and give Him alone the glory there in the depths from which He will not raise you.

Get me right: I am not saying that this has to be so, that the shadows cannot disperse. But I see and know that there are shadows in the lives of all of us, not the same as those under which you sigh, but in their way oppressive ones too, which will not disperse, and which perhaps in God’s will must not disperse, so that we may be held in the place where, as those who are loved by God, we can only love Him back and praise him.

Thus, even if this is His mind and will for you, in no case must you think of that final step. May your hope not be a tiny flame but a big and strong one, even then, I say, and perhaps precisely then; no, not perhaps but certainly, for what God chooses for us children of men is always the best.”

—pg. 27, “To A Prisoner In Germany,” Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968, Eerdmans, 1981.

1 Comment

Filed under homelessness, humanity, theology

One response to “is homelessness dehumanizing?

  1. Jon

    Wow, what a great Barth quote. Thanks so much for that, and your post, Chris.


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