I’m watching what the Republicans in Tennessee are doing about homelessness, and I’m mindful that these folks are mostly devout Christians. They also tend to believe that everything in the Bible is an accurate historic depiction. Personally, I can’t vouch for the literal truth of, say, the Gospel According to Matthew, but let’s take a look anyway.
Chapter 21 of that Gospel describes Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. And he’s in a mood. He goes directly to the Temple and causes a major scene.
And Jesus entered the temple [grounds] and drove out [with force] all who were buying and selling [birds and animals for sacrifice] in the temple area, and He turned over the tables of the moneychangers [who made a profit exchanging foreign money for temple coinage] and the chairs of those who were selling doves [for sacrifice]. Jesus said to them, “It is written [in Scripture], ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.”
That’s a good way to make powerful enemies, but he definitely had a point. The financial side of religion can be pretty depressing. But this isn’t the part of the story that interests me right now. What happened next is far more interesting. He starting healing the blind and the lame.
This is the detritus of society. These are people who find gainful employment difficult if not impossible. They were probably hanging around the Temple just looking for a handout. And Jesus gave them more than a handout. He tended to them.
Of course, if we could do miracles, we’d patch up everyone who is suffering from mental illness and addiction and physical handicaps, and there would be no one left looking for a handout or a home.
In any case, when Jesus healed the deadbeats, the priestly caste got upset. They were already in a bad mood after Jesus caused mayhem in their marketplace and called them a bunch of hypocrites. When Jesus returned to the Temple the next day, the priests confronted him. During their conversation, Jesus told them the parable of the two sons. He asked them if was better to tell your father you will do something and then not do it, or to tell him you will not, change your mind, and then do as he asked. When Jesus didn’t like their answer, he said, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.”
This is, in a way, an acknowledgment that there is something wrong with tax collectors and prostitutes, but it’s also a validation that even the most loathed and marginalized people can be superior to the religious caste in the eyes of God.
At this point, I should mention that, by tradition, the author of this Gospel was a tax collector and also one of Jesus’s twelve disciples. As for prostitutes, there’s the story in Chapter 7 of the Gospel According to Luke.
And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman who was in the city, a sinner; and when she knew that he was sitting at meat in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster cruse of ointment, and standing behind at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee that had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Teacher, say on.
A certain lender had two debtors: the one owed five hundred shillings, and the other fifty. When they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?
Simon answered and said, He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath wetted my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but she hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that even forgiveth sins? And he said unto the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
The theme is consistent. Jesus demonstrated through both his actions and his teachings that the despised deserve compassion rather than strict condemnation. I am certain that panhandlers were every bit as annoying in the 1st Century as they are in the 21st, and that’s why Jesus’s message was unusual. He replaced commonplace and understandable contempt with something different and more challenging.
Now, the people of West Nashville who formed the citizen group Reclaim Brookmeade Park are tired of having human detritus in their recreational areas.
“From the very beginning, our mission has always been to save Brookmeade and the people in it. There has been no progress. Every attempt to find answers at the local level have been met with, if not resistance, open ridicule. We as citizens of Nashville have every right to access our taxpayer funded park as the next citizen. We will continue to pursue our mission at every level: local, state, and national. We appreciate all the players that have invited us to the table. We will not stand by and watch addicts die, mentally unstable be in acute crisis, women be abused, and children put in harm’s way. We are accountable, the city is accountable, the non-profits are accountable, and every local homeless committee, commission, and think tank is responsible for this situation.”
I definitely get where their frustration and concern are coming from. They don’t seem like cruel people. It sounds like they’ve been searching for solutions to the homeless encampments for some time. And now they’re celebrating because the state legislature has taken action.
A bill that targets Tennessee’s homeless population is now headed to Governor Bill Lee’s desk.
On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill making it a Class “C” Misdemeanor for soliciting or camping along highways and exit ramps.
It also makes it illegal to camp on public and state property.
Now the constabulary forces in West Nashville can clean out the encampments and give the human detritus there some fines and a criminal record. The theory is that this will force people to seek treatment for their addictions or otherwise lift themselves up by the bootstraps. Opponents of the bill argue that it will just further burden these people and that there are better ways to approach the problem, like investing in affordable housing and drug treatment programs.
Not every proponent of this bill is well intentioned, however. For example, there is Republican State Sen. Frank Niceley who had some interesting things to say during the debate on the bill.
I wanna give you a little history lesson on homelessness. In 1910, Hitler decided to live on the streets for a while. So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses. And then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books. So, a lot of these people it’s not a dead end. They can come out of these homeless camps and have a productive life, or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life. I support this bill.
These are really strange remarks on so many levels. For starters, if you can practice oratory as a homeless person and become a charismatic leader, them maybe being homeless isn’t so bad and we shouldn’t be so worried about the encampments. They’re almost as good as a university. Then there’s the odd obsession with the obscurest parts of Hitler’s biography. It’s true that Hitler spent some time in homeless shelters after frittering away his inheritance, but it was a gift from an aunt that got him out of abject poverty. Finally, there’s the obscene notion that anyone might aspire to follow Hitler’s example and the sub-mental choice to use Hitler as inspiration to those who are down and out.
I don’t know what to make of Sen. Niceley’s remarks, except to say that they no longer feel out of place in Republican politics. Maybe Niceley is waiting for the homeless to wash his feet with their tears because he’ll follow his Savior’s example.
Jesus didn’t eradicate homelessness and the New Testament doesn’t offer public policy solutions to homeless encampments in our public parks. But the New Testament does offer guidance about what attitude we should adopt. I don’t see room for slapping people with Class C misdemeanors and thinking that will improve matters.
Above all, there’s a clear message that we should not have contempt for the unfortunate. And that just seems to be a completely alien concept to the Tennessee GOP.