Rehumanizing “the stranger”

I would like to take a moment and introduce our guest blogger, Hannah Hunthausen. Hannah is the program coordinator for the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs. She joined the School of Theology and Ministry in 2013; prior to working for the Center, Hannah served as program coordinator for the school’s Gates-funded Faith & Family Homelessness Project, which worked to increase advocacy, partnerships, and overall engagement around the issue of homelessness among Puget Sound faith communities. The Center builds on that legacy, integrating scholarly examination of homelessness and other pressing social issues with practical, solution-oriented responses initiated by faith communities and their organizations.

Peace Is Possible,

+Donalson

Bishop Edward Donalson, III | Director of Liturgy and Worship
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

 

Rehumanizing “the stranger”

On cold rainy days like this one, I think of the many people and their many stories living on our streets, sleeping without shelter, without “home.” These strangers in our midst, to whom we are called by our religious wisdom traditions to show hospitality and love (Exodus 22: 20-21; Exodus 23: 9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Matthew 25: 34-40; Hebrews 13: 1-2; Surah An-Nisa 4:36; Sn 1.8: Karaniya Metta Sutta), we so often ignore and exclude instead.

I think of a remarkable woman named Raven Canon.

Plagued by health problems, poverty, addiction, and bouts of homelessness for much of her life, Raven had the incredible spirit and grit to launch Colorado Springs’ first street newspaper this past December. She quickly rose to become her community’s most prominent homeless advocate with seemingly boundless energy and zeal.

“You have to realize that we are human, and that we all must do more to help,” she would say, as Tim Harris, her friend and the Founding Director of Real Change, recalls. (Harris poignantly shared her story in the paper last week.)

But, in a time of acute personal crisis that landed her back on the street earlier this month, her own big heart was not reflected back to her—she died outside and alone in the Colorado winter.

. . .

Sometimes, after sharing a story like Raven’s, advocates will make the point that she is one of many, that there are countless stories of tragedy and injustice like hers.

And this is true and important to note[1] in certain contexts as we fight for justice.

But today, I want to make the point that she is not one of many, but one—one precious and irreplaceable human life.

Irish poet and theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama, speaks powerfully to this notion in his poem, “Pedagogy of Conflict” (excerpted):

When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five:
one, two, three, four, five.
But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
one life
one life
one life
one life
Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.
‘Legitimate Target’
has sixteen letters
and one
long
abominable
space
between
two
dehumanizing
words.

(It’s worth listening to the whole poem here.)

Though the poem excerpted above references the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the way in which it speaks to human beings’ tendency to dehumanize the other, and its implicit call for a re-valuation of human life, is universal and compelling. Distancing and faceless collective terms like “the homeless” or “illegal aliens” could just as easily be substituted for “legitimate target.”

The poet’s refusal to quantify life and to insist on individuating and sacramentalizing each in a persistent litany of “one life” recalls, for me, God’s loving creation of and care for humanity as expressed in Psalm 139: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139: 13 NABRE).

I think of all those precious humans who have been, and continue to be, individually and systematically devalued and marginalized: black and brown, poor and homeless, refugee and migrant, disabled and mentally ill, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming.

I also think of the many ways we have become (or continue to be) strangers to one another—divided across racial, class and wealth lines, religious and political, urban and rural, cultural, generational, and geographical.

Our world paradoxically both enhances and stymies our human connection, and we suffer for the ways in which our technology, our social segregation, and our media consumption widen the gaps between us and neighbors near and far. As individuals and as a society, we continue to otherize and deny our shared humanity.

But I have hope.

After more than three years of doing this work—learning and teaching about poverty and homelessness, sharing resources and successful models, and catalyzing partnerships—I have seen acts of extraordinary compassion, moments of recognition and deep empathy, and people joining together across difference in the long, hard road toward justice.

This work for justice is the essential progression once we’ve decided to live into our shared humanity with the “stranger.”

In a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (King, 1967)

Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, King challenges us to reexamine the meaning of true compassion. If we take our shared humanity and the mandate of the Golden Rule seriously, it follows that we examine and challenge the systems that cause suffering.

Urban planner Peter Marcuse presciently warned in 1988 against the dangers of continuing to simply treat the symptoms of homelessness, which depoliticizes and divorces the issue from its complex structural causes (Marcuse, 1988). Nearly a quarter of a century later, social ethicist (and Center scholar) Laura Stivers has challenged Christian communities and organizations as they approach homelessness to question the neutrality of policies and systems (housing, education, transportation, etc.) that marginalize black and brown individuals and communities: “We do not have a level playing field, and until we uplift those who are routinely disadvantaged by “neutral” attitudes and systems, we cannot equate neutrality with justice” (Stivers, 2011, p. 14). We are called to both charity and justice.

. . .

In the fear-ridden and empathy-depleted era of President Trump, it will be more important than ever to embody King’s vision of true compassion by confronting structural causes.

This begins from a place of solidarity and relationship with our neighbors, as Rev. Craig Rennebohm, author of Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets (2008) and founder of Seattle’s Mental Health Chaplaincy, attests:

In reaching out to the stranger in our own midst, the person we have been taught to fear or ignore or shun or despise, we discover the fundamentals of faith. The pilgrimage of peace does not require travel to faraway sites; the way begins with our next step, with our neighbor who is suffering (p. 9).

 

 

Harris, T. (2017, March 15). Director’s Corner: Remembering Raven Canon. Real Change. Retrieved from http://www.realchangenews.org/2017/03/15/directors-corner-remembering-raven-canon

King, M.L., Jr. (1967, April 4). A Time to Break Silence. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qf6x9_MLD0

Marcuse, P. (1988) “Neutralizing Homelessness.” Socialist Review, 88(1), 69‑97.

Ó Tuama, Pádraig. (2013). “Pedagogy of Conflict.” Sorry for your troubles. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press.

Rennebohm, C. with Paul, D. (2008) Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stivers, L. (2011) Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

 

[1] When compared to the general population, people experiencing homelessness, unsurprisingly, “are at greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse” and “have a mortality rate four to nine times higher than those who are not homeless” (CDC, 2016). In 2016, well over 10,000 people (and likely many more) were experiencing homelessness in King County on a single night in January (All Home, 2017), and at least 549,928 were experiencing homelessness across the country (HUD, 2016). But street counts reliably underestimate (Bernstein, 2017), so there almost certainly more than 550,000 people experiencing homelessness nationwide, and millions more living in poverty and with housing instability.

 

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International Women’s History Month

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This month is International Women’s History Month, and this week brings International Women’s Day with its theme: Be Bold for Change! This call to change is both an invitation to possibility and a rejection of what has been. For women in religious contexts particularly, there is much to mourn in the history of organized religion and much to lean into toward a preferable future. While most of the major religions in the world have some history of heteropatriarchy woven into their tapestry of expression, Christianity bares a heavy burden in seeking to normalize the marginalization of women in the Western world. From Tertullian’s caricature of Eve as more fleshly and carnal than her male counterpart—thus making her the particular locus of sin—the Church has found a way to make female embodiment a problem (Longfellow 1994). Thereby preferencing the masculine.

Patriarchy is a socio-political system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak—especially women—and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence (hooks 2004). The Bible and other religious texts have often been co-opted and hijacked in the service of patriarchy with the express intent of subjugating women. From the role of women in the family unit to the role of women in ministry, much of the religious rhetoric has denied the equality of woman in such ways to disempower the voice and presence of half the human population. The post-Pauline Church vehemently asserted as norms the patriarchal relations of husband over wife and master over slave so that any countercultural Gospel must be ferreted out. The authentic narrative of Jesus that is an egalitarian vision of the Kindom—a purposeful nod to the anti-imperialistic message of Jesus—must be rescued from the lines of the New Testament. It must be salvaged, in contrast to the patriarchal Church that established the canonical framework for interpreting Christianity (Ruether 1993).

As we mourn the history of women’s plight in organized religion, we look with fresh eyes toward a picture of a better future. What if we radically redefine the way we talk about the Divine? In spite of Western and Christian uneasiness over female imagery for God, since the imago dei is twofold, female as well as male, and yet beyond both, both types of metaphors should be used. Names are important because what we call something, how we name it, is to a great extent what it is to us (McFague 1987). If we began to embrace female imagery and metaphors for God, how radically different we would understand and lift the voices of women in our community. The Quakers as far back as the Reformation included the right to preach and act as lay governors in the spirit of egalitarianism. They wrote that the subjugation of woman was not God’s intent, but represented the sinful distortion of human nature (Ruether 1993).

Indeed, change is possible when we apply a liberative ethic and lens to the work of Justice in the world. Such an approach to bringing together particular and universal moral concerns compels people of faith to engage in an ongoing struggle for sustained and systemic changes in the universal moral agreements about social relationships in our society. Likewise, this effects improvements in the material conditions that help produce these particular problems (West 2006). Our vocation is to let suffering speak, let victims be visible, and let social misery be put on the agenda of those in power (Buschendorf 2014). My prayer as we approach the celebration of women is that we will look at those places where we have betrayed the best of our faith traditions and reclaim the voices of those who have been pushed to the margins.

Peace Is Possible,

+Donalson

 

Bishop Edward Donalson, III | Director of Liturgy and Worship

901 12th Avenue, Seattle WA 98122-1090 Office (206) 296-6357  |  donalso1@seattleu.edu  Follow the school on social media: Facebook | Twitter |  Instagram  | YouTube | LinkedIn | Vimeo 

Works Cited
Buschendorf, Cornel West with Christa. 2014. Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon Press.
hooks, bell. 2004. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Washington Square Press.
Longfellow, James B. Nelson and Sandra P., ed. 1994. Sexuality and the Sacred. Louisvile: Westminister/ John Knox Press.
McFague, Sallie. 1987. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 1993. Sexism and God-Talk. Boston: Beacon Press.
West, Traci C. 2006. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Woman’s Lives Matter. Louisville: John Knox Press.

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