“Tweaker Jesus and the Good Life”
Text: 1 John 4:7-21
I’m not good at abstraction. I don’t do much afterlife talking. My kind of good news for the poor is decent food, shelter, health care, protection from violence and oppression. Maybe there’s something to the idea of “spiritual poverty” but mostly it strikes me as a way of distracting ourselves from material poverty. So I like this 1 John reading a lot:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
I think a good life means loving your sisters and brothers. Loving your neighbor as yourself. That much is easy enough to say and agree on. It has broad political appeal. In practice, loving your neighbor as yourself tends to be dangerous. This is not only when your neighbor doesn’t love you back, which is a common enough problem. Loving your neighbor also gets dangerous when you come up against policies that require you to despise them.
In 21 cities around this country it is now illegal to distribute food to homeless people. It thus follows that if a good life means loving your neighbor, and your neighbor is hungry, but it is illegal for you to feed them—then a good life also means breaking the law. Working to change the law in the long-term is certainly part of a good life. In the short-term, however, your neighbor still needs to eat and God doesn’t give a damn about your spotless rap sheet. God cares about your neighbor’s empty belly. In fact, if you have a pristine record in a society and economy dependent upon mass suffering and exploitation of the poor, God is probably wondering what’s up with you. Justifying yourself by explaining, “Well, I just wanted to help the right kind of poor people” (or perhaps, “I just wanted to be the right kind of poor people”) isn’t going to help your cause with God, either. Jesus wasn’t nice poor. Jesus was bad poor. Jesus was criminal poor. Jesus had a record.
Policy isn’t the only problem. It can also be dangerous to love your neighbor because of stigma. Maybe your neighbor does sex work to pay for their tuition at nursing school. Maybe your neighbor uses heroin to endure sleeping outside in the cold. Maybe your neighbor is transgender. Or undocumented. Or Muslim in a neighborhood full of Christian bigots. Take your pick of stigmatized lives. If you love your neighbor when the stakes are high, people will talk. The kind of talk that accompanies stigma is not garden-variety idle gossip, either. It’s attached to consequences. If you speak up about racism too often out of love for your neighbor, you will lose some friendships. You might even lose your job. It’s happened before. I’ve seen it happen in the church more than once. Stigma, like policy, works to keep systems in place. We know about this through Jesus’ life. He didn’t just have legal troubles, he was also stigmatized by his society—for his own behavior, the things he said, the company he kept. Back then they called him a glutton and a drunkard. Today we might call him a freeloader and a tweaker, a junkie. He never sold out his neighbors, though, and he never stopped eating and drinking with his friends. It was too good a life to pass up. It was worth the risk.
I’ve been working my job out on the coast, with people who know firsthand about the ways policy and stigma can collide to get you hating and hurting your neighbor. We’re nearing the end of our ability to stall the city of Aberdeen’s eviction of the largest homeless encampment in town, along the Chehalis River. City officials want to turn the site into a waterfront park for tourists, and they’ve been relentless in wielding the weapons of policy and stigma against camp residents. We don’t know what happens next but in the mean time: there’s an image that sticks out for me from these past few months of organizing. One of the long-time residents of the camp constructed this elaborate driftwood archway at the entrance to his campsite. It’s about ten feet tall, at once ornate and wild looking, the kind of architecture I imagine when I read Tolkien. He let me take a picture of it the day we had Bishop Rickel come out and visit the camp, and he explained the work he’d put into it—how he had to search and wait for each piece of wood to appear along the riverside, fitting them into place based on the way nature and time had sculpted every one. Then he pointed out a little bench he’d built into the side of it and said he’d added that part for his next-door neighbor: another older guy at the camp who likes to come visit him, but who walks with crutches and can’t stand up for too long. So the builder built this detail into his great work of art to ease his friend’s struggling and make life a little sweeter.
This week, because the city won’t let up on pushing folks out, he took an axe to that beautiful archway and then burned it down. People do what they have to do to maintain some control over their own destiny.
I think about that archway a lot. I think about it when I hear the mayor of Aberdeen claim he always tries to “imagine what Jesus would do in these situations,” right before he issues a no-trespass order on people who have nowhere else to go. I think about that archway when I hear the city attorney refer to camp residents as a “public nuisance” and say they’ve chosen this life despite the fact that Aberdeen does not have decent jobs, decent housing, or decent health care for at least half its population. I think about that archway, about the artist’s eye and the worker’s hands behind it, when I hear anybody talk about meth users like they’re throwaway people. I think about that archway—strange and imposing but somehow humble and so obviously, so agonizingly somebody’s home—and as soon as I see it in my mind’s eye, the delusional and poisonous fog of our economic system clears from my brain. I think about that archway and every time I remember it, I snap awake to the truth: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”
People who sleep outside are people.
People who shoot heroin are created in the image of God.
People who do sex work are Jesus’ own chosen and beloved friends.
People who smash windows to loot shoes and baby formula are prophets of a kingdom-come where nobody has to break the law to get their basic needs met. They are God’s dream come true.
People who live in any of these situations and somehow still manage to create beauty, still manage to care for their neighbors in infinitely better ways than our elected officials seem to be able to do have something to teach this sick society about abundant life, about perfect love.
Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
Love your neighbor. Protect them. Care for them when the world won’t. That’s the good life. It’s worth the risk.