I’ve been asked to participate in a panel discussion on the topic this evening for the Annual Meeting of the Madison Area Urban Ministry. Here are my thoughts in advance of the conversation:
After I agreed to participate in this panel discussion on Justice and the Homeless, A Faith Perspective, I ended the call and began to think. Was there something unique about the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that could offer insight or a new perspective to this group? I assumed others would talk about Jewish and Christian scriptures and I didn’t simply want to repeat what they had to say. I certainly didn’t want to argue that somehow an Anglican/Episcopal approach to those scriptures was better or more insightful.
So my mind immediately turned to history and I began thinking about periods in the history of our tradition that might inform our conversation. I thought first of the sixteenth century, the point of origin for the Church of England. I think one can detect there a pattern that continues to hold true, at least to some degree. It’s often claimed that the English Reformation began with Henry VIII’s desire for Anne Boleyn and for a male heir. There were other sources, among them reformers who sought drastic change to doctrine and practice. Among their chief targets was the wealth of the church, which they argued was squandered on lavish lifestyles, when it should have been dedicated to the poor and other needs in society. They were also deeply concerned that wealthy landowners were forcing farmers off their land and converting it into pasture for the cash crop of sheep’s wool. When Henry began looking for new revenue sources, he attacked the monasteries, using the writings and preaching of those reformers as cover. The monasteries were dissolved, the wealth came to the crown and to his courtiers, and much of it was squandered in Henry’s foreign policy adventures. It did not go to help the poor.
That’s the dynamic in Anglicanism I would like to highlight. Yes, there’s a strong prophetic voice calling for justice for the poor and the homeless. But we have also been closely associated with political and economic power, both in England and here in the US. That dynamic continues to play itself out. In fact, one of the significant economic justice movements of our time, Occupy, confronted not only the economic power of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange; it also confronted two prominent Anglican/Episcopal Churches—St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and Trinity Church Wall Street. In each case the institutional church turned a cold shoulder and either participated in or instigated police action against Occupy protestors (the evidence is not clear in either case).
Yesterday, a judge in Manhattan found a group of protestors guilty of trespassing on Trinity Church property (Trinity is one of the major landholders in lower Manhattan). Among those convicted were a retired Episcopal Bishop, George Packard, and an Episcopal priest.
There is a lively debate in our church over the events leading up to yesterday’s court decision. Trinity does enormous good throughout the world with its enormous wealth. Located on Wall St., part of its mission has to be to minister among those who work in the financial sector. And granted, it did provide hospitality to Occupy protestors. It also provides ongoing hospitality to homeless people in its neighborhood.
My suspicion is that in the history of most of the religious traditions represented on this panel, one could discern something of the same dynamic—preachers and prophets proclaiming, “let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” while business people, robber barons, or rulers acted rapaciously to accumulate wealth and power, and in the process displaced people or caused homelessness.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. Like other traditions, the Episcopal Church, nationally and locally, has done great things on behalf of the homeless, as we seek to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to live out our baptismal vows. Sometimes such efforts have been criticized, not least here in Madison. But we persevere, sometimes at great cost, as happened earlier this year when a priest and parish administrator were murdered in Maryland by a homeless person who had been a guest of their food pantry.
If we have a unique perspective, it may be that we are better situated than other traditions to seek to build bridges between those disparate groups, the 1% and the 99%. That we fail to do so shouldn’t lead us to abandon the effort, even if we fail so spectacularly as we did yesterday in Manhattan.