Mr. Loafmann is pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 23, 1986, p.407. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christians should care for the afflicted simply because they are human and because the need us, because we or they will never again have this chance. Even if we can do nothing to mend or to prevent the tragedy, we can warm the night.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prisons to those who are bound [Isa. 61: 1-2].
But there is a tension between that ministry -- our ministry as followers of Christ -- and our tendency to view these words as timeless, eternal and transcendent. Let me tell you a true story about this tension.
Seven or eight years ago, there was a bar down the street that attracted truck drivers and street repair crews in the mornings, and in the evenings college students and the area’s dropouts -- people who had decided ten years earlier to become carpenters instead of lawyers. Then the neighborhood began to change and the bar catered to the people rehabilitating the older buildings in the neighborhood. There was live entertainment then, with different groups performing almost every night.
A friend of ours sang blues in those days, and that bar was one of the places where she sang. But then the owner died and the place was converted into a chrome-and-fern restaurant which catered to the people who had dropped out of carpentry to adopt an alternative lifestyle and drink chablis. This past New Year’s Eve our friend was invited to a party which gave her the first chance in years to see some of the people with whom she had worked and played and sung. It was rather like a class reunion, she told us the next day. These were singers who were good enough to do it for fun, and camaraderie had always been part of the pay for them.
At some point in the evening someone mentioned to our friend that Steve was there. She had sung with him on occasion, and liked his singing. She knew he was someone, like her, who had another profession but loved to sing. She had enjoyed his company in the earlier days. He was perhaps a dentist, she thought -- or something that required some intelligence and discipline, and three or four years of professional schooling.
Well, our friend was shocked when she saw Steve. He was a shell. His shoes were the wrong size and not made for cold weather. He was wearing someone else’s dirty clothes, his hair was untended, his eyes were vacant. He had a guitar, but he did not play.
Our friend, his friend, asked him questions, but his answers were slow, and only sometimes related to the question. He made no inquiries in return. "You could look in his eyes," she told us, and "there was nobody there."
He was a street person. Homeless. The host told her that their friend had been in and out of institutions over the past two or three years, and had been released recently, but had no place to go.
At first his friends were enraged at the institution that had released him; enraged at the system of deinstitutionalization that forces so many mentally ill onto the streets to fend for themselves; enraged at society for caring too little about its helpless; enraged at Ronald Reagan as the symbol of budget cuts and the agent of bottom-line considerations. But in a few days it became clear to them that in this case, anyway, no one had violated any laws of state or of morality. The man had been released into a supervised setting, at a time when he seemed capable of functioning in that setting. He was not without friends or contacts or access to support. But he could not reach out for them on his own. The failure was not the system’s; there was no one to blame.
Nor was he to blame. I had expected to hear a tale of drugs and dissipation, self-indulgence and the loss of discipline -- a morality story confirming the values of my conservative roots. But that was not the case either. If he used alcohol or other drugs, it was not to any greater extent than those with whom he spent, but did not share, that New Year’s Eve. As far as we know, he had done only what they had done, neither more nor less. We could see in his life only the measure of his tragedy, not its source.
Steve is an affront to our morality, the harshest judgment there is against the shallow places of our faith: he is the victim who is neither sinned against nor sinner. We long to blame someone. In doing so we long to find in ourselves the power to cure the evil -- to mend the tragedy, or to prevent it in the future. We want to create a program of care for such people, or of prevention for such evil.
But sometimes there just is no one to blame, and nothing we can fix.
Some say we should take refuge in transcendence, and care for this helpless one, and for all the homeless, because Christ is present in them, because they are Christ. Jesus even said something like that: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Yet if we are not careful, we convert that directive into a sentimental blasphemy, which appeals to both liberals and conservatives in the church, but which is dangerous in a way: when we issue calls for action on the basis of Christ’s presence, there tends to be no stopping us. Armies have been mobilized and motivated by saying Christ was present in this cause or in that person.
It is unnecessary as well as dangerous, I think, to wait to find Christ in those hollow eyes and blighted lives. Nor should we care for them because Christ tells us to, or because justice demands it, or for any other secondary reason which makes the afflicted mere instruments in service of a greater good, or mere opportunities for our moral behavior.
It is even beside the point to say, "They are like us." They are not like us; we had a place to sleep last night. It is that profound difference which calls us to a response of mercy.
The reality and the power of our call to ministry are more immediate than that: we should care for them not because they "are Christ" but because they are human, and because they need us. Because without mercy they will die. Even if we can do nothing to mend or to prevent the tragedy, we can warm the night. We must care for them because they need care, and because neither they nor we will ever again have this chance.
And there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down . . And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" [Luke 4: 17-21].