I know better than to view the comments section of online news articles as a barometer for the moral health of our country, since people who have the need to “sound off” in response to news articles generally represent a more acutely depraved subset of the population. But the responses I read today to an article about middle-class homelessness in Los Angeles offer a helpful illustration of the basic attitude that Jesus came to save us from having. The article describes the plight of a man who was a movie producer with good work married to a woman who was a certified nurse’s assistant. When they both lost their jobs, they lost their home and went to stay with friends, who ended up losing their home too. So they wound up at the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row, downtown Los Angeles. No drugs, no mental illness, no gambling addiction. Just bad luck. So here were some of the responses to this man’s situation:
Is it society [sic] fault that these people didn’t save enough for a rainy day?
Apart from misfortune, lack of future planning while maintaining a hedonistic lifestyle often leads to a pathetic and miserable financial predicament.
This man didn’t live paycheck to paycheck. He made a lot of money when he worked. He just wasted it. Not the same thing as people who barely get by on a consistent basis.
Poverty is a choice. The producer has connections that he does not use. Skid Row has mostly drug addicts, but the mentally-ill is an exception.
Just to be clear, the article didn’t give any details about the man’s predicament that would indicate he wasted his money or lived lasciviously. I’m assuming those are just stereotypes about the movie industry talking. The last one is my favorite. Skid Row is not allowed to have middle-class people who are down on their luck. I’m not sure how to interpret the last clause. I think what it means is that this guy is allowed to be homeless if he’s mentally ill. But if he’s not mentally ill or a drug addict, then clearly this news article has been made up since “poverty is a choice.”
While I know people aren’t exactly in their best form when they’re posting anonymous comments to an online news article, I still think these comments are illustrative of a tendency that we have as human beings to respond to another person’s pathos by making up a quick story in which their suffering is their moral failing. Now granted, this article isn’t asking readers to give money or respond in any particular way, but it seems that sharing this man’s misfortune bothers readers’ sensibilities enough that they have to make it unequivocally clear to themselves that the man should have done something differently. If his circumstances aren’t 100% his fault, then [gasp!] does that mean that they might be partly “society[‘s] fault”?
Individual responsibility is an attractive ideology because it makes morality simple. If “poverty is a choice,” then those who are rich worked hard and saved their money, while those who are poor wasted money or didn’t apply themselves hard enough in school. It creates a crisis for this ideology when people who used to wear ties to work and didn’t start snorting coke or fall into unethical behavior simply lose their jobs because life sucks sometimes. If someone falls into hard times, it’s a lot easier to rattle off a list of “should haves” than to face the overwhelming possibility that not only do bad things happen to good people but everything that happens to everyone is an impossible to untangle mix of luck and behavioral consequence.
When everyone is responsible for their own circumstances, then there’s a basic order in the universe because other peoples’ sufferings are not my problem. Blame is the tool that I use to bracket another person’s pathos and dodge the question that’s been hanging in the air ever since Cain murdered Abel: Am I my brother’s keeper? The reality is that we live in a messy, fallen world where the lines of responsibility are rarely crystal-clear. That’s why Jesus’ atonement is so important. By offering Himself as a sacrifice for all the crap that we do and all the crap that we go through, Jesus says, “Blame me! Stop blaming other people and have some frigging sympathy when their misfortunes pull on your heartstrings!”
The great news about accepting Christ’s atonement is that we don’t have to be haters ever again. We’ve been given the freedom to feel bad when other people suffer without needing to make up stories that blame them for their woes or calculate what percentage of their suffering is their fault. Whatever else is true about hell, being a hater is a major part of it. That’s why I struggle with any theology that too conclusively makes God the bogeyman that Jesus’ blood is supposed to save us from. We are the bloodthirsty bogeymen who needed to kill God’s Word made flesh in order to finally be convicted and repent of our hubris. Every time we speak dismissively of somebody else who is suffering, we are being no different than the crowd that yelled Crucify Him! But those who truly accept the justification of Christ’s atonement are saved from being self-righteous Pharisees, a way of living that makes it impossible to enjoy the heavenly feast of our embarrassingly and irresponsibly gracious, prodigal Heavenly Father. Only self-professing prodigals can stand to share heaven with other self-professing prodigals.
I pray that some Christians in the LA area will read the Time article and wrestle with how their churches can be a better support to homeless people whether they’re dealing with addiction, mental illness, or even bad luck.