A Meditation for FMC Denver
26 August 2018
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Pax Christi/Pax Romana
I haven’t been to Rome, but I have been to formerly Roman occupied North Africa. In 2011, while I was in seminary, I took a travel course through Tunisia and Morocco entitled, “Christian relations with Islam: Past, Present, and Future.” We spent much of our time throughout the Mediterranean region of North Africa touring Roman ruins, vestiges of conquest, cities and civilizations of old.
Sure enough, all of the signs of the Roman Empire were in Tunisia and Morocco, the aqueducts, the baths, the mosaic floors, the coliseums. One inscription on a fallen column outside of an imperial civic building struck me, in perfect Latin, the inscription read, “Pax Romana.” What an interesting concept for a colonizer to claim, and in a foreign language, no less.
To the people that they controlled, the Roman Empire promised the peace and prosperity of their protection. They built roads and aqueducts (using indigenous labor) and protected these resources and investments with Roman Imperial Guards–the very same guards that claimed these lands for Rome from the beginning.
As the early church was growing throughout the Empire, Christians began speaking of the Pax Christi, the Peace of Christ, which was a direct contradiction to the Peace of Rome, claimed not by the sword through conquest, but by the willingness to lose one’s life and the practiced belief that another kind of community, in fact, another kind of world was possible.
Imperial Guards and the Armor of God
The author of Ephesians, writes to a community in another Roman occupied territory. Ephesus was conquered by the Romans in 129 B.C.E., 100 years later, the city became the capital of proconsular Asia and became the second most important city in the Empire behind Rome.
For the first 1700 years of Christian tradition, scholars suggested that this letter was written to the church of Ephesus from Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment. Beginning in the 18th century this history became disputed. Scholars noticed a different writing style in Ephesians than in the undisputed letters of Paul, longer sentences, a modified vocabulary. Still, for 1700 years, we thought Paul wrote this letter from a Roman prison. Historically accurate or not, this tradition remains important for our interpretation of the letter.
An imprisoned Paul knew well the “Pax Romana,” and it’s particular manifestation in the shape of a Roman Imperial Guard.
It’s as if the author of the letter is studying a Roman Imperial Guard as he writes, perhaps only as one can study such a guard while one is in prison. Up close and personal. Under the guards control, and longing for freedom. Longing for liberation. The author is fixated upon the guard, and upon the guard’s representation of the Pax Romana.
In his study of the guard the author notices…
- The guard’s belt and breastplate, these base layers, which keep the guard cinched up, covered, protected.
- The shoes on the guards feet, which provide mobility for the guard’s power and carry the guard down those Roman roads with speed and strength.
- The shield in the guard’s left hand, used to push through a crowd or to fend off an attack.
- The helmet atop the guard’s head providing the guard with a sense of invulnerability, power, anonymity.
- The sword in the guard’s right hand, the sign of force and dominance, the ultimate tool for Roman control.
The author of this letter has studied the Pax Romana quite well, and finds a way to subvert the imperial guard right under the guard’s nose. Under the thumb of the Roman Imperial Guard, longing for freedom and liberation, the author of this letter begs another kind of community to be born. He invites another kind of community to show up. A community no longer clad in the cloth of the empire, but covered in the love and life of God. Studying the Roman Imperial Guard, the author begs the community of faith to dawn another kind of clothing:
- The baselayer belt and breastplate of which is righteousness.
- The mobilizing shoes of which is the proclamation of the gospel of peace.
- The pushing and protecting shield of which is faith.
- The invulnerable, anonymous helmet of which is salvation.
- The dominating, life taking sword of which is not life taking at all, but the very story of the love of God and a new community’s life in the Spirit.
In the face of the Pax Romana, the author calls forth the Pax Christi, claimed not by power and control, but by the willingness to let go of power and control, and the practiced belief that in that very letting go another kind of community, in fact, another kind of world is possible.
The Armor of God and the Housing Crisis
I spend most of my time trying to build and sustain housing for people who don’t have it. The Denver Metro area is 86,000 units short of affordable housing. The latest point in time survey suggests that on a single night in January 2018, 5317 people were counted as being homeless. On that same night, 1308 people were counted as being unsheltered, but we all know these numbers are far from accurate.
There are people sleeping on couches in friend’s living rooms, there are women in abusive relationships, there are children spending the school year at their aunt’s house, there are families living out of their cars and RV’s in super-market parking lots–all because they don’t have housing, and none of these people are counted. The “real numbers” of people without homes is at least two or three times our count.
Some people would suggest that “Homelessness is a choice.” That the people we see outside are lazy addicts that don’t want to live indoors. In some ways they are right. “Homelessness is a choice.” It’s a political choice. It’s a moral and ethical choice. It is a choice that we make in a society that is addicted to wealth, prosperity and power, and fails to recognize that the well being of our marginalized sisters and brothers is part and parcel of our own humanity.
Homeless people did not cause mass homelessness, and we haven’t always had mass homelessness in this country. We created modern mass homelessness in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when we made drastic cuts to the federal housing budget that have never been replaced. At the same time that we defunded housing, we began to see an increase in regressive policies that would criminalize poor people, and subsequently an increase in spending on jail time, police calls, detox visits, and Emergency Department visits.
This week, there was a news article published by Denver 7 entitled, “Denver Homeless population has jumped over last four years; RiNo residents feeling frustration.” Here are some of my favorite quotes from the article:
- This one is from an employee at a luxury motorcycle rental company in the neighborhood, “Customers come in and they are coming to spend several thousands of dollars on a rental of a motorcycle and they see people sleeping across the street and they see people peeing in corners and drugs all kinds of things happening, it’s very unprofessional.”
- Another is from a gentleman that lives in one of the several luxury apartment buildings that have gone into this former warehouse district in the last few years. He said, “It’s not a housing issue from what I’ve seen. It’s usually a mental issue or alcohol issue. Putting them in a free house, not even rent controlled, but even if it was free most of them I don’t think would be there. The ones that would be there would probably trash the units.”
Well… ok. I could unpack those statements, but instead of spending all of our time picking apart those arguments and explaining why they are wrong (which they are), and so desperately uninformed (which they are), I would prefer to focus on the irony that in the wealthiest country in the world, and that in an historical moment of economic boom in Denver, where luxury apartments are popping up all over the city, and apparently people have the discretionary income to spend “several thousand dollars on the rental of a motorcycle,” our sisters and brothers are suffering and dying on the streets because they simply don’t have housing.
Our political choices. Our ethical and moral choices. Our misplaced values have created a system where thousands of people are unnecessarily suffering.
Like the author of the letter to the Ephesians, our sisters and brothers without housing have drawn close to this system. They have gotten up close and personal with this system only as one oppressed by the system can. As projects are denied, people on the streets are murdered, housing costs rise, news articles like the one quoted above come out, our brothers and sisters on the streets begin to understand what we might just call the “American Imperial Housing Guard.”
Here’s what this guard appears to be wearing:
- The belt and breastplate — the base layers beneath all the rest of it– are the individual trauma stories from childhood and otherwise that make people more likely to fall into homelessness and poverty, and then more likely for their children to do the same.
- The shoes on the guards feet — the mobilizing force of this crisis– is an economy where wages are stagnant, where wealth inequality exists across racial lines; it’s a market driven housing system where the rising cost of housing is mirrored by federal tax cuts.
- The shield — used to push through a crowd or fend off an attack — is a zoning code which determines what kinds of uses are permissible in particular parts of town, (and historically what types and races of people are permissible in particular parts of town). It’s pro-development policies without adequate plans for curbing displacement creating an influx of people from suburban communities displacing historically urban communities of color.
- The helmet — that which makes the guard anonymous and invulnerable — are the rights that owners of private property have that those who live in public space are without. It’s the fact that in many cases, property values are more protected than people.
- The sword — the ultimate sign of force and dominance — is a culture where social relationships are so broken down along lines of race, class, religion, culture, ideology, sexual orientation, etc. that an ethic of radical individuality, autonomy, and independence insists that we have no responsibility to care for our neighbors.
Our sisters and brothers on the streets would like to subvert this guard right under the guard’s very nose. Under the thumb of the American Imperial Housing Guard, longing for freedom and liberation, our sisters and brothers on the streets are begging for a new kind of community to be born. They are begging for a new kind of community to show up. A community no longer clad in the cloth of the empire and its values, but covered in the love and life of God. Our sisters and brothers on the streets are begging the community of faith to dawn another kind of clothing:
- The belt and breastplate of which is the command to “love God and love one another.”
- The shoes of which is an economy of enough where five loaves and two fish feed the multitudes, and “the birds of the air and lilies of the field” have everything they need.
- The shield of which is the Hebrew understanding that the land is a gift given by God, not to be owned or possessed, but through mutual care to bring forth life and sustenance.
- The helmet of which, is the opportunity to repent, to turn around, to write a new and better story, “to go home by another way.”
- The sword of which is the invitation to wash one another’s feet, “To be one as we are one.” The gift that we are “no longer strangers, but friends.” To practice the belief that we belong to one another. That we “abide together.” That we are not independent, but interdependent. That our lives are intricately woven together like a vine and its branches.
This is the letter being written from the banks of the Platte River, from the lines outside of the Samaritan House, from the Section 8 Voucher waiting lists, from the lobby of the Stout Street Health Center, from RV’s parked in supermarket parking lots, from the ground beneath shade trees in Sunken Gardens Park. It’s a letter calling forth a new kind of people who believe that another kind of world is possible.
Pax Christi/Pax Americana
I wonder, what people will think, 1500 years from now, when they tour the ruins of our great city, and beside our City and County Building, or beside our beautiful State Capitol building, they find an ancient inscription on a decaying column that reads, “Pax Americana.”
Like the peace and prosperity of Rome, the peace and prosperity of the American Empire was won by colonizers and conquest. It has been maintained and protected on the backs of a slave economy; and by the presence of constant war and a nuclear force shield. In this Empire, parents have to send children to schools uncertain of their safety; communities of color are disproportionately represented in poverty and the criminal justice system; gentrification leads to the displacement of historic communities from their neighborhoods; people lose their lives, because they simply don’t have access to healthcare or good housing.
I’m wondering, in this time, where are the people who are speaking of the “Pax Christi?”
Where are the people who are willing to claim that in the face of American power, the Peace of Christ gives and sustains life?
Where are the people willing to practice their belief that the Peace of Christ contains a deeper logic, congruent with the origins of the universe that demonstrates that another kind of community, in fact, another kind of world is possible?
Another world is possible. Even Now. Even here among us.
It’s a world where everyone has access to food, water, health, and housing.
It’s a world where lines of division are broken down.
A world where we come to understand our oneness and respect the earth as our home.
A world where we can live together in peace.
Francis of Assissi is a voice, our world needs in these times. After Francis’ conversion in the San Damiano Chapel of Assissi, he walked into the town square and took off all of his clothing and then headed off into hills behind Assissi to live for the next couple of months as a beggar.
In doing so, Francis striped off the cloak of wealth, power, prestige, and war to embrace a life of simplicity, justice, community, and peace. No longer clad in the cloth of the empire and its values, he found himself covered in the love and life of God.
When God spoke to Francis, God said, “Francis, go and repair my house, for it has fallen into ruin.” Francis interpreted “house” as a reference to the church, but isn’t the entire world the household of God?
The good news of Jesus of Nazareth broke into history and breaks into every history.
Though we may live in chains, the Spirit of Christ invites us to be free.
Like Francis of Assisi, may we strip off the cloth of empire.
Like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field,
may we find that God has clothed us with everything we need.
So clothed, may we walk together to repair God’s good and beautiful house which has fallen into ruin.