It is snowing today in NYC, the first of the season. As a New Englander originally, I can’t help but have the same childlike glee and wonder whenever it snows, even in the city, even as a currently jaded New Yorker. It has such a purifying and calming affect on life in the city and I love that it comes around Christmas. As a Catholic kid, as cold and wet (and, eventually, disturbingly colored) as snow can be in NYC, it will always be associated with the message of peace, love, and community that the birth of Jesus represents.
Partly because of that association, but largely because of the coldness and wetness, the first snow also fills me with profound sadness knowing that there are so many fellow New Yorkers that meet it with dread.
The affordable housing crisis is a slow motion plague spreading across literally all of America, but in NYC, it’s easy to see it accelerating. There are over 60,000 homeless in NYC right now, by far the largest on record. That number probably undercounts many unsheltered homeless, mostly men, who fall through the cracks. The vast majority in shelters are women and children.
I know many of those children have the same glee and wonder that I have about snow — what child doesn’t — but I know that it won’t last for them. If we remain on our current development trend, these children will know that snow means harder times, fewer beds, and longer lines. It means suffering, neglect, and loneliness.
All the while, New York City is experiencing a wave of economic growth and stability that it hasn’t seen in generations. The Great Recession was 10 years ago and for all its devastation nationally, it felt like a blip in NYC.
But what have we gotten with this economic boom? Our schools are still chronically underfunded and unfairly criticized, our transit system is groaning from decades of neglect and our streets are clogged with freeloading private ride-share companies. And the affordable housing crisis — which by now is frankly too big, too crushing, and too unchanging to be called merely a ‘crisis’ — is eating the salaries, savings, and futures of too many New Yorkers.
The same can be said for the rest of the nation. By our exceedingly flawed popular metrics, the economy is “doing well”: 82 months of job growth, the lowest unemployment since 2000, and a rising, if frothy stock market. If things are so good right now, why are so many people suffering? Why are there 554,000 homeless across the country? Why is that number growing?
I’ve gotten into the weeds in plenty of blogs about why our flawed housing policies –locally and nationally — are part of the problem. I’ve talked about how the illusionary effects of debt and other financial tools mask our deeper economic problems. I’ve also argued that the nihilism and greed inherent in our period of late capitalism are rotting our economy and our civic institutions (see: tax plan).
But as I marvel at the snow covering the Christmas reaves around Stuyvesant Town, and worry about how thousands of homeless children in NYC are doing tonight, I know that our problem is more basic than that: we are a profoundly unchristian society.
This reality seems particularly pronounced today. It is near cliche to say we are bitterly divided along partisan lines that are defined by equally deep, cultural divisions. Those divisions are increasingly presented as conservative and Christian against liberal and secular.
But that demarcation has never really made sense to me.
I’d love to write about why these divisions are tragic because they prevent people who share the same problems from forming political unions to solve them. I’d love to write about how wealthy firms and individuals cynically fuel and exploit this tragedy to dominate our politics. I’d love to write about how the Founding Fathers hoped to avoid this very scenario by separating church from state and by forging a universal civic identity and purpose.
But I want to help the homeless. I want to explain why it is important for Americans to care about them, Christian or not. More importantly, I want to talk about how I think we can help.
Of course a lot of people care about the homeless. Last week, Eillie Anzilotti of Fast Company wrote about the many programs mayors in major cities are enacting, all the millions of dollars that are being provided, and all of the organizations that are involved. One of her colleagues even wrote about how a tech startup is trying to use blockchain technology to help the homeless create a digital identity to access services. No, the homeless don’t need the blockchain, but the intentions are good. The intentions across many cities, organizations, churches, and individuals are always good.
But the results aren’t good and never will be if we don’t build a society from top to bottom that reflects the values many Americans falsely claim to follow. That doesn’t mean being a Christian nation, but it does mean applying Christian values (and Jewish values, and Muslim values, and humanist values, and so on) to our society.
But what are those values? A lot of people on the right in this country speak about ‘values’ based on the word of Christ and, for some truly confounding reason, people on the left don’t seem to. I’ve been guilty of that.
I’ve always been hesitant to frame my views on housing as a right and my aspirations for America as a more just and equal society in a religious context. This is partly because of my own struggles and admitted ambivalence towards Catholicism, but also because I just don’t think its necessary. I don’t need to reinforce my arguments with an appeal to higher authority. My arguments stand on their own merit because they are true and just; because I believe they also reflect the values in our Constitution that I deeply respect as an American.
So it bothers me when people use their Christian faith as a rhetorical crutch in political arguments. It is alienating to people of other faiths or beliefs, of course. But mostly — certainly because of my Catholic upbringing, Jesuit education, and leftist beliefs - I’ve never recognized where the ‘Christian values’ are in the political views of the right in America. (Of course this has only become more pronounced with the bizarre support for Roy Moore in Alabama.)
More specifically, I don’t recognize where the ministry of Jesus informs the right’s public policy choices, the leaders they support, or the lifestyle they lead. I don’t recognize faith in their arguments at all.
I don’t think a Christian society would allow 554,000 Americans to be homeless. I don’t think it would allow thousands of women and children to face the cold and wet without a home in a city of ungodly wealth. I also don’t think it would tolerate the naked greed, violence, and intolerance that underwrite our domestic and foreign policy. But our society does.
It is beyond obvious that a truly Christian society would provide shelter, food, wellness, and other basic needs for its most vulnerable. It would create a system of justice where no one is above the law and no one is below it. It would create a culture that strengthens its civic institutions at all levels, respects the beliefs of all people, and engages the world as equals.
The fact that we can actually for serious 100% afford to do this, but choose not to shows how unchristian we truly are. And don’t believe that we can’t. We could create that society in 40 days if we wanted to.
I don’t know why Christians in America are worried about secularism creeping into public life. That’s the whole point of our Constitution. Right-leaning Christians in America should be more concerned about how little Christianity seems to be seeping into their belief systems and political aspirations. That’s what is killing our country.
I don’t want our policies and laws to reflect the type of Christianity I see on the right. Those empty slogans, appeals, and litmus tests have allowed a deeply unjust and intolerant society to appear as something other than it is while excusing the immorality of those who benefit from it.
If the right won’t promote Christian values, then I think it is high time for the left to do so. More accurately, it is high time for the left to remind the rest of the country who those Christian values come from originally. Only then can we start to articulate a vision of the future of America that I want and I think most Americans want — one where kids don’t suffer because housing (among other things) is a right.
It is not just the homeless children in NYC who are suffering from this, but today, that’s who I think of as it snows outside. To help them, I am all for laws and policies that reflect the mission of Jesus. It is a universal, inclusive mission that calls for us to love, to serve, and to protect others as we love, serve, and protect ourselves. It also sounds profoundly American to me.