Culture At Large

Is it stealing to occupy vacant homes?

Stephen P. Hale

Sabrina Morey hasn’t been able to find steady work for 12 years, and what work she has found has been in the fast-food industry. She told Chicago's NPR outlet she often has to choose between paying rent and buying food for her four children. Recently, with the help of Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, she moved her family into a vacant home that had been foreclosed upon. Some might consider this action theft, even as it's now part of a growing Occupy Our Homes movement.

Scripture repeatedly shows us one of the primary ways God judges a society is how they treat the most vulnerable among them. The book of Amos is written during a housing crisis and indicts the powerful for pursuing their legal options over paltry sums. God’s condemnation of Israel in Isaiah 58:7 is specifically because the poor go without housing. God doesn’t condemn families for failing to provide housing for their displaced cousins, but the entire nation for failing as a people to care for the vulnerable. This point is straightforward, but it challenges dominant views in much American Christianity.

As Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean shows in her new book "Almost Christian," the American church struggles to distinguish between American values and Christian values. American values tell us that if one does not work hard and get a good job, she will find herself struggling to provide for herself. In Proverbs Scripture agrees; it’s basic wisdom after all. But the Bible goes past that basic point to say that, when someone has made poor choices and finds themselves homeless, it is the responsibility of the entire nation to ensure they are housed. People struggled financially then for many of the same reasons they struggle financially now, yet the Scriptures do not distinguish between caring for the wise poor and the unwise poor. For those of us who pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God before we pledge allegiance to the flag, our responsibilities are clear.

However, that is only one problem highlighted by the Occupy Our Homes movement. Should the Morey family move into a home abandoned by the owner and/or the bank? How many bank foreclosures are unjust, and how many are reasonable applications of the bank’s right to be paid? Further, it essentially creates a new conflict between the Morey family and the bank, which previously had no interaction. The problem with the Occupy Our Homes movement is that its actions intersect so many different problems it is overwhelming to try and navigate through these issues.

The Occupy movements, with all of their flaws, remind us of what is to come. By drawing attention to these broken systems (among other things), we are reminded that in the world to come, things will be right. Things will be good and just. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes, as the prophet says. This time at the end, which theologians called the Eschaton and the Bible calls the (completed) Kingdom of God, is a return to Eden, to how things are supposed to be. The Occupy movement reminds us that we are not there yet.

Christianity is an eschatological religion. That is to say, Christianity is about the two comings of Jesus. As the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg noted, the first coming of Jesus was a sort of pre-echo of the end of the age. Jesus showed us the resurrection centuries before the Resurrection. Jesus defeated evil centuries before evil is completely defeated. Because of this, we can see in Jesus’ ministry a great deal of how the Kingdom will work.

Seeing Jesus begin the Kingdom helps us begin to know how to respond to the Occupy movement. For those of us who follow Jesus, good news to the poor is part of who we are. When Jesus issued His mission statement in Luke 4:18, this is part of what He said. This is part of a description of the Kingdom. For many of us, this is counter-cultural. Our inclination is almost always to side with the wealthy against the poor. Yet Scripture never sides with the wealthy against the poor.

In seeing our Master’s will for the world, we can see what His servants should work towards. With appropriate caution and humility, we should work to make God’s world reflect God’s will. When the decision is between a bank and a homeless family the answer is clear: we must obey God rather than men.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Economics, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice, North America