This morning I was sorting through some old files, deleting what I could and organizing the rest when I ran across this file. We were living in Butte, Montana at the time and I think I may have originally written it as a letter to the editor of our local paper, The Montana Standard. It is worth posting here and I hope it stirs us to take a good look at our hearts and consider our motivations.
May 4, 2012 – Butte, Montana
It was with interest that I read an article in this morning’s Montana Standard (Friday, May 4, 2014) concerning vagrancy in Butte and how problems are developing with some panhandlers getting aggressive. It makes one nervous about walking the sidewalks. The last thing any of us needs is to be accosted or threatened by panhandlers when we go out. So, the commissioners are considering a vagrancy law that would put some controls on the transient population in Butte and give our law enforcement people some tools to use. It’s a good idea and I support what they are doing. Boundaries give us security and we all need them, even homeless people. The Lord knows, there is precious little security in the life of a homeless person and the limits of right behavior contained in such ordinances provide at least a little safety for them.
However, I wonder at our motivations for writing that law. When Samuel was meeting the sons of Jesse, the Lord rejected the older sons in favor of David, the youngest. He told Samuel, “I look at a man’s heart and his motives, not the outward appearance.” (Read it in the Bible, 1 Samuel 16.) What are our motives behind this ordinance? Are we simply trying to keep the peace? That’s not a bad motive. Are we wanting to eliminate hindrances that are keeping businesses from operating well and profitably? That’s not a bad motive, either. On the other hand, do we find the presence of a homeless person disturbing and unsightly? Are we bothered by their messy appearance and cluttered camps? By just being there, they impinge on our lives -- do we wish they’d go away? Are we wondering if we could make them go away? That kind of thinking, unfortunately, lies in the heart of even the most altruistic amongst us, even if it is buried deeply. I work hard to eschew such thinking, yet there it is, sullying my soul.
What makes a motive good or bad? That’s a big question, but for me, all I need to answer is this: does the new ordinance reflect mercy? Is it born out of a desire to unclutter our world, pushing those transients back where they can’t be seen, or are the limitations we are placing on Butte’s vagrant population tempered by mercy and charity? Are we cognizant, while writing our new law, of the iron-fisted hopelessness that rules the life of that homeless person we see hanging out on the street corner? We should be! My hope is that our county commissioners will let mercy guide them as they craft the new rules. Those of us who claim the name of Christ have a responsibility to extend mercy. Indeed, it’s more than a responsibility – it’s an imperative! Jesus put His arms around the shoulders of the smelly unlovables of Israeli society. We should do the same.