Rev. Nikia S. Robert
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!” – First Letter to the Church of Corinth 6:15
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. “ – First Letter to the Church of Corinth 6:19-20
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. – Letter to the Church of Rome 12:1
It was a normal day until I knocked on the door and discovered the unusual: a young man with a thick black beanie cap and scruffy beard, wearing a hospital gown, stood between the bed and the bathroom, attached to an intravenous (IV) drip infusion machine. He was tenderly thirty-three years old and tragically homeless. This young man certainly did not meet the profile of a patient on the telemetry floor. He was unripe and unforgettable. I proceeded to introduce myself as a chaplain and explained my role to provide emotional and spiritual support. The longer I stayed with the patient, the more he entrusted me with an anthology of homelessness. I was honored for the invitation to walk his shoes, but admittedly I did not want them to fit.
Mr. Ashton, a pseudonym for the patient, encountered firsthand the dangers of living without protection and provision. He moved in with his grandmother shortly after arriving to the United States from a foreign country. When she died, Mr. Ashton’s family could not afford the burden of caring for a sick relative and his siblings. Consequently, they abandoned him. The compounded challenges of immigration and the inability to establish domicile left Mr. Ashton without shelter or food and tirelessly seeking employment to no avail. Consequently, a young vulnerable man with declining health became hopeless and homeless. Seemingly, with everything taken away—his possessions and personhood—Mr. Ashton desperately held on to God. Thus, amid abandonment, adverse health, and the atrocities of street-living, he wrestled with understanding God’s indwelling presence and how it informed his existential reality. Subsequently, he derived what I pen as an “Incarnational Theology of Homelessness.”
Incarnate Theology of Homelessness
Mr. Ashton did not have the scholarship of an academician, but his scars and story became a didactic of extreme poverty. He read his life’s text from the “New Revised Version of Homelessness.” From this hermeneutical gaze grounded in an existential canon emerged a sacred appropriation of a Pauline theology of holiness. His point of departure was from the first letter to the Church of Corinth. In this letter, which is attributed to Paul, the author urged believers to depart from sexual immorality and to offer their body as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable before God. The passage asserts, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” Similarly, the writer of the letter to Rome states, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Thus, according to Pauline theology as alluded to by the texts, right relationship—being pleasing or acceptable—is made possible by the indwelling presence of God, which is seemingly reserved exclusively for holy bodies.
It appeared that Mr. Ashton read Paul literally to provide meaning for his present reality. Mr. Ashton did so because he believed that when he ate trash, God ate trash, and whatever else he physically consumed, so did God. Reading Paul in this way led Mr. Ashton to wrestle with how his body or bodily consumptions affected his embodiment of the Divine. It raised the question of whether or not he could ever be considered whole or holy while socially located in the biles of poverty, consuming the wastes of homelessness? Could his temple ever be a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God? Here unfolds the problem or the pin of interest of an Incarnational Theology of Homelessness: the very being-ness of homelessness conceptually counters contrived notions of holiness and therefore disenfranchises socially stigmatized bodies of right-relationship with the Divine. While Paul warned the community of Corinth against the risks of uniting Christ with a prostitute, Mr. Ashton feared uniting his body with the impurities that are endemic to living without a secure home. He did not have access to holy consumptions or acceptable offerings to a Pauline God. Instead, he consumed the trash he ate while living on the streets, choosing between rat-picked-over-food left behind on park benches, discarded delicacies wastefully thrown to the ground, rotten drinks and other abandoned spoils. On the one hand, Mr. Ashton took comfort in God incarnate who is ever present. On the other hand, however, he questioned how to reconcile this closeness of an embodied God with a context of homelessness.
At its core, an “Incarnational Theology of Homelessness” brings to the forefront a paradox. It underlines a tension in holiness that exasperates a caste chasm between the chosen and the condemned. Levitical holiness codes in the Torah, for example, emphasized governance by social norms and their ability to define acceptable social behaviors. Moreover, Pauline theology underlines the idea of holiness as a requirement of God’s indwelling presence, as the way to honor the Divine. Holiness, then, presupposes the privilege of insiders over and against outsiders. This concept of normative wholeness interweaves into our American fabric threads of acceptable social behavior that dichotomizes the haves and the have-nots. This tension pits the wealthy one-percent against the poorer ninety-nine percent. It polarizes people into the healthy and insured versus the sick and uninsured. It privileges the documented and problematizes the immigrant. It venerates the law-abiding citizen and denigrates the disenfranchised citizen with a criminal record. Perhaps it was this inherent tension in the piety of holiness that made it difficult for Mr. Ashton to reconcile the muck and filth he consumed with presenting a body that is holy and acceptable before God.
Thus, an Incarnational Theology of Homelessness is created from a conundrum and yet continues to beg the question: If God, who is perfect and good, “consumes” what we put into our bodies, then what does this mean for the God of the homeless, who like Mr. Ashton only have imperfect choices to consume as a matter of survival? Is this incarnate God of the homeless reconcilable with the holiness of the Divine as it has been construed?
It is precisely this framing question coupled with my unusual visit with Mr. Ashton that prompts a response. The cross offers an unveiling of the holies of holies that partitions the socially acceptable from the outcasts. On the cross, God entered into history to take on flesh to endure and partake of our suffering. This act of solidarity with those who suffer makes God accessible not because God is pristine, privileged, and healthy, but precisely because God identifies with the filthy, the vulnerable, and the afflicted. God is present in holiness as well as in holy messes. Therefore, a restatement of the relevant question becomes: How do we re-read Paul in a way that is faithful to tradition but affirming for the 21st century’s oppressed?
In Paul’s defense, the Apostle was writing in a time where promiscuity was prominent and not homelessness. He was not writing to Mr. Ashton. He was writing to the prostitute. It still remains, however, a prudent and purposeful task to appropriate and re-read Paul for Mr. Ashton’s context—especially since Paul’s theology of holiness became the interpreting lens for Mr. Ashton’s homelessness. Recontextualizing the Epistles in this regard offers a response grounded in the proposition that an immutable and compassionate God does not need to be changed in order for us to live transformed. In other words, there is no need to tread in a myopic fashion a hamster’s wheel of holiness, adhering to standard views that piously allow holiness to divide divineness from the disinherited and disenfranchised. Rather, the answer is perhaps easier than we would like.
Simply, a liberating (re)reading must capture the essence of God’s solidarity vis-a-vis an indwelling presence that transcends impurities and reclaims humanity as whole. In this regard our bodies are united by God’s in-breaking and not disenfranchised. Our consumptions should not in anyway disqualify us from relationship with God. While the passages speak of a reverence for our bodies, this is not to overlook the extenuating circumstances that demand actions for survival that are not conventionally honorable or hallowed. Yet, God loves us beyond our consumptions. God loves and accepts us regardless of our social stripes, sickness, and status. Hence, an “Incarnational Theology of Homelessness” offers a God who enters into history as an act of love and compassion to forge solidarity with the poor and pushed-out as well as the “pious” and privileged. This God, no matter our condition, context, or consumptions chooses to make room to accept us all. With God’s indiscriminate love, we are not only accepted but we are transformed. This transformation hinges not on the acceptance of society amid our stigmatization but on reconciliation demonstrated by the new creatures we become when unified with God.
Thus, just as Thomas Merton asserts, God is with those for whom society has made no home; society may push out Mr. Ashton but the Divine has made room for the discredited, dehumanized, denied, and disenfranchised. Amid bodily pollution, there is still room for the indwelling presence of a perfecting, protecting, and providing God who loves unconditionally so that we might be empowered to live transformed. In closing, I want Mr. Ashton to know there is room for him in the presence of this God. Unlike the shelters that sometimes do not have beds to receive him, this God has vacancies awaiting occupancy by imperfect but willing bodies. I know God makes room in holy messes—including homelessness. Mr. Ashton, you are accepted …
Into this world,
this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
his place is with those others for whom there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
Thomas Merton (from Raids on the Unspeakable)
Rev. Robert is affectionally called “Reverend Daughter” and is the founder of Reverend Daughter Ministries where she provides faith-based social justice models through radical preaching, teaching and social activism. She studied at Union Theological Seminary (New York) and obtained a Master of Divinity degree in Systematic Theology and Social Ethics. She completed her master thesis entitled, “Penitence, Plantation and the Penitentiary–A Liberation Theology for Lockdown America.” Her scholarly interest focuses on race and Christian interpretations of punitive philosophies as it pertains to American law and a criminal system of injustice. She is an ordained Itinerant Elder in African Methodism. She is a Resident Chaplain at Providence Medical Center. She is a nationally sought after ecumenical preacher, teacher and budding activist. She is listed as an ethical leader by the Middle Project and featured by NPR, Sojourners Magazine, and the inaugural United Kingdom Festival Tour of African American Preaching. Rev. Robert’s ministry and purpose is catapulted by the prophetic mandate to do justice, love kindly and walk humbly. She is a native New Yorker and currently resides in California with her loving husband, daughter, and son. You can follow Reverend Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/