Last week, I went to a local laundromat to dry some cleaned laundry because my machine is broken and it was a very overcast, cold day, making it impossible to line-dry. The people at the laundromat were the typical hodgepodge of college students, motorcycle men on a cross-country trip, low-income-appearing moms, and a business woman talking on her cellphone while she cleaned up after her teacup dog who had thrown up over all the bedclothes.
Outside, there were two men and a woman who staked their claim to the benches. They were squabbling over the fact that they didn't have change for the machines and the dollar-changer was broken. I gave them two dollars in quarters, they thanked me, and the woman went off to the nearby grocery store. They never did any laundry in the hour I was there. Maybe it was their way of begging without a sign. In any case, my encounter got me to thinking about Christian 'charity' versus the Unitarian philosophy of humanism.
All three seemed to be homeless and maybe a little mentally ill. They all had beer cans and a cigarette. One of the men stood out, however. He answered his colleagues normally, but then he would twitch and talk to someone who was not there. He didn't seem dangerous; it made me sad. He sat in a wheelchair, and his pant legs were like broken balloons. A small stream of beer or urine or both flowed from his wheelchair. I had to step over the stream to give the change to his friend.
As I stifled a cough from the stench of this man and gave him a little money, I wondered why the Unitarians in my town are focusing on the homeless such as he. They are doing a big push to end homelessness and to "raise awareness" of the problem in our city. We have 'section 8' housing for low-income families who are able to do paperwork and qualify. We have moderate income housing available as well. We have shelters such as Salvation Army and county facilities for people who don't have a stable situation and might not even have identification. But as far as I know, these shelters will not give a bed to a person who is obviously under the influence. So, this man has nowhere to go if he can't or won't say yes to the help that the county provides (drug/alcohol rehab, psychiatric help and maybe medication, a required shower and clean clothes to sleep in a county facility)
Why do we as a society do anything and spend any money to help 'these kinds' of people? "Are there no prisons?" says Ebenezer. Will the man in the wheelchair sitting in his own urine and speaking to a ghost ever contribute anything positive to society? Will his life ever have even a neutral effect on society or will 'normal' people have to continue to hold their breath and avert their eyes when they pass by him?
We try to help men like him (with private and public means) because:
- there is potential for rehabilitation (he will then be a positive contributor to society)
- our society wants people to live at a certain level of dignity in a clean and safe environment (he will be a neutral, non-disruptive part of society)
- we 'normal' people are uncomfortable with other people living too far below our level and know that our society is rich enough to guarantee a life where the mentally ill and homeless won't bother us too much because they get basic services
- all human life has dignity and worth no matter the life stage, physical or mental health, income level, etc (he may remain a 'negative contributor' to society, but he will be helped by society simply because he is a human person with intrinsic worth)
But why does human life have intrinsic worth? And if human life has intrinsic worth and dignity, doesn't that mean that we need to value all human life- especially that life which is the weakest and most at risk?
This is where the Unitarian parts ways with the Christian. For the Unitarian, human life has dignity because of whatever reason that person believes. At the church where my daughters are meeting for drama class, the focus is on the mentally-ill homeless. Now, if this were simply their focus (no one can solve every problem- we use the talents and means we have- and what we feel called and motivated to do) and they had a consistent respect for human life, I would not quibble. But it was devastating to see a sign-up to help the homeless right next to the "Stand with Planned Parenthood!" signs and a sign-up to work on legalizing euthanasia.
The surprise pregnancy and the sick elderly are just as unwanted and challenging as the mentally ill homeless, so why won't this Unitarian congregation stand up for them? Why don't the baby and the elderly have the same human dignity as the mentally ill? Do only those six months (for some, the young infant is not a fully-formed person) to sixty years have the right to ask for the help and support of the Unitarians?
For the Christian person, all human life has been made in the image of God. This means that life has value even when it is messy and inconvenient. The fetus, the child with a disease or disorder, the mentally ill, the prisoner, the housewife, the brain surgeon, the terminally ill, the elderly- all are human; all have value. I just wish that we Christians could be Christian enough to convince Unitarians of this fact.