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Shopping for justice in Los Angeles


The security guards at the prestigious Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles are as obsequious to wealthy guests as they are harsh to homeless people who transgress the invisible border separating affluent from impoverished -- especially if that person happens to be pushing a shopping cart.

So when Martha from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker House recognized Gerald, one of our friends from the soup kitchen, being detained by the Biltmore security people, she went to investigate. “They told me that if I didn’t take my shopping cart away from here, they would give me a ticket. But I showed them the statement on the cart and they went to call their boss.” The guards returned and said, “Sorry to bother you, sir. Thank you for educating us. You can go now.”

Catholic Worker shopping carts have been breaking barriers and empowering homeless people ever since July 14 when we handed out the first 100 free, street-legal shopping carts to the poor people of Skid Row.

It turns out that L.A. Police Captain Richard Bonneau was prophetic when he said of our carts, “I suspect we will be powerless to stop them.” No one has stopped them -- not the police, not the Sanitation Department, not the Mayor’s Office, not the Biltmore security guards. We have secured a modest victory for homeless street people who are no longer forced to spend up to 60 days in jail for illegally possessing a shopping cart. The usual accusation is that the cart was stolen from a grocery store or other place of business.

Critics say we’re being unfair to businesses and property owners, both of whom lose money if street people start pushing carts in their area. It seems that public discourse on poverty and homelessness in America always comes down to issues of fairness. It is unfair to allow panhandling because it drives away shoppers. It is unfair to allow poor people to congregate in public spaces because it drives away the public. Americans pride themselves on the virtue of fairness. So it would no doubt come as a shock to learn that fairness does not get even honorable mention in the scriptures to which most Americans give allegiance.

The God of Exodus, which is to say the God of the Bible, is not concerned about property values or business climate or the tourist trade. The Exodus story, the paradigmatic story of scripture, is in fact a complete inversion of the values to which most Americans adhere. The God of Exodus is concerned not with fairness but with justice; not with business climate but with liberation; not with property values but with human values.

When it comes to the Old Testament, Americans either refuse to read it because it is violent, irrational and politically incorrect, or they read it as if Americans themselves were the chosen people, the elect of God. But Exodus is not about election, it’s about liberation. The Hebrew people were “chosen” not because of their piety and righteousness but because of their poverty and suffering. And while it is indeed politically incorrect from the perspective of the Egyptian rulers, it is salvific from the perspective of the oppressed Hebrew slaves.

Thus a more authentic reading would place relatively wealthy and powerful First World people like ourselves in the role of Egyptian slave owners. In the story, God is not fair or rational to the Egyptian people. He does not offer to sit down and discuss monetary compensation with the Egyptian slave owners for the loss of their property. He refuses to acknowledge that there might have been some slight truth in the Egyptian accusations that the Hebrew people were lazy, unproductive, sexually overactive and thus a drain on the economy.

The God of Exodus is not fair or reasonable. He not only takes slaves from the Egyptians, he takes their jewels, their property and their animals as well. After he afflicts their land with boils, flies and frogs, he kills their firstborn children and slaughters their army. The God of Exodus is sensitive only to the cries of the poor Hebrews.

Exodus is not about rational negotiations. It is not even about leveling the playing field so that everyone gets an equal chance. It is about changing the rules entirely. The last will be first and the first will be last was not a concept invented by Jesus Christ; he got it directly from the God of Exodus.

If we are to find salvation as rich and powerful First World people, we should consider the positive Egyptian role models in the Exodus story. The Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, committed civil disobedience by refusing to kill the Hebrew boy babies; the Egyptian princess defied her father, the pharaoh, by rescuing the baby Moses; Moses himself rejected his life of comfort and privilege as a member of the Egyptian elite in Pharaoh’s palace to stand with the slaves and the outcasts.

All risked their social status and their careers, rejected privilege and disobeyed the law of the land for the sake of slaves and outcasts -- the most despised members of the society.

Standing on the side of slaves and outcasts will never secure for us community service awards, public adulation or praise from the local Rotary Club, and it just might get us in trouble.

The shopping cart issue has put us on the side of poor people like no other issue ever before. We hope they are a momentary vision of that non-Egyptian kingdom to come in which the God of Exodus hears the cry of the poor and makes sure that the first will be last and the last will be first.

Biltmore security guards apologizing to homeless people are just a tentative first step in that direction.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998