The Thinking 

More on Street Charity

February 18, 2013


REVISITING a subject discussed here in 2010, an anonymous reader from San Francisco writes:

I live in a city that has many persons who beg money from passersby. Here are some of my thoughts on Christ’s words, often used to justify street charity, “Give to them that ask of you.”

When Jesus walked the earth, those in beggary were farmers who had lost their lands, orphans, widows and the disabled. And there was no system of public assistance. Most of the persons in beggary shared the cultural and religious values of those more fortunate. They did not yet have envy-based ideologies or the notion that prosperity is tantamount to thievery.

The towns Jesus walked through were small and there was not enough economic surplus to support networks of organized graft and trickery. One only had outlaw underworlds in the large cities, such as Rome, Alexandra, and Antioch.

In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus fled and hid when he realized that the mob, having fed for free, wanted to make him king. When the people caught up with him on the other side of the lake, he attempted to teach that what he offered was food for the spirit, not for the belly. Jesus was not a walking food franchise.

At once, this same mob that chased him around the lake collectively demanded that he ‘give them a sign.’ So we can balance Jesus’ teaching “Give to those that ask of you” with his reminder that what he was teaching was a food that was not of the conventional kind.

Note too that what people ask for is not always what they need. I attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and many of the people who have spoken at that meetings confide that they used to beg on the street nearby. And they tell us that money is the worst thing to give someone who is in an active addiction.

And to help, it requires a community of helpers. A lone householder risks being pulled into chaos if he or she tries to employ a stranger off the street. One has to be part of a community to help those deeply troubled. If anyone has spare cash monies, contact the social workers at your county hospital. I have known social workers who paid out of their own pockets for taxi vouchers to assist people who needed to get to medical appointments.

Finally, after going through a great deal, I found that shame and guilt are bad foundations for any act of charity. Jesus did not live, die and return to us in order for us to live and function as prisoners of shame. Never let anyone use your faith commitment to guilt trip you.

“You were purchased for a price. Do not again return to slavery.”

— Comments —

Jeff writes:

I have enjoyed reading your excellent blog for sometime and often feel moved to share my thoughts. Every time I decide to put those thoughts to words I hesitate and ultimately decide against it. I feel I would fail to bring to the discussion what your readers have not already shared.

Homelessness is something that has touched my life. My father is homeless though he would not use that word. He has always worked and as far as I know he has never begged for charity. However, he has told me of the challenges and prejudices he has faced.

Though I disagree, I feel no indignation towards those who do not approve of street charity. I always give what I can even if my charity will likely encourage destructive behavior. Usually I find it difficult to determine who is worthy or not and I’d rather err on the side of good will.

Street begging is nearly non-existent here in Northern Idaho but, even in my small town, I have recently met families living in cars. When I took my family to the Portland Zoo last summer, we were shocked at the number of homeless there. Many are young veterans and some have families.

I could easily be one of them. When I was medically retired from the Air Force last year, I could not find a job. Even Walmart turned me away. Employers did not seem interested in a pilot who is no longer able to fly. Thanks to the VA, I am one of the great multitude surviving the greater recession in higher education, ironically becoming even more overqualified.

One of the great evils of our society is the expectation that the state will care for those among us who cannot care for themselves. The truth is that the state is a poor steward. I encourage your readers to research how cities deal with homeless blight and what conditions are like in our homeless shelters. It is shameful.

I encourage your readers to give as they are able. What the begger does next is in God’s hands. Still, more important are the decisions we make as a nation and how we deal with the homeless as a community. You can do far more for the least among us at the ballot box than you can at the streetcorner.

Laura writes:

Thank you for writing.

I think it is important to consider the social setting. There are charities that serve people who live on the streets well. Wouldn’t it be better to give one’s money there? When panhandling becomes a successful enterprise, beggars can become aggressive and numerous.

 Nicholas James Pell writes:

This is probably the best thing I’ve ever seen on your site. I never give money to beggars, for many (but not all) of the reasons that you outline. It might sound cornball, but the main thing I can actually give to a beggar is eye contact and a smile. Unless I know or strongly sense the person to be dangerous, I refuse to pretend that the homeless on my streets don’t exist. It is, however, incredibly unhelpful to give money to a person on the street. There are people whose job it is to assist those in need. Give your money to them.

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