30 June 2009

Theological Thursdays: Four Principles for Panhandler Interactions

Last night, I must have encountered five panhandlers on Elmwood, and I did not give to any of them. I did not give, even though I have committed to practice the way of Jesus, and I know that Jesus commanded:

"Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again" (Luke 6:30).

So, by my own standard, I have failed. Of course, I am not the only failure. The fact that people ask other people for money on the street represents a societal failure, even if it does not excuse my own behavior.

We need a framework for making our decisions about how to interact with those whom we see in need
While others have tried, I am not interested in providing a theological justification for never giving in any manner. On the other hand, I would also maintain that not every person is called to sell all of his/her possessions and give everything to the poor--even though many people are (and you and I should consider that we may be).

Most of us are seeking a "middle way," and while it may not be the ideal, this "middle way" would provide a tremendous improvement for our community.

The problem with middle ways, however, is that they are difficult to make into easy to follow rules. Thus, I will offer no specific prescriptions in this post--only four principles to serve as a framework to consider as you develop your own theology/practice. (If you want a clear and simple rule, see Luke 6:30)

Principal one: The blessings you receive are for the purpose of blessing others. Abraham, whom three faiths claim as their forefather, was told exactly this, in Genesis 12:2. What you have is given to you for a purpose, and that purpose is not your own pleasure.

Principle two: God is judge. You are not.
This principle is also preached in all of the Abrahamic faiths, even if we fail to practice it sometimes. We cannot judge because we are not fit to judge.

Consider the story of C.S. Lewis, a popular Christian writer, who was walking with a friend and they were approached by a panhandler. The man asked for some spare change and Lewis gave him everything he had. Later, Lewis' friend said, "You shouldn't have given that man all that money, he'll only spend it on drink."

Lewis replied, "Well, if I'd kept it, I would have only spent it on drink."

Who are we to decide whether a person is fit to receive grace?

Principle three: The panhandler is a human, and your neighbor.
While there are good arguments for giving and for not giving, in all things one should follow the golden rule and treat the other as you would wish to be treated. Life on the street is already dehumanizing enough, without people pretending you aren't there.

Principle four: "Helping" maintains unbalanced relationships. "Serving" is subversive.
Not once did Christ command his followers to help. His command was to serve. Lives are changed when power structures are upset. If you are a person with power (as most BRO readers are, myself included,) this means setting aside your own privilege--a difficult, but life-changing, thing to do.

These principles are not intended to be definitive, but the start of a conversation. I look forward to your contributions.


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