Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reflection on Giving To Beggars

This is a letter sent to Evangelicals for Social Action on a discussion about whether giving money to beggars is helpful or harmful. To find out more about ESA or to sign up for the e-pistle, the free ESA publication, please find out more Here.

Dear ePistle,
I made a few resolutions to stop doing bad stuff during Lent, which I failed spectacularly to uphold. I did make one positive resolution that I found easy to uphold, and which is relevant to the discussion of giving on the street in the 4/6 ePistle.

I live in NYC. When I first started living in cities in my 20s, I would sometimes make a personal connection with panhandlers, take them out for coffee or a meal, converse, etc. Over the years of living here, I gradually became hardened. I think this issue is so complex, that I'm not at all sure I would advise people NOT to become hardened. While it's true that we are to love others without concern for how deserving they are, I think it is spiritually problematic to respond to every stranger who comes to us, asking for financial help, with our whole heart, let alone by opening our wallet.

As an extreme case, I've had two muggings that began with similar requests. While I think these people deserved a loving response, my attempt at a loving response (in one case, by literally taking out my wallet) only made a violent encounter more likely. The code of behavior by which people look through each other in urban environments is not merely a symptom of our fallenness but in some cases is adaptive.

That said, for Lent I made the resolution to give to everyone who asked of me, even if their asking was fairly passive. I thought I had gotten a little too good at tuning people out. As a result, I lost some money—not much, in the grand scheme of things—but gained a series of encounters that were more humane than they would have been otherwise. A ministry at a local church provided me with cards that gave basic information about how homeless people could obtain needed services in NYC, which I would give along with money. Giving the card without the money may have been more practical, but smacks a little too much of Scrooge ("Here are the poorhouses! Go there!").

I think Ron Sider is right, but I also think that, by withholding my dollar (or whatever small sum I would give such a person), I am not preventing enough harm to make it an obvious choice. By giving the dollar, I do enable the individual to (most likely) abuse another dollar, but that dollar is buying me a moment where I can look them in the eye and have an interaction that is friendly. If I want to tell someone begging in the street, "God bless you," but without giving them the kind of blessing they are looking for at that moment, I'm not being realistic.
- Andrew Draper (Brooklyn, NY)

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