Wednesday, August 17, 2005

On begging

Atlanta's City Council just passed an ordinance banning panhandling in a good portion of downtown. Here's what Drew had to say:

For a number of years in cities across the country, officials have been trying to “clean up” the streets. No, we’re not talking about picking up the litter; we’re talking about the poor and the homeless. The “clean up” that city officials want to do is to get the poor off the streets and, basically, out of sight and out of mind.

The poor and homeless out on the streets are embarrassing to everyone who’s lower middle class or above, to use our polite way of saying that those who are better off are simply better human beings. And since we’re better human beings, we don’t need these others around littering and cluttering up the streets.

But here’s the problem – we really do need these people around. I’m sure you’re asking yourselves now, What’s that, Drew? We need these people? Yes, we need these people. Let me ask you something – if everyone in the world was well off and well provided for, who would there be to do good to? If there were no handicapped people in the world, how could we be drawn out of ourselves and see people who are in much greater need than we are?

Jesus himself said that we would have the poor with us always and that we can do good to them whenever we want. This was a statement of fact, but it was also affirmed all that God had said throughout the Old Testament – we have to treat the poor with compassion and care.

Now, I’m not trying to romanticize the poor here. If you go to a downtown where there are people living on the street, you know as well as I do that they are an interesting group of people. Many of them have mental illnesses or addictions of one kind or another; they smell since they don’t get to shower very often, if at all; they can often be rude and demanding; and if you do something for them they can sometimes get the impression that you’re going to give them everything they need and become almost obnoxious.

But what of it? Don’t we all have our own faults and sins and bad habits? Of course, ours are a little more polite – instead of being obnoxious, we backbite. Instead of stealing, our checks bounce. Instead of begging, we hint at something we want. Our faults may not be as obvious, but they’re there and they’re no less wrong than those of the street beggar.

In other words, the poor remind us of our own poverty – and that makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like it that they remind us that if the company we work for went down the drain tomorrow or our spouse divorced us or some economic catastrophe struck the country, then we could end up like that.

But even more, they remind us of our spiritual poverty, and we have that in abundance. What did Blessed Mother Teresa say? “It is a great poverty that a child should die so that you may live as you wish.” Doesn’t that show how impoverished we really are?

When we don’t have the willingness to part with a couple of dollars to give to someone who is asking some help of us, even though Jesus himself said to us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to all who ask of you,” what kind of character are we displaying? That’s miserliness in my book, and certainly not a reflection of God the Father.

“Oh,” you say, “but they might go out and buy drugs or some drink with it.” OK, so? Remember what Jesus said about creation? How the sun shines on the just and the unjust and the rain falls on the just and unjust, too? So if God is so magnanimous that he does not withhold his blessings of creation on those who are unjust, who are we to be withholding the blessings God has given us simply because that beggar might spend it badly? Doesn’t God give us grace and don’t we misuse it? I know I do it all the time. But he doesn’t withhold it, does he? It would be awful if he did.

We who are well-off need the poor – and they need us. They need us to act like God the Father towards them, to be generous even though they might abuse what they receive. We need them so we can act like God the Father and learn to love as he loves – freely and without counting the cost.

So if your city starts talking about “cleaning up the streets” and wants to get an anti-begging ordinance in place, go and lobby your council member against it. Tell them we need the poor as much as they need us – and then watch them stare at you like you’ve got two heads.

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