(“The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love.” –Dorothy Day)
Most of the fine china had been cleared from the white linen-clad dining table. The delicate silver was soaking in a hot soda bath, and the candles had been extinguished. Irish coffee filled the cups of the few guests who remained at the table long after the dinner had ended and all others had taken their leave for the evening.
The friendly banter that had threaded through family gossip and the myriad reasons that people lose their Catholic faith suddenly took an unexpected, and nearly disastrous, turn with a single comment:
“I never give money to beggars,” she exclaimed proudly, “I just know that if I do, they’ll go out and buy liquor, or worse, drugs. I give my money to charities that actually deserve it and will use it the way I think they should.”
Dolores, the woman who made this assertion, had earlier announced that she is the Biblical “go-to” in her parish, and that she is responsible for religious education of the same in her parish, yet, this statement prompted a very serious question: How does your attitude square with discipleship in Christ?
“…So, you honestly don’t think that you’re bearing false witness when you assume that someone you don’t even know is going to do something you don’t approve of with your dollar?”
“No. GOD gave me a brain; I know when I’m being fooled by a lazy user,” she said with a patronizing sneer.
“But, Dolores, Christ told us to give alms, and not to deny anyone who asks of us. He never said, ‘Make sure they’re worthy first.’”
“Yes, well Jesus didn’t live in our time. He didn’t know how bad the world would get! That’s why we’re given a brain, so we can figure it out on our own!”
“Dolores, He’s GOD; He lives outside of time and space. He knows.”
“Maybe so, but I still say it’s wrong to give cash to beggars and I won’t do it. If they need help, let them go to a shelter and ask for it. It’s not my responsibility.”
Sadly, this is an attitude that has been let to run rampant in our present society. We call ourselves Christians, we say that we are faithful to the Gospel, but are we really? And is this attitude even honest in light of the Divine Commission and Christ’s command to abide in Him?
For many centuries in the Church, beggars were considered ambassadors of GOD; it was an honour to share one’s wealth with a stranger who had nothing. Today, here in the United States, we consider ourselves to be a generous, GOD-fearing people, but is this truly the case? And whose responsibility is it, really, to care for the homeless, the diseased, the destitute and abandoned?
According to Christ, all of the nations will be judged not according to how many churches they build, or how reliable their organized social services are, but according to how–and even if–we as individuals answer the plight of the poor and disenfranchised when and where we find them.
“As you do to the least of these My brethren, so you do it unto Me.”
Drunks in the Gutters
“Words express, but examples persuade.” ~Pope Benedict XVI
By the time most people end up on the street, some pretty substantial things have taken place to disrupt their home life. It’s really not that easy to become homeless, unless one makes a deliberate, momentous choice to do so and, generally speaking, that just doesn’t happen except in rare cases of severe psychological disturbance. Home foreclosures, death of a parent, spouse, or child, psychiatric stress and/or personality disorders unrecognized and untreated, shunning by family, church group, or base community, physical, mental and emotional trauma–these are all catalysts that, left unattended, can and do lead to detachment from society. Generally speaking, however, becoming homeless is not a voluntary act, nor does it occur in a single moment.
Statistics tallied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and the National Coalition for the Homeless, assert that in the U.S. there are somewhere between 700,000 and 2,000,000 homeless people living on our streets at any given time (though some studies show a more alarming count at around 3.5 million–a full 1% of the U.S. populace).
- Upwards of 40% of the homeless population are children.
- More than 107,000 of them are military veterans, although there are nearly 1.5 million veterans who are at risk. (And whilst only 8% of the general population can claim veteran status, nearly one-fifth (20%) of the entire homeless population are, in fact, veterans).
- Upwards of 66% of the entire homeless demographic suffer with substance abuse, dependence, and/or mental illness.
It is very difficult to imagine that children, who have yet to develop the skills associated with competent self-care, and prior-service military personnel would “choose” to be out on the street. Whilst the numbers seem overwhelming, however, a day spent at any local homeless shelter or drop-in safe haven will adequately demonstrate that the statistics are, indeed, blisteringly accurate–and, most likely, conservative.
Self-medication: A Means to an End
“It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.” ~ an OCD Sister to Dorothy Day
To say that the homeless are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society would be a rash understatement. Couple the unimaginable stress of day-to-day uncertainty with the fear, shame, loss of dignity, hunger, sleeplessness, and sporadic violence (over this past decade alone, acts of assault perpetrated by housed persons in the U.S. resulted in 244 known deaths of homeless people and 636 reported incidents of non-lethal violence), and it is no wonder that people in the homeless demographic would turn to drugs and alcohol as a source for coping and solace.
Unfortunately, by the time a homeless person begins begging for coinage on the street to supplement their habit, they are almost without question already physiologically addicted to their substance of choice. This means that for that person, getting their next fix is very truly a matter of life and death. Withdrawal symptoms from psychoactive substances varies from flu-like symptoms and nightmares in the most tolerable end of the detox spectrum, to sensory hallucinations, profound confusion, psychosis, cardio-vascular accidents, gran mal seizures, stroke, and yes, death. An ugly, painful, protracted way to die that, more often than not, occurs without the benefit of any medical assistance or even a kind hand to hold onto.
As You Do To the Least of These
“Christian love is not philanthropy.” ~Father Stanley Jaki
So, is it true that such people do not deserve the change in our pockets? Have they really “chosen” the hell that they live? And if they went to a shelter for help, would they actually get the medical and social services that they need. Maybe. Maybe not. This still doesn’t address the fact that when a man stands in front of us with his head down and his hand out, we are faced with a choice to act, and perspective makes a world of difference in the choices we make.
Once again, as a Christian people, we are called to a different paradigm than that of the world. As such, are we acting as true disciples of Christ when we refuse a man a dollar and think to ourselves, “Let him go to the shelter?” What does the Church say?
For the average Catholic, the Holy Writ alone is a gold mine for answering these questions, starting with Matthew 25. This entire chapter of scripture is devoted to the consequences of obedience, disobedience, faithfulness, faithlessness, and slacking off until final judgment. Verses 31 – 46 are particularly important because in this passage, Jesus explains to His disciples in fine detail what the last judgment will focus on: how did we treat our fellow man in light of Christ? “Feed Me, clothe Me, welcome Me, care for Me.” Nowhere, in this passage (or any other, for that matter) does Christ tell us that He is found only in the “worthy” poor. We are not told to ask for identification or references. We are never encouraged to get applications first. We are only told that, “as you do this to them, so you do it to Me.”
St. James takes this admonition a step further by declaring that the poor are exalted (Jas. 1: 9), that the only “true” religious observance is to care for the widows and orphans (2: 27), and that in oppressing the poor whilst honouring the rich, we show partiality and commit a sin against charity (2: 8-10)…which is, of course, more accurately a sin against Christ.
The way in which the Church understands and promulgates these passages is very clear: each and every one of us has a personal responsibility to care for the poorest of the poor. To say or do otherwise is to make a mockery of Christ and put one’s own soul in immortal danger.
“Yes, well Jesus didn’t live in our time. He didn’t know how bad the world would get!”
The Truth About Catholic Stewardship
“You never give to the poor what is yours; you merely return to them what belongs to them. For what you have appropriated [for yourself] was given for the common use of everybody. The land was given [by GOD] for everybody, not just the rich.” ~St. Ambrose of Milan
There is no way of getting around it. For two solid millenia, the Catholic Church has not only embraced Christ’s command to care for the poor as a vehicle for sacramental union with Him, she has also espoused the virtues of voluntary poverty for all of her children. Bishops in the first four centuries of the Church not only held up the poor as blessed, but chastised anyone who would cause them suffering by greed and selfish pursuit:
“The bread that is in your box belongs to the hungry; the coat in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute.” ~ St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, c. A.D. 370
“Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to the one who has nothing. Neither is it small to GOD, if we have given what we could.” ~St Gregory Naziansen, Bishop of Constantinople, late fourth century
Nothing is your own. You are a slave and what is yours belongs to the Lord. For a slave has no property that is truly his own; naked you were brought into this life.” ~Asterius, Bishop of Amasea, from “The Unjust Steward,” c. A.D. 400
In addition to the Church Fathers’ directives to the universal laity, nearly all of the consecrated religious foundations of the Church, from the Desert Fathers and the Order of St. Benedict, to that fire starter, St. Francis of Assisi in Italy and the equally incendiary Carmelite reforms of Spain’s own San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Ávila, have demonstrated a clear, consistent devotion to the concept of voluntary poverty as a right way of living in the world, and an equally strong insistence that all of their superfluous wealth, whether in donations or personal property, should be dedicated to caring for the poor.
St. John Bosco, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Peter Maurin, and the Servant of GOD, Dorothy Day, to name just a few, have all stood with a mass cloud of witnesses, and have testified with their lives to the fact that if we are not taking care of the poor–without prejudice, judgment, or pride–then we are not fulfilling the Gospel mandate, and we are not being obedient to Christ.
Even in our own present day, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have emphatically reiterated the mind of the Church, that it is our sacred duty to come along side the poor as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to care for them as Christ (see: Solilicitudo Rei Socialis; The Ratzinger Report, etc.); even better, whilst noting that the heretical perversions of Liberation Theology and “Prosperity Doctrine” miss the entire point of the Gospel mandate–that in serving one another, especially those whom we have no natural affection for, we serve Christ Himself–they simultaneously hold up regular devotion to corporal and spiritual works of mercy as authentic Christian love in action. Whether or not we will answer this call to love, however, is another matter entirely.
Love is a Verb
“It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor, but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice.” ~G.K. Chesterton, in Heretics
So, is it wrong to give a homeless person money, even of one “knows” that that person will spend it on alcohol or drugs instead of food, clothing, or shelter? Once again, the canon of Scripture is our first recourse:
“Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judging righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy.” ~Proverbs 31: 6-9
“Make yourself beloved in the congregation; bow your head low to the great man. Incline your ear to the poor, and answer him peaceably and gently. Deliver him who is wronged from the hand of the wrongdoer; do not be fainthearted in judging a case. Be like a father to the orphans…you will then be like a son of the Most High, and He will love you more than does your own mother.” ~Sirach 4: 7-10
Heaping Coals on the Head of Misery
If we choose not to take scripture seriously for our own sakes, consider this point of simple logic, too: by refusing alms to someone that we consider (rightly or wrongly) to be unworthy, we actually risk compounding our own sin several fold:
1. By refusing alms to the stranger on the basis of our own imperfect knowledge and prejudices, we bear false witness against our neighbor. No one knows the heart of anyone but GOD who created them. And what if the mendicant before you really does hop on down to the liquor store to buy a bottle? So what? That person will answer to GOD for his own actions; we are called to be our brothers’ keepers, not their consciences.
2. In bearing false witness against another, and refusing them in their need, we also act scandalously, putting them in a near occasion of sin. We refuse him a dollar; very likely the twenty people he met before our shadow fell over his brow refused him, too. There’s only so much a despairing man can take. And, so, when the pain becomes unbearable, and the gnawing in his gut screams out for soothing, he robs another to take by force what we had the opportunity to just give him–we have, as the Apostle Paul warned the Hebrews against, “neglected hospitality.”
3. We have violated the great commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your GOD with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….[and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” ~Matthew 22: 37-40
In assuming that another human being does not “deserve” to have the same necessities and comforts that we take for granted, we are, in effect, placing ourselves on a pedestal. If we say that any earthly good that has been entrusted to our stewardship may be held back from another because we believe that we deserve to keep it, we dishonour GOD. In fact, we make ourselves gods by denying another what we have in surplus, and we do so to our own detriment.
What’s Right With the World
“Stretch forth your hand to the poor,
so that your blessing may be complete.
Give graciously to all the living,
and withhold not kindness from the dead.
Do not fail those who weep,
but mourn with those who mourn.
Do not shrink from visiting the sick man, because of such deeds you will be loved.
In all that you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.” ~Sirach 7: 32-36
In his essay, What’s Right With the World, G.K. Chesterton notes that it is the world itself that is right in this life. It’s “everything else” that is wrong–most maddeningly so our own wrong thinking with regard to our rightful place here.
Take a good look at the world around you, and then tell yourself that you do not possess enough. If you can do that without feeling even the slightest twinge of guilt or silliness, then you are most assuredly insane. But if you can do this, if you can contemplate the birches and the stars and the seas in their true light, and recognize your own insignificant smallness in the midst of our Majesty’s Creation, then you must also acknowledge that GOD has made the earth so extraordinarily, superfluously bountiful that it cannot possibly be possessed by anyone. And if you can admit that much, then you can also admit that giving away the change in your pocket to the stranger who asks it of you, without hesitation, is not a violation of morals, but a common sense imitation of GOD towards His Creation; He gives freely, and lavishly, without counting the cost, in spite of the fact that not one of us “deserves” it. So we, too, must give freely and lavishly to those who ask of us, even if they are the addict on the street. In doing so we prove our faith in Providence by making the world more beautiful as it should be. That, after all, is what the coming of the Kingdom of Christ is really all about–creating a new, beautiful society within the shell of the old.
This article originally appeared in The Distributist Review.