My stomach hurts.
In a post on the Freakonomics blog entitled Freakonomics Quorum: The Economics of Street Charity, Stephen J. Dubner poses the following question to personages as varied as Arthur Brooks (author of Who Really Cares?), Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickled and Dimed):
You are walking down the street in New York City with $10 of disposable income in your pocket. You come to a corner with a hot dog vendor on one side and a beggar on the other. The beggar looks like he’s been drinking; the hot dog vendor looks like an upstanding citizen. How, if at all, do you distribute the $10 in your pocket, and why?
Here’s what’s curdled my stomach cheese:
Not a single respondent–from either the “celebrity” panel or the nine pages of comments to the blog–mentions the possibility of getting involved with the homeless man beyond the hot dog or the handout.
Responses fall into one of three general categories, vociferously argued:
- Give money to the homeless man
- Give a hot dog to the homeless man
- Give nothing to the homeless man
From a Christian perspective, Barbara Ehrenreich, a self-identified atheist, offers the most interesting response:
Although I’m atheist, I defer to Jesus on beggar-related matters. He said, if a man asks for your coat, give him your cloak too. (Actually, he said if a man “sue thee at the law” for the coat, but most beggars skip the legal process.) Jesus did not say: First, administer a breathalyzer test to the supplicant, or, first, sit him down for a pep talk on “focus” and “goal-setting.” He said: Give him the damn coat.
As a matter of religious observance, if a beggar importunes me directly, I must fork over some money. How do I know whether he’s been drinking or suffers from a neurological disorder anyway? Unless I’m his parole officer, what do I care? And before anyone virtuously offers him a hot dog, they should reflect on the possibility that the beggar is a vegetarian or only eats kosher or Hallal meat.
So if the beggar approaches me and puts out his hand, and if I only have a $10 bill, I have to give it to him. It’s none of my business whether he plans to spend it on infant formula for his starving baby or a pint of Thunderbird.
It would be unfair to hold Ehrenreich to the standard of a full and proper exposition of Christian doctrine, but a few thoughts do bear mentioning here:
- Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan portrays a much more transformational approach to human tragedy than hot dog/tenspot/bupkus. The Samaritan does not simply give money. He becomes personally involved, with head, heart, and hand attached to his check.
- Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats shows that it does matter what we give to the homeless man. If you give the homeless man directions to a homeless shelter, you have given Jesus directions to a homeless shelter. If you give the homeless man a hot dog, you have given Jesus a hot dog. Do you want to stand before the great white throne of judgment and have Jesus say, “Hey, thanks for the hot dog and the directions to the homeless shelter. You really put yourself out there for me, man.”
- One might protest that I seem to be advocating for an impractical level of involvement here. Perhaps. But perhaps God is advocating an impractical level of involvement for us with the homeless. After working with the homeless for a goodly number of years and serving as president of the largest rescue mission in the US, I certainly don’t harbor romantic notions about homeless people and how easy it is to be regularly committed to involvement with them. But I do know this: they are neither a separate species nor objects of pity in God’s view, and He seems to spend a lot of time thinking about how to be involved with them, too.
- I realize that Ehrenreich’s vegetarian comment is intended to be a bit snarky, but all snarkiness aside, is it just an oversight that she writes, “before anyone virtuously offers him a hot dog, they should reflect on the possibility that the beggar is a vegetarian” rather than writing, “before anyone virtuously offers him a hot dog, they should ask the homeless person whether he is a vegetarian”? Transactional giving thinking turns people into objects of pity or scorn, not subjects of their own lives.
- It does matter what the man does with the money. God holds us accountable not simply for our generosity but for what results from it. Again, transactional giving separates head, heart, and hands from checks. Transformational Giving bundles them together and considers them inseparable.
I feel much better now. I think I’ll go get a hot dog.