In Dorothy Day’s autobiography, she quotes Peter Maurin as saying something akin to “whenever you meet and give to a beggar, you get a chance to give to Christ.” In one of his little essays, The Duty of Hospitality, Maurin writes:
People who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to people not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’ sake.
Modern society calls the beggar
bum and panhandler
and gives him the bum’s rush.
But the Greeks used to say
that people in need
are the ambassadors of the gods.
Although you may be called
bums and panhandlers
you are in fact the Ambassadors of God.
As God’s Ambassadors
you should be given food,
clothing and shelter
by those who are able to give it.
Mahometan [Muslim] teachers tell us
that God commands hospitality,
and hospitality is still practiced
in Mahometan [Muslim] countries.
But the duty of hospitality
is neither taught nor practiced
in Christian countries.
I find Maurin’s views on charity to be refreshing, invigorating and true, and counter to the demand for “justice” that permeates liberal/liberationist Christianity in North America (and possibly the rest of the West). While there are places in many of his essays where Maurin calls for a restructuring of the world and of human societies, he at least doesn’t pretend that liberal reforming or the welfare state is that restructuring. There’s much to dislike about Maurin’s thought (I do not believe the aspirations of the Marxists were, in fact, the same as the aspirations of Christians yearning for the Kingdom of God), but I appreciate the essential anti-statism in Maurin’s belief and practice. Helping the poor is something we as Christians are supposed to do with our own hands, and not fob off on state social services thinking that is enough or even the same thing.
I have several problems with how the ELCA and many ELCA Lutherans (I speak now only of my confession, rather than any other) have come to view how we are hospitable toward the poor, how we do charity and how we are of service to others.
First, many Lutherans (and this is generally a Christian habit) speak of aid as having a purpose, that it must achieve an end. I have heard, in the context of giving money to beggars, that actually giving people can be (or often is) counter-productive, that it continues to feed alcohol and drug habits or won’t be used in an effective way. Or that the beggar is trying to lie his or her way into some extra cash. All of this is most certainly true, but I believe it misses the point of why we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to give charity. We do not do it for the benefit of those we give to, we do it for our own benefit, because it is part of this new relationship we are in, because giving charity to those who ask is what it means to live in God’s kingdom. There is nothing about conditions in the giving of charity, nothing about using the aid properly, or wisely, or “correctly.” Aid to the poor is seen as not a response to God’s calling, but rather the means to the end of helping the poor out of poverty.
I contrast this with how Muslims give charity (as I was Muslim for 15 years, and received and gave charity during that time). Muslims never put any conditions on the use of aid they give, never make demands, and never insist that money be used “properly.” They understand that the obligation is not on the recipient of the aid to better his or her life (though there are hadith which talk about how this can best be done), but rather on the giver, who has an obligation as part of his or her relationship with God to share out of that which God has bestowed on them. This is one reason Muslim charities did so littler oversight prior to September 11, 2001, because it is unseemly to do so, because charity is to be given secretly so that only God knows.
Of course, being human beings, neither Christian nor Muslim wants to be taken for a ride by someone begging for food money who will use that cash to score a rock of crack or a bottle of Night Train. Any “system” of unsupervised charity lends itself easily to scam artists who want to fund extravagant lifestyles or guerilla insurgencies with “aid” money.
But my basic point still stands — the obligation is on the giver to share, not on the recipient to show he or she has used that shared money “wisely” or “properly.”
Second, while I understand the Lutheran ethic of service, it is a problematic ethic in our world. The idea is both simple and correct — because we, as Christians, can do no work that will please God, the work Christ does for us frees us from thinking we can please God in any way, and that frees us to love and serve our neighbors. But there is also an inherent tension in this idea, in that it can completely detach service to neighbor from any relationship with God, and thus privilege the idea of “service” itself. This is especially bad when the bureaucratic welfare/warfare state comes into being, as service to the state can become confused with service to neighbor. This also makes bureaucratic notions of service normative or even primary, and thus ethereal activities like “community organizing,” which is essential to the ELCA (and all other liberal/liberationist) concept of “justice,” can become service to others. Indeed, the problem of the bureaucratic-industrial welfare/warfare state is that of human management (I probably have blogged elsewhere on the fundamental immorality of managing human beings as if they were things), and managing human beings becomes a form of service to neighbor. It isn’t — there nothing more evil than the management of human beings.
Finally, there is the matter of who is the neighbor. The liberal/liberationist Christian takes the Jerusalem Road story (aka the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37) and concludes from this story that everyone everywhere is our neighbor. This makes the Christian responsible for healing all illness everywhere, feeding all hunger everywhere, ending all war and suffering everywhere. And for bringing the welfare/warfare state to everyone everywhere. Media images are a call to action, a motivation for angry self-righteousness that some war somewhere is being ignored or some famine somewhere is not responded to. This is a delusion, fed by the sense of power and wealth that most Western Christians have (an illusory sense of power and wealth disguised by GDP statistics, as if everyone has a moral and legal claim on the wealth of everyone else), but it is a powerful one.
I don’t think the story says, however, quite what these folks think it says. Yes, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” in the hopes of being told who his neighbor is not, and thus someone he doesn’t have to care for. But Jesus doesn’t give a list, and he doesn’t say everyone. In fact, he says absolutely nothing about who my neighbor is, but he says everything about how I am to be a neighbor. And that how deals with someone I encounter, physically, in the flesh, a beggar in need right in front of me, by accident, unplanned. Not a teevee image, not something marketed to me either to elicit my sympathy or my outrage, not something designed to have me support a cause, but a real human being, hurt, in front of me, someone I can touch and minister to and care for. The priest and the Levite had to do work, go out of their way, to avoid helping or even encountering the man who had been beaten by robbers.
(I say this as someone who has expended a lot of rage for the Palestinians, whose suffering as an American taxpayer I am forced to fund, and who wanted to do something violent about it once. There is plenty of injustice in the world — indeed, injustice is the very definition of human civilization and communal human existence. I have just become convinced there is little or nothing that can be done about it.)
It is true that Jesus lived in a time when his followers could not have meaningfully ever helped someone far away — say India, China, Mesoamerica or even Alexandria — but I don’t think modern technology detracts from the immediacy of this call, that we as Christians are called to be neighbors to those we encounter, really encounter as opposed to imagine from mediated images, in desperate need.
So charity, not justice, is our calling. Charity, not justice, is the best reflection of God’s love for the world.