This world has big problems.
It doesn't take a moment's glance around to notice dramatic need just outside the paths I walk every day. Ted posted recently about a problem next door that keeps getting bigger every time he notices it. He calls his post a "whiny rant" but I'd say it's worthwhile to notice and draw attention to these problems when we see them.
The other Rutherford with which I spend much time picked up on one of Portland's big problems on Saturday: that of the ubiquitous panhandlers that accost sidewalkers nearly every block downtown. We had a brief conversation about this over lunch at the Rock Bottom. He noted that another of our friends was notorious for going far out of his way to help the lowest of our society's citydwellers when the opportunity presented itself. Apparently, he also said that it was the "Christian" thing to do to help out those in need by buying them lunch, giving them a handful of change, offering them a ride. Eric disagreed, saying that it did no good and in fact probably did harm by enabling their parasitic lifestyle. No doubt some panhandlers do a brisk trade in begging each day and come away with more than some minimum-wage earners.
And thereby we had covered the waterfront of the usual debate surrounding that question: what to do when confronted by a panhandler, to give or not to give. Having worked downtown for a long time, I found myself confronted again with a question for which I had yet to find a satisfactory answer.
Strangely enough, I found myself thinking about both this conversation and Ted's post Sunday morning during our worship. The text was Exodus 33:12-23, centering on the idea that God reassures us in our faith through the presence, words, and actions of other Christians. Julie told a brief story about when she was first attending church. Something said during the sermon touched her deeply because of a family tragedy she had experienced and she fled the room in tears. At that time, she did not know anyone in the church, but two other young women her age followed her outside, talked with her, and comforted her in her loss. She named that as a time when God had worked powerfully through His people to bring her comfort in a way she had never experienced, least of all from strangers.
I wonder if this is what Jake had meant when he said that kindness offered to panhandlers was a "Christian" thing to do. For him to take the time to offer a smile, a warm handshake, and a few kind words along with a couple of bucks or a ride to a vagrant looks a lot like something Jesus might do. So perhaps we do help?
But Eric is also correct in saying that the vast majority of panhandlers are indeed scam artists and giving them money only reinforces a terrible lifestyle that nearly always involves addiction to alcohol and drugs. They are almost always responsible for the choices that landed them on the street. Now that they are there, many are not interested in escaping the lifestyle and only continue to languish in their destructive habits. So perhaps we don't enable them.
But then again, God didn't wait for us to go find him and clean up our act before sending Jesus into our world to begin His crisis-response mission. We were no more deserving of His help than the vagrant is deserving of a kind word. So we help?
Yikes, but if we go back to Ted's post, we have always to keep an eye on the larger problem. As Eric said, enabling isn't helping, it's hurting. Offered as a standard practice, giving money to panhandlers only creates a niche for panhandlers to continue their trade. So we don't help?
And we're back at the same problem. Offering money or a ride to the vagrant is a kindness that he does not merit. But he deserves kindness from a Christian because he is a man formed by God and the Christian is one of God's chosen instruments to participate in the continued restoration of this broken world. What kindness can be shown to a man that helps him?
Is there a Christian approach that takes into account Jake's heart, Ted's socioeconomic scale, and Eric's consideration against enablement? What if a person took the time to be kind (with Jake's heart), offering words of blessing and encouragement while refusing to give money (in light of Eric's consideration)? What difference might kind words make to a person who has endured endless scorn and shame (albeit of his own design, but terrible pain nonetheless)? Add to that a willingness to know the resources available nearby (Ted's larger scale view) to help those in need and the boldness to help connect them with these resources, and you have a recipe that seems to be the only one with a chance of offering real help.
No doubt such effort and words would be wasted on many of those to whom they would be given. But if God was willing to go to the lengths He did to offer us a way out of a broken life, then perhaps such effort is the least I can do to reflect His love for those most unlovable who chant the forever words, "spare some change?"