The Politics of Beggars
My wife and I spent the Christmas holiday visiting family, and the only Christmas Eve service available to us was at a church from a much more formal tradition than our own. Aside from the songs—which set familiar lyrics to unfamiliar tunes—the biggest difference was communion. I’ve been a member of churches that pass trays of bread and wine or grape juice up and down each row, and I’ve been a member of churches that ask all communicants to come to the front to take the elements from the front of the sanctuary. But this was the first time I’d ever been expected to walk to the front of the sanctuary, kneel, hold out my hands, and wait like a beggar until someone brought me food and drink.
It was profoundly humbling.
I’ve spent my entire adult life as a Christian living in large cities around the world, cities I’ve shared with millions living below the local poverty line. Almost every day for the past 13 years, I’ve seen at least one person asking for money, for food, for work, for help getting off the streets or help forgetting they live on the street. And I ache every time. I know that this isn’t the glory people are meant for. Sometimes I give some money. Sometimes, I give some food or invite them on a walk with me to a place where I can buy them something to eat. On rare occasion, I’ve sat on the sidewalk with them to talk while we share a meal.
But the majority of the time, I just keep walking. My excuses are probably the same as those of most people who get used to walking past those in need: I rarely carry cash. I’m late for work. I’m so tired. I don’t have time. I’m feeling kind of sick. I’m not spiritual enough to have a good conversation with a stranger today. But at the heart of it all is the cold fact that the person asking for help is nothing to me. This woman sitting on the curb asking for someone to buy her lunch is not my family. This man twitching on the bench asking for change is not my friend. I’ve drawn a line in the sand. On one side are the people I respect, the people and the groups I care about, the people I would stop to help every time. On the other are the people I don’t consider to be my neighbors. And I too frequently let myself lump people who are willing to admit their need into the group of people I’m not willing to put myself out for.
We all draw those lines. Psychologically, we have to. Recent research says that we can only handle really empathizing with a very small number of people—around 100—before we start thinking of people as caricatures and concepts and group identities instead of individuals with their own lives and personalities and value. And in an election year, every candidate and every advocacy group wants us to know who they think belongs on which side of those dividing lines.
The argument generally goes something like this:
Those people, they say, regardless of who “those people” are, don’t deserve a voice. They don’t deserve your sympathy, let alone your empathy. They aren’t even people—they are just threats to you and your way of life. You, though? You know better. You deserve to vote for me or for my cause, because you get it and you behave in a way that proves it.
One of the greatest challenges of the Christian life, though, is turning that around and putting yourself on the losing end of it. The gospel tells us that we are the ones who don’t deserve help. We are the ones who should be exiled from the garden, starving in the streets, galled outside the city gates, and shut out of the great kingdom, gnashing our teeth. The only thing honorable about us, respectable about us, worth celebrating or rewarding about us is the grace that we don’t deserve.
Kneeling and asking and waiting and not knowing when someone would come to give me bread (or even if they would give me bread—I wasn’t a member of their denomination) put me, even for a moment, firmly on the far side of one of those “othering” lines I had accidentally drawn. It helped me share in the humanity of people I had written off as potential drains on my resources and goals.
It was a valuable experience to have at the start of an election year, when I'm going to be sorely tempted to disdain whole swaths of my countrymen every time I read the news. I pray that God's Spirit would empower his church to remember that people who are excited to vote differently from us are still people, still made in God's image, and still deserve to be thought of as neighbors.
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