by Bob Lupton, February 2011 Should Christians always give money to street people who ask for it? That’s what Christianity Today recently asked three veteran ministry leaders known for their commitment to the poor.
“Yes, freely!” answers Gary Hoag, known as the Generosity Monk whose passionate mission is to encourage Christian generosity. To him it is very clear in scripture: “Freely you have received; freely give.” It is not our place to judge others, to evaluate them as worthy or unworthy of our assistance. God is the judge, not us. What they do with our aid is between them and God. We are to love and give unconditionally. Gary’s theology of generosity is summed up in his quote from contemplative priest Brennan Manning: “God’s call for each of us to live a life of unlimited generosity is rooted in his limitless love and care for us.” Through our free and generous giving “the postmodern world will see Jesus in our generosity.”
Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, sees it quite differently. “Giving cash to someone in need is the least helpful and most temporary solution and should only be a last resort,” he says. His years of experience with street people has taught him that most panhandlers are not really homeless at all. Most are scammers who may collect $300 a day from kind-hearted passers-by and at the end of the day walk a block or two to their cars and drive home. When someone approaches Andy for money for food or a place to stay, he gives them his card and invites them to his mission where they can get not only food and shelter but other support as well. Very seldom does he give money, and then only when there are no other alternatives. Like Hoag, he too has scripture to back his position. His biblical example is the lame man who asked Peter and John for some money. They offered no money but rather something better – healing! “People experiencing homelessness and poverty need a community,” Andy says. “People need permanent help in becoming strong. They need a connection with Jesus Christ and a faith community.”
Absolutely not! So says Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of best selling Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. A quick donation is cheap love. There is simply no way to tell whether a story is legitimate, or if a person will spend the money on drugs or alcohol. Supporting immorality, laziness or destructive behavior is simply irresponsible and clearly not a loving act. Scripture demands that we stand on the side of the poor but it certainly does not tell us to give irresponsibly. Rather than give money, Sider suggests taking the homeless person to lunch and listening to his story. “People almost always need love even more than money,” he says. Generous giving should be directed toward effective, holistic programs equipped to deal with the deeper socio-economic issues, ministries that share the love of Christ and “truly empower, liberate and transform.”
Three respected Christian leaders, all committed to helping the poor, all relying on the scriptures to guide them, each with distinctly different convictions on how to rightly serve – opposing convictions. They take their stand at opposite ends of the charity continuum, from “always give money” to “never give money.” Who’s right? Whose counsel do we listen to?
Andy Bales certainly has the most direct experience with the homeless, living and serving among them for decades. His “last resort” giving position is shaped by years of personal involvement, watching con games on the street, seeing first-hand the long, up-and-down battles of those trying to break free from addictions. Pragmatic experience has taught him that healing is far more likely in a supportive community environment than struggling alone on the street. Of course he believes it is better to steer street people toward a program like he runs. He has committed his life to it.
Gary the Generosity Monk, on the other hand, views scripture (and the world) from the ivory tower of religious academia. Not that he’s removed from humanity – he’s certainly not. He’s very engaged with the Christian community, particularly as it relates to generosity. But he doesn’t live among the broken. In one sense, his reading of scripture is purer, uncontaminated by the troubling realities of life on the street. His “yes, freely” theology of giving is fashioned around a compelling body of scriptures such as “Give to anyone who asks” and “Freely you have received; freely give” and “If you have two coats, give one.” And his examples of the extravagant giving of historic heroes of the faith are inspiring. His message is clearly directed toward an affluent church that needs for its own salvation to be freed from its bondage to material things. Giving freely is a prime way to break the strangle-hold of materialism. But is his “unconditional giving” doctrine informed by the real-life down-stream impacts of unexamined charity?
Ron Sider understands poverty from a systems perspective. He pores over statistics, scrutinizes legislative motivation and decision-making, holds up a biblical standard of justice by which to evaluate public policy and practice. He is a prophet to a nation that has subsidized poverty, eroded a work ethic through dependency-producing entitlements and decimated the family structure of the poor – all in the name of doing good. He knows better than most theologians the vast number of scriptures that deal with God’s concern for the poor. And the responsibility of God’s people to care for the widows and orphans and strangers. His plea, like the prophet Amos, is to “let justice roll down like a river.” The quick donation, whether for expediency, sentimentality or guilt-relieving, is cheap love that is neither merciful nor just. Prophets are not pragmatists. They speak in absolutes. Understandably, to Sider, irresponsible giving is just plain wrong!
Always. Sometimes. Never. Who’s got it right? I guess it all depends on the level of the platform you are viewing the poor from – ground-level practicality or elevated theological theory. Your altitude will determine your attitude.