As we consider what it means to be “born again,” as the evangelical jargon goes, we must ask what it means to be born again into a family in which our sisters and brothers are starving to death.
The early Christians taught that if a child starves while a Christian has extra food, the Christian is guilty of murder. One of the fathers of the Church, Basil the Great, writing in the fourth century, put it this way: “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”
Scripture says: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. … All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. … There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-34, TNIV).
The tragedy in today’s church is not that the rich don’t care about the poor, but that the rich don’t know the poor. It is easier for us to talk about the poor than to talk to the poor. There are many layers separating us from others, especially those who are poor from those who are not.
There are obvious layers like picket fences and SUVs, but there are also the more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets allowing us to appease our consciences and still remain a safe distance from the poor. It’s much more comfortable to depersonalize the poor so we don’t feel responsible for the catastrophic human failure that results in someone sleeping on the street while people have spare bedrooms in their homes. When we get to heaven, though, I’m not convinced Jesus is going to say, “When I was hungry, you gave a check to the United Way and they gave me something to eat,” or, “When I was naked, you donated clothes to the Salvation Army and they clothed me.” Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He seeks concrete acts of love: “you gave me something to eat … you gave me something to drink … you clothed me … you invited me in … you looked after me … you came to visit me [in prison]” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Faith-based nonproﬁts can tend to mirror secular organizations, maintaining the same hierarchies of power and separation between rich and poor. They can too easily merely facilitate the exchange of goods and services, putting professionals in the middle to guarantee the rich do not have to face the poor and power does not shift. Jesus did not come to set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven just as we forgive our debtors. That reign did not spread through establishments or structural systems. It spread like disease—through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people infected by love.
While what we are talking about goes deeper than flinging coins at beggars, I want to address those who say we shouldn’t give money. Signs have been placed in cities throughout the country discouraging people from giving money. One reads: “As long as you give change, nothing will change.” There are many things I find problematic with this. Not only does it assume there is something wrong with people on the streets, it also assumes the system works for everyone, and that others know what is best for someone.
Sometimes we wonder what Jesus would do in the Kolkata slums or in heroin-haunted streets where folks ask for change on every corner. Sometimes we may give money, sometimes not. But we are to give something to those who ask: dignity, time, a listening ear.
Having said that, most Christians need to get taken advantage of more. And we can usually spare some change. If we cannot take someone to dinner or give them a ride when they ask for money, we might as well give some money. I doubt Jesus is going to reprimand us for giving too much money to addicts; more likely, we will discover we could have been more generous.
None of us can do alone what all of us can do together. None of us is Christ on our own, but all of us are Christ’s body together as a Church. We are called to redefine who our family is—so the suffering of others becomes our suffering.
This article can be found in the Reject Apathy special section in the May/June ’10 issue of RELEVANT.