Several years back, compelled by the policy of the community development organization I was working with in the inner city of Philadelphia, I decided not to give money to people on the street who asked for help. The neighborhood had high rates of unemployment and homelessness and so requests for help, for a couple of dollars, were frequent. Unfortunately, the neighborhood also had a lot of folk who were dependent on drugs and/or alcohol. Like many others, I adopted the maxim, “Never give money to a beggar. They’ll only spend it on drugs.” Now, undoubtedly, my motivations were good: 1. I believe I am called to steward my resources well and throwing them down a drain of addiction certainly doesn’t fit with that duty and 2. I do not want to be responsible for enabling another person’s dependency and destruction. I have felt very morally justified, therefore, in my intentional choice not to give money to people on the street.
This motivation though is flawed for a number of reasons and Marc Barnes recently wrote an excellent blog addressing some of these issues, entitled ‘Giving your money to drug addicts.’
1. This policy assumes that everyone asking for money or help has a dependency issue and is either a drug addict or an alcoholic
2. This policy assumes that poor people are not able to spend money as responsibly as I am
3. As Marc puts it, this policy allows me to “simulate the whole strength of moral feeling by doing nothing. I may walk past a beggar and say, “Thank you Lord, for helping me to show your love to the poor by aiding them in kicking their drug addictions by way of my generous not-giving.”
But here’s the kicker, perhaps someone who asks you for money really does have an addiction – you can see it perhaps in their eyes, or their body movement, their slurred speech or their word-salads. The signs are all there. But now turning aside with a curt, “I’m sorry I don’t give money” is just not a sufficient response. Suddenly, “whatever money we have is not revealed to be too much to give the beggar, but woefully too little. Before we knew of a drug addiction, we were approached by a man asking for financial help. Afterwards, we are approached by a man who — in sorrow and sin — asks for spiritual and physical help. If we refuse a request for money on the part of a drug addict, it is only because we have been confronted with the infinitely larger request for healing. The Christian may not say “he’ll buy drugs,” and keep walking, only “he’ll buy drugs, and now my obligation to give alms has been infinitely widened into the terrifying obligation to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, to comfort the afflicted, to instruct the ignorant, and to admonish the sinner…To pray, to admonish, to enter into a relationship of love, to embrace, to hold, to plead, to offer help, to offer to arrange a detox, an entrance into an effective program, to find what began their addiction and what keeps it killing them, to be patient with their sin, their scams, their schemes — all this and more if I am to make the conscious decision not to give on the basis of a drug addiction.”
If the disciples asked, “How then shall we pray?” perhaps the cry we could be offering up is “How then shall we give?” If it is a moral imperative not to give money to those who are in addiction and we are bound by our christian “duty” to steward our resources and care enough not to enable those who ask for help, what happens when the “obligation to give alms has been infinitely widened into the terrifying obligation” to incarnate Matthew 25?