Monday, June 14, 2010

Helping the Poor

I started this blog nearly two years ago, thinking I might add to it regularly. That clearly has not been the case. I'll try again today and see if I can start getting this going.

The main focus of my religious journey over the last couple of years has been the idea of helping the poor. I think few would argue that a critical component of Christianity, like most other religions is helping the poor and helpless. But exactly how and why helping the poor is important is a more complex question.

One simple answer is that we should do unto others as we would have them do to us. If we were poor and needed help, we would want others to help us, so if we find ourselves in a position to help those in need, we should.

But Christianity also tells us that material possession is not important for anyone. In fact, the Bible discusses in detail how material possession can keep us away from God rather than helping us get closer to him (Luke 18:22-24). Therefore, might it be a disservice to others by trying to supply their material needs before focusing on their spiritual ones.

Of course, this line of thought can lead to the perverse idea that we should not give charitably to the poor since giving them more material possessions does nothing to help bring them to God, and may even get in the way of it. Therefore, I should keep all my stuff in order to protect others from the dangers of wealth. Clearly this is wrong since our first responsibility is to make sure we ourselves are behaving righteously in God's sight. If that material wealth is a burden that could harm our relationship with God, we should dump it right away.

A more common trap for many Christians seems to be using wealth as leverage over others. We see this in many foreign missions as well as religiously based anti-poverty programs such as soup kitchens or homeless services. I don't mean to demean the motivations of missionaries or others doing these things. It is quite possible these well intentioned people even consider the situation as I am about to describe it, but the actions often seem to support this way of thinking. That is, as a Christian with some material assets, I will use those assets as a lure to get you poor people to accept my religious ideas as a condition of getting my material help.

Sometimes it is very blatant, compelling people receiving food, shelter, or other services to participate in prayer, bible readings, or religious services as a condition of getting the help. Other times, while not mandatory, there is coercive pressure to participate. I certainly understand the temptation to use the enticement to bring people to the word of God, but I think it undermines the notion of true Christian Charity. It gives the false notion that there is material reward in this world for accepting the Word, rather than the focus on our eternal reward. Jesus brought no material benefits when he came to Earth. Similarly, when he commissioned his disciples to go out, with no gold or silver, or even extra clothes (Matt. 10:9-10). Material goods were only an impediment to spreading the Word.

Rather, charitable giving is not really primarily designed to benefit the recipient. It's true reward is for the giver. I will admit I am highly persuaded by the teachings of Mother Teresa on this issue. In her books, she discusses in great detail the importance of giving for the spiritual growth of the giver. She did not want to accept large checks from donors, even though they might do a lot of good for the material needs of those around her. She insisted the donor come and participate personally in the sharing of the wealth. This was critical to the purpose of giving as it helped the giver to grow spiritually.

Charitable giving must not only be personal, but it must be unconditional. Many people want to give "where it will do the most good." To me, this also misses the point. Christian giving is not about making this world materially better. It is about spreading the Kingdom of God through a true love for our neighbor.

Think of it this way. If you had a close friend or family member who needed help, you would probably help them to the point of considerable self-sacrifice, even though there might be many others who might benefit more from the resources you could provide. You are acting on your love for this person and a desire to help them. As a Christian, we are called to love even complete strangers or those who hate us with the same level of love that we might show that friend or family member.

I'll be the first to admit that I have trouble living up to this ideal. It is easy to try to salve one's conscience by giving a few dollars to a beggar or writing a check for some far off charity. But I have to ask myself, is that just a way of buying off the fact that I want to keep much of my hard earned money and not want to involve myself in the many problems of strangers? If we go down this road, we see it easy to end up living in near poverty ourselves, giving everything we have to help others and still it never being enough to end or even alleviate much of the suffering. That seems to be the call of true Christianity. We find it praiseworthy when others like Mother Teresa live that way, although I am first to admit I have deep concerns about whether I could live like that. Perhaps love of my possessions is just holding me back.

That said, I think it is important that the act of giving be the primary focus. It is an act indicating one's Christian compassion, not primarily focused on improving the public good. The story of the woman who perfumes Jesus' feet is a good example of this. She is criticized for wasting perfume that could have been sold and the money used to care for many poor people. Jesus rebukes this criticism and commends the woman (Mark 14:3-9). I take from this passage that any act of love done for with good motives is commendable, even if it is not an efficient use of resources. When we receive God's love, we accept that it is not because we "deserve" it. Rather, we accept it as a gift that we have been given despite our many shortcomings. When we turn around to share love with our neighbor's shouldn't we strive to show that same unconditional love to them?