I get off at the Valley railway station.
[i]It is a Thursday in the evening, as I walk through Brunswick Street to do some errands. People hailing from all parts of the world, particularly the neighbouring East Asian countries, bustle in the walkway going about their daily lives. The night brings people dressed in more expensive clothes, ready to partake in the Valley's night life. Some are wearing more formal dresses and suits, others seem to be going for sexual appeal - all seem to be getting ready for the entertainment the Valley brings.
Except not quite all. Looking a little more carefully at the people not rushing to get somewhere or huddling in large groups, some people are wearing rather inexpensive clothes indeed, perhaps sufficient for warmth in the upcoming months of Australian spring and summer, but barely enough to survive the ending winter. They seem to live on the streets, making surviving off the waste and generosity of others. Or perhaps they do have some accommodation – still, they barely scrape by the day.
One such person walks up to me now, a lady probably in her early-thirties, but looking closer to fifty years old. Her body looks fatigued, but her eyes dart rapidly around, as if she were paranoid about being attacked by someone behind me. We lock eyes and she, after looking at my chest for a split-second, approaches me with a little more energy.
Someone like me gets asked that sort of question around Brisbane daily and probably every other second somewhere in the world. I suspect that anyone reading this has been asked on the street for money – not just by someone busking, but by someone in financial woes.
When I talk to people about the issue of giving money to beggars, or giving alms in language that is more common in the Bible, what the saying that usually pops up is “give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” That sort of logic seems to me to be correct: giving in a way that produces sustainability is better than giving in such a way that produces dependence.
When Caritas International says something to the same effect, I nod my head. Browsing the financial statement for Caritas Australia, I can see that every cent in produces a cent out in targeted and wise relief and humanitarian aid. However, when I talk to the average person about giving to persons such as the lady that approached me on that Thursday evening, I am more than often talking to someone who justifies not giving fish by fooling themselves that they will teach them how to fish.
The brilliance of using that line is obvious upon a little reflection: one is able to justify to oneself one’s lack of kindness by pretending that one is being truly kind. After all, those darting eyes probably came from spending the last merciful soul’s money on drugs, right? One can rationalize the competing desires to give alms because it seems right, and keeping the money because we like money, by making out that keeping one’s money is actually right! With all one’s generosity, one can now abundantly not give.
The utilitarians can stop reading now. Considering only the outcomes of the action, and given that utilitarians are practically obliged to give away the money anyway, their not-giving is more like the targeted giving of Caritas. Though I used to be a utilitarian, I must say I fell too often into the trap of self-deceit and selfishness. I should have known better than to conjure up a rule that justified my doing what I really wanted to do anyway.
The Christian perspective on giving is dramatically different. Of all the numerous parables, discourses and sayings of Jesus about judgement, caring for those in material need is one of the most prominent: be it caring for Christian brethren in need (such as in Matthew 25), or the poor person in the street (such as the parable of Lazarus and the rich man). In fact, Jesus gives us the very clear command to give to whoever begs from us, right after talking about turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak after having one’s coat taken and walking two miles when forced to walk one:
"Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you." (Matthew 5:42 – see comments here)
Anyone who refuses a beggar is, in a very real sense, sinning. But the reason we managed to convince ourselves that we were doing the right thing originally is that there was some truth in the fear that the money would just go towards making the lady’s eyes turn red, and it’s distinctly possible that this will be the case now.
Let me say a few words about people in material need who abuse drugs and alcohol: there may be very few people in the world who have more of an aversion to these two substances than me. For various cultural and personal reasons, substance abuse in all its forms is abnormally repugnant to me. It probably is to them, too. These people often abuse substances because forgetting their woes for a few hours, even a whole day, is often far more exciting a prospect than having some food. Particularly those involved in the sex industry, substance abuse can be the only way to get through the day. More generally to the question “what do you do with your pain?” that I heard asked to a group recently, the response was fairly quick: “get drunk.” Another said “Sex, drugs and rock and roll”. This is not a poor investment for many of them: it is an attempt to remedy something deeper, a reflection of the fact that “man does not live by bread alone.”
Suppose there’s a good chance any money given will be squandered on drugs – then is it OK to ignore the beggar? No. We followers of the Risen Lord have the example of Jesus to model our love on. Consider the recklessness with which Jesus graces us: imagine the angels giving counsel to God, saying “you shall give them the grace to do great things, and they shall squander it with sin!” I cannot speak for anyone else, but when God has given me much, too often I have used it all for my own gain. When, by the sheer love that Christ in his forgiveness has lavished upon me, I am pardoned of all my transgressions, when I am invited to dine with Jesus at the Supper of the Lamb, I frequently decline in favour of wrongdoing. So no, the chance, even a high chance, of misuse is not grounds for Christians to refuse alms.
I would go further and say that even the bank note in my wallet is not mine by right, but instead mine by grace. St John Chrysostom famously said "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." The grace given to me in the form of wealth is in fact a chance to give it away to someone who needs it more. This grace of Jesus is the essence of the Gospel, and grace dies if it is not shared, that is, the Gospel withers in a person if it is not nourished by its proclamation by word and deed.
Money might produce temptation in a drug addict, so if we are fairly certain the person will misuse the funds, then are we justified in not giving? Almost, yet absolutely not. As I said, people in material need rarely take drugs because they are overflowing with cash. It is the rich-though-spiritually-needy who try to fill the holes in the soul with the extravagance of drugs, not the materially needy. So although giving money might produce the temptation which leads to sin – obviously a negative outcome – it is still the lack which ultimately produces the sin. We as Christians are not justified in not giving, now is the moment when we must give the most: now we must give instead our time, energy, mental strength, compassion, and not just our money. For instance, I have at times had the opportunity to go out for lunch and talk – or perhaps just listen – to people who usually get ignored because of the guilt they produce in us.
I, at least, must remember that the added energy that came to the lady after glancing down at my chest came from the hope she saw in the Cross of Christ which I wear around my neck. From there all my hopes come, from there her hope came. I should never disappoint, for I have never been disappointed by God.
 My gratitude to Marc who wrote an inspiring piece that I have borrowed in large part and recast as my own here. See his version: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2013/09/giving-your-money-to-drug-addicts.html
 The Caritas Australia financial statement for the financial year ending 2012 can be found starting page 70 here: http://www.caritas.org.au/docs/publications-and-reports/annual-report-2011-2012.pdf
 For an understanding of why this is the case, see the "Demandingness Objection" - I would have said I was Singerian, though very poorly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demandingness_objection.
 I am, as a university student, not exactly rich anyway, though I have far more than many and my parents provide for all my basic needs. Every so often, though, I do have some spare money in my wallet.
[i] Source for Image: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/entertainment/your-brisbane/welcome-to-the-valley-australias-scariest-saturday-night-20091104-hy3p.html