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When Do We Have Enough?

I recently read a sermon entitled, How Much Is Enough?, by Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Saviour here in Washington, DC. The sermon, which dates from 1990, talks about the ways in which our lack of trust in God for our daily needs creates a barrier between us and other people in our lives – particularly between us and those in our society that are living on the margins – the homeless, the very poor, the outlaw. How can we, he asks, expect to imitate Jesus in his love for the poor and the outcast when our privilege makes us so uncomfortable around the very people that Jesus spent the most time with?

Crutches near Eastern Market, DCCosby’s questions convict me. Here in DC, I regularly encounter homeless citizens who linger in the places I frequent – on street corners and in parks, in front of the pharmacy and near the market. These folks serve as constant reminders of the material, social and other advantages that I have received, through no merit of my own. They also remind me of the injustice that my privilege props up; they, by their very presence, reveal my own complicity in the systems of oppression that allow our civilization to function.

And I avoid them. When I see someone begging on the street, I walk quickly and avoid eye contact. If they do manage to break through my defenses, I am quick to say, “no, sorry.” I put on a smile, a facsimile of compassion, and I keep walking. To some extent, I avoid homeless and marginalized people because of the way they reveal my own privilege and complicity in oppressive systems; but my deepest reason for avoiding contact is that I fear that if I make myself vulnerable to the poor, they will take advantage of me.

I remember when I lived in Mexico, I quickly learned to shut the beggars out. Only in the most extreme cases would I be moved to give money to any of the hundreds of pordioseros I saw every day. Even when I did occasionally give money, it was a false act of compassion: IMicah with a homeless child sought to assuage my guilt and disgust by buying an indulgence. I never felt I could really get close to the poor of Mexico for the same reason that I now feel so alienated from the poor of Washington, DC: I did not know how to have a real relationship with someone of such a vastly different social and economic class than me. I struggle to believe that I could ever have a relationship with a street person that was not ultimately based in the question of how much money or other assistance I might give. I want to be loved and respected for who I am, and I do not like the idea of being seen by others primarily as a source of income, rather than as a person.

Could I possibly develop a true friendship with a homeless or very poor person if we remained so starkly different in our financial and social situations? Would I not have a responsibility to share out of my relative abundance, lowering my standard of living to help my brother or sister who has unmet needs? As Jesus is quick to point out: My own fear of losing wealth, status and security is an almost insurmountable barrier to living in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom, after all, consists in loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. I do not truly love God if I am unwilling to lay down everything that gets in the way of total obedience to Jesus; and I do not truly love my neighbor if I am not willing to surrender anything that presents a stumbling block to loving relationship.

DC MetroWhat is the next step for me as I seek to live more fearlessly into the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom? How am I to connect with Christ’s presence within myself, and within all of those whom I share life with? I think it will be important to open myself to relationship with street people, and others who make me nervous. I think that God calls me to make eye contact, to stop and speak with those who ask me for money, to get to know each person on a human level.

I believe God calls me to step beyond the fear of being used, of being seen only as a pay day. Just as disparities of wealth make it hard for me to relate to the poor as brothers and sisters, I must see how these disparities make it hard for them to do the same. I cannot expect others to break through the social consequences of injustice if I am not willing to take the first step of treating others as if they were the Lord Jesus himself. If this means being treated like a meal ticket by those I am called to love, so be it – what is that suffering compared with what Jesus himself has carried?

All of us, rich and poor, are suffering from the alienation that comes when we try to be self-sufficient. In our lack of faith, we try to play God, storing up the resources we need for the future, not trusting that God will provide for our daily needs. If we are to break out of the spirit of defensiveness and scarcity, we must truly believe that God will stand with us no matter what happens – we must believe that we are truly safe, in the most profound sense, in our Father’s world.

Natividad and meIt is only from this sense of deep safety that we can be empowered to challenge the powers of darkness and oppression that keep us separated from our brothers and sisters. It is only through very tangible trust in the Lord that we can take the risks necessary to live in the Kingdom and invite others in. It is only through deep trust in the power of God that we can say with Peter, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”(1)

1. Acts 3:6

  • Well said, Micah. I used ot live at 13th and U, near the metro, and worked with Samaritan ministries and Martha’s Table. I was quite poor myself- having poured my resources into a degree at Georgetown! One weird thing I found was that when we loaded the vans with food to take to the neighbourhoods, other volunteers were surprised, sometimes horrified, that I would help myself to a sandwich, soup and coffee. I was just as poor as those we served, but so often the occasional volunteers saw themselves as above the clients. I didn’t have a problem taking home leftovers from the van, but some of them wouldn’t because it was donated food. So it should go to waste instead?

  • Robin

    I think the key is recognizing and remembering that we are all just people. Leave your wallet at home and just talk to the people living on the street, make friends, hang out, share a meal. Once in your heart you know that these are your friends you’ll know what to do with what’s in your wallet.

  • I’ve thought about this a lot in the wake of the Arizona shootings. Both poverty and mental health represent huge stigmas that are difficult to overcome. When someone walks by on the street mumbling to himself, my first instinct is not to ask if the person needs help, but rather to look down and hope the person doesn’t notice me. So I appreciate your struggle and your comments.

    At the same time, I’m concerned with the idea of being a leaver (to use Daniel Quinn’s language for those who “leave their fate in the hands of the gods”). Do you really think that the hand of the almighty will shield the earth from a meteor strike? It didn’t work out so well for the dinosaurs. It reminds me a bit of the joke about Dio provizos.

  • Robin – It seems like you pretty well get it.

    Micah – Congratulations on being one of the few who acknowledges you have a problem there. As they say with alcoholics, it’s the first step to recovery. 🙂

    This is an issue I struggle with to, but from a different angle. When you met us in Wichita, we were still barely scraping it. 2009 was the wealthiest year I’ve ever seen in my life – I almost made $20K and, if you remember me from University Friends, I’ve got a wife and kid in tow to feed with it. It was the only year I’ve ever lived that didn’t see a major utility cut off or find us a month behind on rent or, or, or. We were “okay” for one year. I came really close to making up for my son’s first Christmas for which we were homeless because I got suckered into working a commission job that didn’t pay out more than $800 a month. But I digress.

    The first time I ever heard a bunch of high-schoolers come back from a third-world summer mission, I felt like throwing a brick. You could hear the “eww” in their voices when talking about the people they ministered to, right before launching into a speech that focused on how the experience made them grateful for everything they HAVE (which was, let me tell you, a lot. You think the church paid for their mission trip?).

    It brought up in my head about how I’ve never heard a single pastor or invited speaker get up in front of God and everybody and say “You know, I saw how the other half live, and it just showed me that I can survive without. So I got rid of all of it. It was liberating.”

    Let me tell you, it is.

    It also brought up the question of whether or not these people they visited were unhappy before someone told them they should be, whether they thought they needed handouts before someone just handed them a bunch. Whether Adam and Eve were truly naked before they ate the fruit.

    The first time I ever read about Jesus telling his disciples how to deal with thieves (if they steal your shirt, give them your coat) I was watching people arrive for a church service across the street. Every fourth or fifth one hit the remote on a car alarm on the way in. A piece of me snapped off.