Miriel Thomas: An encounter with a stranger in need sparks thoughts about public discourse on poverty.
I was sitting outside a little church in Bellmead, Texas after daily Mass yesterday afternoon, checking my email on my sparkly new iPhone while the air conditioner worked to cool down the air in my shiny, year-old Corolla. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man standing a few yards from my car. He looked a little unkempt and a lot distressed, and when he caught my eye I saw something in his face that I couldn’t quite identify. Humility—perhaps humiliation—mingled with hope, maybe? I rolled down my window.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said softly, “I don’t mean to bother you, and I’m sorry if I startled you—“
“Not at all,” I replied, which was not exactly true. He had startled me—but he seemed so uncomfortable. I tried to smile kindly. “What can I do for you?”
And I listened to his story. He had driven down from Fort Worth to attend his mother’s funeral and found himself without enough fuel in his car to get back home. He said he could trade me a set of tools he had in his car, or an old cell phone; he offered to show me his driver’s license. He was in need.
What was I going to do about it?
When I lived and worked in the D.C. area, I encountered beggars on a daily basis. Some of them were genuinely and obviously homeless and hungry; with others it was less clear that they weren’t simply trying to swindle you. Now, the typical response to such behavior by the average Washingtonian is a blank stare as he keeps walking or, at best, a weak smile and a mumbled apology. I tried this for a while; it made me feel terrible. In fairly short order I realized why. Successful execution of the de rigeur response required me to pretend that the men and women I walked past each day—on the path between my home and my job—weren’t really people. People bear the image of God. I don’t stare through them.
In that day-to-day context, I sought counsel from wise friends and found a workable approach. The conventional wisdom in the urban context is not to give panhandlers money (on the premise that they won’t actually spend it on food) so I started carrying granola bars in my purse. That way, when someone told me he was hungry, I had something to offer him. If he turned it down—which happened sometimes—I knew at least that I had not walked past another human being with a cold heart.
But granola bars aren’t always enough. Yesterday I found myself in a situation that the Clif bar in my glove compartment couldn’t fix (especially since it’s been there since last October). I was looking into the eyes of a man who needed help, and I had the resources to help him. I reached for my wallet.
I really hesitate to share this story because it seems so baldly self-congratulatory, as if I am proclaiming to the world: lo, I am a good person! (For the record, I am really not that great of a person. Ask my roommates what I’m like when the sink is full of dirty dishes.) It’s tricky to connect personal experiences to broader questions in a helpful way, and there’s always a risk of coming across as a total butthead. But I decided to take that risk because, as I left the church parking lot yesterday waving good-bye to a grinning stranger, I honestly felt unsure whether I had done the right thing. And then I started to think about the public discourse on poverty at the crossroads of politics and religion. And I want to talk about it.
As I hear it, the argument about how to help those in need on the political side of things usually runs something like this: liberals think conservatives are greedy and cold-hearted, and conservatives think liberals are soft and fiscally irresponsible. (Bear with me as I use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” a bit flexibly here; you’ll probably understand my meaning best if you assume that each term is being applied by the people who disagree most vehemently with what they think it stands for.) Liberals want to respond to poverty with social programs. Conservatives want to eliminate poverty by revitalizing the economy. Pretty much everybody assumes bad intentions on the part of pretty much everybody else. Shockingly, this is a fairly unproductive conversation.
Throw in religious convictions and things get interesting. There are certainly Christians who adhere to the social-programs-as-panacea approach to aiding the underprivileged—just this summer, a group of renegade religious women embarked on a tour in an attempt to convince the world that the Gospel itself demands immediate condemnation of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. At the same time, Catholic dioceses and affiliated organizations in the United States—which are sometimes composed of Republicans (gasp!) and which are also an easy target for accusations of hating lots of things (including but not limited to sick people, poor people, gay people, the environment, and squirrels)—turn out to be some of the most significant providers of food, shelter, education, and health care to those in need. And there’s nothing like a good discussion of “the Christian response” to those in need to get everyone’s claws showing. It can be pretty un-Christian, is what I’m trying to say.
No matter who’s talking, though, it seems to me like the discussion always seems to be framed at the structural level. We argue over how political events impact religious organizations’ ability to serve their constituencies; we argue about which option on a vast menu of fiscal policies is most likely to permanently harm large numbers of disadvantaged Americans. I’m not saying those conversations are completely useless; some of them are necessary, and if we can conduct them charitably and wisely, it’s probably fine for them to continue. But I do wonder whether they’re not obscuring the real point.
Let me use an analogy. In 1942 the Supreme Court handed down an opinion in a case called Wickard v. Filburn holding that Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce (which is explicitly granted in the Constitution) extended so far that a regulatory agency could fine a farmer for growing wheat on his own land in violation of federal production quotas, even if he kept the wheat entirely for his own private use. The decision established a principle called the substantial effects test, the rationale for which runs something like this: the federal government can regulate an individual citizen’s non-commercial behavior if that behavior would have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce if lots of other people did it too. It’s a sort of constitutional categorical imperative, if you will.
Now, there’s nothing I love more than a discussion of federalism with a side of Kant, but a discussion of Wickard’s jurisprudential (de)merits will have to wait for another day. Returning to the subject at hand: I think it’s plausible to argue that the politicoreligious treatment of poverty in the United States, especially by people in my demographic (i.e., the overeducated, hyper-opinionated, mostly good-hearted but slightly naïve type), is suffering from the same troubles that Wickard does. We want to help those in need, but we seem to get caught up on how a particular activity would help or harm “the poor” or “the sick” in general. This is why we aren’t supposed to give money to beggars: because they might be lying, they might be heroin addicts or alcoholics. If everyone goes around giving money to these people, the drug problems in our cities will get worse, there will be more crime and prostitution. That’s bad, so we can’t give them money.
Don’t get me wrong: I think there are people who beg for money on the streets and then use it to purchase harmful substances. I think prudence is important, and I think sometimes a granola bar is the right answer. But I also think that when we are quick to universalize, when we talk about people with vulnerabilities as collective subgroups of the metagroup called “the needy,” we inevitably abstract them from their humanity. It is harder to think of them as people. I wonder whether we ought to think more about what we are supposed to do to help the poor and the sick and the hungry and the homeless in particular, when we encounter them face-to-face.
Mother Teresa used to say that she was able to love the people she served in Calcutta—all of whom were poor, and many of whom were covered with dirt and the stench of death—because she looked into the face of each one of them and saw the face of Christ. And I honestly believe that the only reason I was able to help the man I encountered yesterday was because he took me by surprise. In that moment, I had no time to wonder what would happen if men all over the country started accosting young women with tragic tales of empty gas tanks and then used the money they acquired to purchase weapons for gang fights. Clearly, those thoughts came later, when my Pavlovian impulse to generalize kicked in and I started questioning the wisdom of my actions. But in that moment, I didn’t see the hypothetical consequences of universalization. I just saw another person, another child of God, and I was free to be compassionate.
It felt right. Was it wrong? Let’s talk about it.