Politics, Poverty, and the Face of Christ

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.

11 Comments

  • Avatar
    July 26, 2012

    Rebecca (Bearca)

    Arwen linked this from Twitter and I had to comment. Wonderful post. I believe your approach was 100% right. People always say “but what if they are just going to use the money to buy drugs?” Well, my answer to that is this. If God can act on my heart and trigger a generous impulse, then who am I to say He won’t act on the receiver’s heart too, and somehow use that small gift for good? In that scenario, I don’t really believe it’s my job to determine HOW they use the gift. I just know that it is my responsibility to give it in that moment, and I am thankful for the ability to do so.

  • Avatar
    July 26, 2012

    Celeste

    My feeling is, either give or don’t give…but understand that if you do give, you are also giving the recipient the gift of choosing how to spend it. We do not get to keep that gift for yourself. I do think that when you give alms, you should not consider that some would disagree with you about it being the right thing to do. My only thought in these matters is to be careful as a woman traveling alone, especially when it comes to pulling out your wallet. It sounds like your story had a happy ending, and that is what matters most.

  • Avatar
    July 26, 2012

    Elena

    Awesome, Miriel. I admit, these questions never quite get easy. I’ve faced that problem in many different ways in the past several months. When I was in Cambodia in May, a woman with a baby approached me and asked if I could buy powdered milk for her baby. It seemed like a very reasonable request, so I went to the store with her to purchase a tin of baby formula. She protested when I picked up the small one, and I began to feel like I was making a bad decision, but I would rather be prey to her scheme than harden my heart in cynicism. Even so, I found out later that young women will ask someone to buy baby formula for them and then promptly return it to the store for the cash.

    Here in Bangkok, I was faced just yesterday with the problem of a friend of mine asking to borrow a small amount of money. She doesn\’t have a history of great money management. Her daughter’s father is in jail and the man she married is in jail too. And yet, she has made a greater effort in past months to take responsibility for her own life and her 3-year-old daughter’s. So do I lend or no? I did. If she pays me back after pay day this month, fantastic. If not, I hope the Lord will use that 100 Baht to good purpose.

    I learned from some friends a while ago that the Christian response is to do what Jesus said and lend without expecting to be paid back. My old friends had once given out a substantial loan to a poor immigrant friend of theirs expecting not to be reimbursed, and they were surprised and pleased when he actually did pay them back. Even so, they kept the money aside, thinking of it as \”M\’s Bank\” from which they would loan him money whenever he asked.

    Of course, it\’s hard to do this as a rule. We need boundaries too. But I\’d say the difference is that Jesus invites Christians to cross these social barriers between rich and poor, to have relationships with those in different demographic categories than we are, and through those relationships we can do so much more, both outside of lending money and even through lending money. As you said, these people lose their humanity when we lump them together in a group. But as the Church, we can go even deeper and engage them as brothers and sisters, understanding their trials and even holding them accountable. Maybe that’s not so easy with the guy who just approaches your car on a Sunday afternoon, but even that is one step closer to understanding than the way most middle class Americans interact with poverty (which is often not at all). We’re invited into relationship, to even take on the risks of helping people. The best answer to this question is to incarnate ourselves in the lives of the poor, like Jesus did, and to be a person who shares their sorrows, to be acquainted with their grief, and gain the understanding that only that relationship can bring.

  • Avatar
    July 28, 2012

    Fr. Ernesto

    I think that you wrote an excellent piece. I particularly enjoyed how your personal experience led you into ruminations about where we are in this country, and even more how we let ourselves get boxed in our opinions. It was a helpful reminder to me to watch myself lest I get caught up in some of the craziness that is happening right now.

  • Avatar
    August 8, 2012

    Sam Hamilton

    Thanks Miriel. I wish Christians spent as much time debating/discussing the best responses to the needy in our local communities as we do debating the propriety of particular government programs to help the needy.

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    July 9, 2013

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