I wanted to begin this post by explaining the picture I chose to represent the piece. The picture is statue of Jesus depicting him as a homeless man asleep on a park bench in Davidson, North Carolina. When the statue was erected, it made many of the local residents uncomfortable. NPR explains:
The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn’t.
“One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by,” says David Boraks, editor of DavidsonNews.net. “She thought it was an actual homeless person.”
That’s right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.
“Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out,” Boraks added.
Some neighbors feel that it’s an insulting depiction of the son of God, and that what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.
Why does this statue make so many uncomfortable? Did not Christ describe himself: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head”? Christ was indeed homeless. In our day and age, this is what homelessness looks like. Perhaps we like to think of Christ as a well-dressed itinerant preacher (at least, most of our paintings in LDS culture depict him as a model just waiting for an inspiring photo shoot). I think the beauty of this statue is that it does make us uncomfortable, and asks us to re-evaluate what we know about our faith.
Today, I want to talk about a similar passage in the Book of Mormon that has always made me a little uncomfortable. One of the most well-known sermons in the Book of Mormon is that of King Benjamin to his people. King Benjamin was a righteous leader of his people– simultaneously a king and a prophet. In the last message to his people, he taught about serving your fellow man, his vision of the coming Messiah, the Atonement of Jesus Christ and adoption into his family, and the happiness of those who seek to keep the Lord’s commandments. But among many of the verses that I found fit comfortably in with my understanding of the gospel was one that definitely did not. In it, King Benjamin gives the counsel:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just– But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he had done he perishesh forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
King Mosiah teaches that in our daily lives, when we encounter someone asking for assistance, we cannot pass them idly by and ignore them. We must go to their aid. But he goes further than that; just like Christ condemned not just violence, but even the state of being angry, King Benjamin condemns not just the act of refusing the beggar’s petition, but also of excusing ourselves by blaming the beggar for his own condition. King Benjamin speaks with extremely strong words here: not only does he say such actions have need of repentance; he says that such acts equate to having no interest in God’s kingdom.
I felt like such a scripture could not easily be explained away. But that’s not what I saw in my community. Beggar’s were indeed explained away: they were going to use it to buy drugs or alcohol. They actually made a ton of cash by taking advantage of these hapless do-gooders. They probably owned a house. Someone claimed to have seen a van come and pick up several panhandlers after a hard day’s work. This is what we pay fast offerings for. The approach that I grew up with seemed to be word for word what King Benjamin absolutely condemned: “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery.” The justification involved two premises: (1) handing out money isn’t going to do any good anyway, because they will misuse the funds and (2) money can be better spent in giving to organizations dedicated to helping like churches and charities.
Growing up, I was mostly isolated from the immediate face of poverty; I drove to and from school, and I went to church, really. A happy existence in suburbia. The only moments I remember seeing panhandlers was in our forays into downtown Salt Lake City to go to Temple Square. On those trips, if we encountered a beggar, we hurried by as quickly as we could, trying to ignore eye contact and even worse, a personal encounter. Each one of these moment was heart-wrenching for me, and I couldn’t easily shake it off. I didn’t know what was right to do in such situations.
This only got worse when I left for a two-year proselyting mission in Frankfurt, Germany. As a missionary, you try to speak as many people as you can on the street. Oftentimes, the only people actually willing to engage with us in conversation were the panhandlers. In my mission, we were discouraged from giving money to panhandlers, and rightly so; missionaries don’t have a lot of money to spare. But when asked, I would usually give an euro or two, and take the guilt that I was mis-using my sacred funds. In one companionship, we had the idea of buying a supply of water bottles and snacks that we could give whenever we encountered someone in need. In that way we could keep both the letter and the spirit of the law.
After my mission, I wanted to keep making similar efforts. I remember in one ambitious project, I tried to pre-emptively plan for such encounters by preparing a small envelope with a few dollars, a pass-a-long card, and a personal note. I also wanted to make an effort to stop and talk to them. I had by then realized that I had made this an exercise in assuaging my guilt rather than a true effort to aid a brother or a sister. I wanted to change that, by making each such encounter a chance to act like the Savior would act. This is still something I am working on. I hope that I never get comfortable whenever I encounter someone in need, and that I take the time to help them feel that they are worth something.
Excusing yourself from giving dehumanizes the poor
The first lesson that I have learned is that listening and responding to the beggar’s petition isn’t solely about relieving suffering. If it was, then yes, perhaps we could defer all responsibility to fast offerings, charitable donations, and government programs; the real reason it is important to give in the moment is to learn to love your brother, to realize that you are your brother’s keeper, and to build love towards those who are different from you. Isn’t that the whole Republican premise? That we should voluntarily give and aid the poor and the needy, rather than deferring our responsibility to programs? These everyday moments and encounters should be a chance to respond like our Savior responded– asking “who touched me?” and not simply moving on with, “the multitude throng thee and press thee, and thou sayest, Who touched me?” Too often we do the same in our busy lives, rather than responding in love.
The attitude in articles like this offer a different message: ” “Officials: Begging “abets lawlessness,’ don’t give panhandlers cash.” Utah is putting up billboards with messages like:
“Support panhandlers, and you support drug trafficking.”
“Support panhandlers, and you support crime.”
“Support panhandlers, and you support alcoholism.”
We see a homeless person, and we are already trying to determine what kind of criminal he is before we scurry on past him.
Poverty as holiness
One of my favorite songs this time of year comes from Michael McLean’s The Forgotten Carols. In the story, a woman overhears a group of homeless men singing in an alleyway:
Like the Christ child was
But there is hope because
He came down to earth to lead us
He vowed He’d never leave us
For in His love there is a home
Oh so Homeless, Homeless
Was His humble birth
He was Homeless, Homeless
And still He changed the earth
Nothing kept His heart from giving
Most of His life was living
He showed it’s how we live,
This song again does the opposite of our group instincts: it asks us to view the homeless as equals, if not our spiritual betters.
I love this quote I stumbled upon in a recent book, The God Who Weeps describing how the seeming human aspects of Christ are vital to his mission: “Perhaps He goes to sleep, in order that he may bless sleep… perhaps He is tired that He may hallow weariness also; perhaps He weeps that He may make tears blessed.”
Perhaps Christ was also homeless that he could make homelessness holy.
In closing, I would hope that in our quest to build Zion, we remember that the poor are an essential part of that: “And that had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich nor poor, bond nor free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” We can’t excuse ourselves from reaching this goal because the poor among us just aren’t hard-working enough; this is on us. We need to avoid building social barriers between us and the poor, and instead work towards bringing those barriers down.
St. Francis was a disciples of Christ in the 13th century who took on a vow of poverty. I loved this quote from G. K. Chesterton:
The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy. As soon as ever he had been unhorsed by the glorious humiliation of his vision of dependence on the divine love, he flung himself into fasting and vigil exactly as he had flung himself furiously into battle. He had wheeled his charger clean round, but there was no halt or check in the thundering impetuosity of his charge. There was nothing negative about it; it was not a regimen or a stoical simplicity of life. It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control. It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold. And it is precisely the positive and passionate quality of this part of his personality that is a challenge to the modern mind in the whole problem of the pursuit of pleasure…. we can say, with almost as deep a certainty, that the stars which passed above that gaunt and wasted corpse stark upon the rocky floor had for once, in all their shining cycles round the world of labouring humanity, looked down upon a happy man.