Friday, May 3, 2013

Beggars in Modern Times

Acts Chapter 3

So one day, Peter and John were walking to the Temple to pray. As they were walking into the Temple gate, they were passing by this man who had been crippled from birth. Every day, someone carried that man to the gate so that he could beg from those who were going inside to the Temple courts.
Nicholas Poussin, Peter and John Heal the Blind Man at the Gate
Metropolitan Museum of Art 


I don't know about you, but I've passed by this scene often, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. In the first part of this blog post, I'll talk literal. In the second part, I want to challenge each of us to think figuratively, in the sense of the bigger picture.

My first encounter with people who vocationally would identify themselves as beggars was while living in China. There, people who have disabilities are taken or somehow get themselves to places where many people will be walking (in other words, places with high foot traffic), so they can beg. They beg for money, or for food. In China, the proper posture of a beggar is one of humility. Often, the beggar will have written his or her story in sidewalk chalk and then will kneel on the ground, bowing with forehead touching the ground, with hands outstretched in front of their bowed head. I asked a friend to translate some of the sidewalk chalks:

"I lost my hands in an industrial accident and can no longer work." 

"I forgot my bus money and I need enough change to get home from school." 

"My husband came to this city to work, but two months ago we stopped hearing from him. I came to this city to find him but he was not at the address I had for him. Now I have run out of money and have no food or transportation back to my home village." 

Other times, the beggar will just sit there, plight obvious, with a bowl in front for collection of coins. I've written on my China blog about some of my experiences with beggars. In one blog entry, HERE, I talked about beggars generally. Getting across a footbridge can be like running through a gauntlet. In another blog entry, HERE, I talked about how the experience of having to fend off beggars spurred development of my Chinese language skill.  In some shape or form, we've all experienced beggars, panhandlers. But on a deeper level, I ask,


Okay, obviously, a beggar is someone who seeks something from me. A favor, a gift, an alm.  If it's a friend who is doing the asking, I don't call that person a beggar.  I am thinking this label only gets applied when there is no prior relationship, which lends itself then to applying a label, a category.  A begger, from my perspective as object of the begging, is a person who is a "have not" or a "less than" -- less like me, less worthy, less lucky, less blessed and perhaps for a reason. On the other hand, labels are a two way street. As some experiences with street beggars clearly reveal, the beggar (or the thief) sees the giver as an object to be exploited: less worthy of compassion, less needy, less human. In fact, it could be argued that overcoming these labels is what we must do, in order to recognize our neighbor and truly see them as the individuals we are called to "love as yourself." The more categories and labels any of us put on others, the broader the bridge becomes we have to cross in order to see our modern day beggars -- in whatever form they take -- as unique individuals, each one loved by God.

So far, I've chosen to view this story from the perspective of the non-crippled benefactor. But what if, instead, I am the beggar?  Theologically, if we truly believe that all we are and have comes from God, then we are all beggars in that sense.  How about as this relates to other people:  How does it feel to be a person who lives off the largesse or good graces of another person?  In Buddhism, it is recognized that there is value in learning the lessons that flow not only from being generous, but also from being the beneficiary of generosity. Begging teaches spiritual values of humility, faith, thankfulness, open mindedness. In Buddhism, a monk lives by begging, which is a spiritual exercise as much as a physical one, making daily rounds to collect their meals from among the faithful. When we have no idea what the future will bring, perhaps we also can perceive the miracles of blessing and compassion more readily. Jesus may seem to have been encouraging his own followers to be a bit more like this, trusting in Providence to supply their needs rather than amassing riches as in, for example, his teachings in Luke Chapter 12.

Here in Western culture, we prefer to think we are rather more in control of our destiny. We want to feel we are responsible for our own success. We greedily take credit for our own success.  Instead of thanking Providence, we say to ourselves, "I'm a self made man!"  In order to claim responsibility for our success, however, we must conversely imagine the converse, which is that we are responsible for our own failures. In other words, when life throws someone a curve ball, we blame the victim. "He should have chosen a better occupation," we say. Or, "She should not have left her husband." Or, "That person should not have been driving so fast!"

In other cultures, where success or failure is accepted more as a matter of fate, perhaps there is less judgmentalism for being brought to the circumstance of begging. There is probably also more honesty about the fact of physical and economic fragility Although many Americans are just a few paychecks away from financial default or foreclosure, not many want to admit it. It's more emotionally satisfying to live in denial. This failure to accept the role of plain, dismal fate in determining who is a "have" and who is a "have not" also helps the self righteous to justify an attitude of contempt for the poor: "If that man is reduced to being a beggar, it must be because of something he did or failed to do, to bring it on himself." When we congratulate ourselves on any level for not being like a beggar, we become like the self righteous Rabbi Jesus spoke of in Luke 18. Yes, the one about whom Jesus said, "For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).

Like most, I'd rather be rich and privileged than impoverished and helpless to meet basic needs in my life such as food, shelter, or medicine. I don't like being hungry or going without medicine when I'm sick. A bit like that Rabbi in Luke 18, I enjoy feeling good about myself, too! I don't relish the thought of becoming needy -- as in being put in a position of having to beg -- even if the fact of being rich actually enables me to be spiritually impoverished with regard to my attitude toward my fellow man. 

But now, what if instead of labeling the crippled man as a beggar, I remove the label.  What if, rather than seeing him as someone who "deserved" the fate of being poor and vulnerable, we make a decision to see him for what he is: God's child. For every person, no matter who they are, has a story and a viewpoint. What would that viewpoint be?

Stepping into the shoes of the crippled man in this story in Acts, imagine the hopelessness of what it must feel like to have been crippled from birth, with no hope for a cure. Imagine what it would feel like to know that from birth one has lacked the basic equipment necessary to earn a living. Imagine knowing that that there is no hope that you will never get any better. Imagine now, knowing that for the entire rest of your life, not just the next two weeks, you will have no choice but to beg for your daily bread and to take other people's leftovers.

What does that do to your sense of hope? What does that do for your sense of self worth? Will you be able to marry, if you can never support a wife and children? It's fine to be thankful for the coins someone tossed, but wouldn't you rather be known for who you are than for the condition of your feet? Wouldn't you rather have the feeling of pride of being able to do a job well done? Wouldn't you prefer not to have to depend on someone else for basic sustenance? Wouldn't you prefer to know not only when the next meal will come, but to have some say so in what it would be? Do you think this crippled man -- the beggar -- would choose this condition, if he were given a choice?


Now, for the figurative. I propose that in our own culture, we have people just like that crippled man, except the crippling conditions are not always so obvious as a broken foot.

What is crippling in the society we live in? Well one of the things that can cripple people in our society is lack of an education. I once read that 75% of jobs in today's economy require a knowledge of calculus. That is a very different world than the world my grandfather grew up in! Yet, there are now places in the USA where the schools are so bad, that children attending them will not receive an adequate education. When school funding is based on location and property taxes, adequate funding occurs in wealthy neighborhoods, and poor neighborhoods and locations can't afford the cost of educating children. Or what about a child that has learning disabilities. What if he or she "graduates" from high school without a prayer for higher education and without any job skills training? Then, unfortunately, this cycle of poverty repeats itself. The children become parents who cannot afford a basic education for their own children.

If a child is not reading by the Third grade, it is unlikely that she or he will ever read at grade level. If he can't read, what work can he do? If poverty is such a strong predictor of where a child will end up, then is there any difference, metaphorically speaking, between a child being born into poverty today and that man born with crippled feet in Biblical times? I propose it's the same tune, different verse.

When I focus on the miraculous aspect of the story of Acts Chapter 3, I could think of that miracle as something so extraordinary that this must be a story for some other time and place.  After all, I do not generally have power to walk up to a person at my local hospital and tell them to take up their mat and walk.  Miracles like people jumping up to their feet are limited to giant Apostles like Peter and John, aren't they? Doesn't that let me off the hook?

 No, not quite so much! For what miracle is, indeed, within our control? Is it not a similar, almost miraculous, power within our control, if we have the power to give education to a child who otherwise would be crippled by lack of education? Is there really any difference between releasing one from crippling circumstance A or crippling circumstance B, if the ultimate effect -- LIBERATION FROM A CRIPPLING HANDICAP--  is the same? And, if not, what if we fail to live up to that opportunity, to that responsibility?

I have used here the analogy of education, but in fact there are hundreds of analogies available to us today.  Just a few days ago, a factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing about 700 workers.  It has been hailed as a "sweatshop" factory with poor working conditions.  One of the poignant photographs among the dead is a couple embraced in a last, tender goodbye. When the factory owners ordered the workers back to work, they were just bodies filling a need for assembly line workers.  When seen in their last tender embrace, the couple become humanized, and we see them for who they were (God's children, with lives and relationships and care and pain and love), not what they were (low wage, unskilled, replaceable factory workers filling a production slot).

What if, instead of ordering those factory workers, who were "crippled" by their economic condition, back into the unsafe conditions, their bosses has "liberated" them from the crippling conditions by ensuring a safe work environment and fair wages?  What if, when we shop for clothing, we make it our business to contribute to this liberation by insisting on fair trade products sold by ethical companies?  Some westerners have responded to this tragedy by vowing not to hire factories in Bangladesh to make clothing.  However, the Bangladeshi need jobs, too.  Is it that not every bit as powerful a contribution as telling a man to get up and walk, to do something positive to ensure that factory workers in Bangladesh are treated fairly, and by the Golden Rule?

So I ask in closing, a few questions:  Do we even perceive the beggar among us? Do we love the beggar as ourselves? Do we step up to the plate to lend our power to that voiceless and powerless beggar? Do we recognize our own spiritual poverty if we fail to do so? And finally, do we recognize our own position as beggar, dependent wholly upon the Grace of God for all that we have and are, not deserving of the self righteous attitude of the "self made man" or the overly righteous religious zealot?

What I propose may seem outlandish. At the same time, however, perhaps the way we answer the question "who is my neighbor," is directly proportional to how we fulfil our obligation as Christians to love one another, as Christ admonishes in John 13:34. Are we prepared to obey this very challenging commandment? 

1 comment:

  1. great job Xan, very thought provoking. Love the question "who is my neighbor". I see him as the person in the grocery line, the person at the convenience store, the person that I have the awesome privilege to pass and include in my life, by speaking to them, by praying with them, by encouraging them, in some minute way. You are my neighbor.


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