One of the most significant contrasts with my previous experience that the city of Edinburgh has presented to me is the presence of beggars. Let me hasten to qualify what I mean. I am no stranger to the sight of men and women who stand on the street corner in the U.S. and hold up signs that say, “Need food, God bless”, or something like that, though I must say that I have never personally aided someone in that particular situation. I like many Christians have bought into the notion these people aren't really as desperate as they claim, that they are professionals who prey on the sympathies of good people, etc. I've only once picked up someone on the side of the road to help them because in the the back of my mind I hear the voice, panicked without experience, that says that hitchhikers have guns and are going to kill me and steal my car. It would probably do us middle-class, white Christians some good to be forced to hitchhike for a little bit.
Nevertheless, I have at times bought food or gasoline for, or even given money to, people who approached me on the street or in a parking lot and asked me for it. Lara and I helped a man buy a train ticket our first weekend here. We witnessed to him, prayed with him (he was in tears; no one's going to convince me that he was faking, either), and gave him most of the money he needed, which wasn't really that much. I honestly feel that helping people I don't know is an essential part of what it means, at least for me, to be a true follower of Christ. It doesn't matter if some or all of these people took advantage of me. It is my responsibility to be vulnerable, to not look out for number one, to let God be my vindicator. So I say, but my implementation of this principle has been very selective.
Up until now, however, I have justified this selectivity in two ways. First, I have tacitly believed that the Spirit of God would alert me when I came across someone who really needed my help, and this I still believe. I think we have to be sensitive to the possible direction of God that would counter our normal pattern of living. On the other hand, in situations where I did not help someone, my conscience was generally let off the hook before I turned around and helped someone because my mind works surprisingly quickly to fabricate a justification for acting out of fear. Or laziness. Traveling at 45 to 70 mph aids the justification process, because the more quickly out of sight, the more quickly out of mind, but being on foot in Edinburgh has put a face to the cultural phenomenon of begging.
That there were regular beggars who staked out particular places on the streets was something Lara and I noticed our first weekend in Edinburgh. The regularity of these people struck me as odd. I had not personally encountered someone sitting on the street with a cup, asking for change, apparently sleeping in sleeping bag in that very spot, even on the coldest of nights. My first reaction to it was to dismiss them. These were professionals, I said. There are too many government programs (another wretched justification for Christian inactivity in the U.S.; if conservatives are going to truly not be hypocrites, we cannot use government for stinginess at the same time we vote for the elimination of those programs which support our stinginess) for these people to really need to be begging. They were choosing to beg.
The first beggars were easy to forget because we didn't stay in that area for very long. But after we moved to Buccleuch Place, I have come to be able to recognize the local beggars by sight. There is one lady in particular, overweight, mildly hooked nose, looks to be somewhere between 35 and 45, who stakes out several places on Clerk Street. A particular man, slight of build with ordinary features is often located right next to the entrance to the Tesco we shop at. They are not aggressive, hardly even vocal unless you look at them. I've tried to appease my conscience by smiling at them and greeting them, but they always replied by asking for money. I stopped looking at them.
Not giving was also easier for me to justify at this stage in our lives because, frankly, we don't have an income. God has provided in miraculous ways, but I don't have a dependable income, and I feel a slight (perhaps manufactured) twinge of guilt at the idea of using gifts or loans to give money to beggars. I have not really been able to contribute to our local church except by contributing some time (and not much at that). We are in the process of fixing that problem.
But today, as I was walking to Tesco from the Elephant House, where I had purchased a latte for £1.62, and was thinking about playing soccer tonight (which involves a bus fare of £1.20 and £5 to help with renting the field), I was caught off guard when I saw the beggar at the entrance, not the usual fellow, but a girl, probably in her twenties. She could be pretty, but she looks beaten down and was not attractive. My heart went out to her. She didn't hardly look up as I whisked around the corner into the store. My decision was made at that point to give her some change when I left the store.
After a shopping trip where I bought everything I needed for several days' worth of lunches and breakfasts for less that £13 (and this was one of my more expensive shopping trips; grocery shopping over here is actually rather inexpensive compared to my experiences in the U.S.), I fished out a £2 coin and put it in the girl's cup as I left the store. She looked up, appearing to be mildly surprised and said, “thank you,” in such a way that I was certain she really meant it. I smiled back and left. It is customary for me to reflect on events like that and evaluate them afterward, trying to understand how they fit into a larger and more comprehensive approach to Christian ethics. I felt good. I felt like I had heard the voice of God and done something pleasing to Him, and I still think this is the case. But as I approached the crosswalk I would take to return to my flat, I spotted the overweight beggar woman with the hooked nose down the road just a bit at the bus stop Lara and I use to go to the hospital. It was then that I realized that the reason I had been open to helping the girl was because she was younger and prettier. That was it. I am disgusted with myself right now as I write this. I do not mean that I was sexually attracted to her. That was not at all a part of the situation. The only masculine motivation to my actions was general protection and aiding. But the fact that she was a young, prettyish female made it possible for her to break past the wall of faithless justifications I had built around the insignificant change in my pocket. I had judged her less likely to be a professional con artist and more worthy of my donation than the overweight woman simply based on the way the two women looked. I had been selectively vulnerable to the world around based on the meanest of foundations for judgementalism. I don't know what any of these people have been through. I don't know if they are mentally disabled, if they are forsaken by their families, if they are asking God for some sign of his love for them. I can't know what they've been through until I know each individual. How shallow have I been that I have profiled people on the street based upon what other middle-class, white Americans have said.
This creates a dilemma for me. I can no longer act and think the way I have till now. Something must change. Either I must live fully by the principle of vulnerability, which I believe to be the very heart of the gospel, or I must harden my heart against every beggar equally. I choose life. Will God hold it against me if the money I give people is used to buy alcohol? I can't possibly know that it will or will not be used that way, so where does my culpability end? I believe it ends when the money leaves my hand. You buy gasoline from companies who exploit third-world countries. The crude oil form of that gasoline is just as likely to have come from Saudi Arabia as anywhere else, and let's not fool ourselves by saying that there is not significant funding of terrorism going on with oil money. Does that mean that driving your car is immoral? No. This is the problem of corporate sin, a concept with which we in the West are not intuitively familiar, a problem which is dealt with by the cross of Christ. I believe in spending your money in a moral fashion, like supporting fair trade agriculture, but who else is being taken advantage of in the chain of commerce that links me to the fair trade coffee bean? God forgive me, for the evil my money supports, and for the evil in me which uses that as a justification for stinginess, for greed. No, I will not be deceived into thinking that I am culpable for the money I give in obedience to Christ being used for the perpetuation of sin. I choose to be willfully vulnerable in totality, not in part. Jesus deserves that much. I don't know, yet, what this will mean in its entirety, but I do know that now, whenever I go over to Clerk Street, there will be just a little insignificant change in my pocket. I can skip the latte.
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