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Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging

Jon Kuhrt writes: This week I was at a church in Kings Cross, central London, talking with the minister when a man came to the door asking for help.  He explained that he was not from London but his wife had just been discharged from UCH (a London hospital) following an emergency operation.  He said they had nowhere to stay and he didn’t have any money to pay for a hotel. He was asking for cash to help them out.

He said that he was due to be paid the next day, so would return and pay the money back in the morning. He earnestly added that both he and his wife are Christians so ‘they knew the church would help them’. He was convincing and in many ways his story was powerful and moving. There was just one issue. Both of us were 99.9% sure that he was not telling us the truth.

Wisdom from experience

Many people living in busy cities are used to hearing such scenarios. I lived in Kings Cross for five years, just around the corner from where the main distribution centre for The Big Issue magazine used to be. It was virtually impossible to walk out of my flat without being being asked for cash.

In the situation this week, the minister kindly and calmly explained the places he could go for help. She did not judge, dismiss or treat him harshly. But she responded to the request with the wisdom that comes from her daily experience. She knew how unlikely it was that any money given would be used for the purpose being presented.  On hearing this, the man walked off in search of someone else to try his story.

Giving is ‘always right’

In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked about how we should respond to people begging. He said that giving to someone in need ‘is always right’. When asked about if the person will spend it on alcohol, the Pope replies:

‘If a glass of wine is the only happiness that he has in his life, that’s OK. Instead ask yourself what you do on the sly? What happiness do you seek in secret?’

The New York Times said the Pope had provided “a concrete, permanently useful prescription” which is “scripturally sound” and “startlingly simple” and which will help all city dwellers with how to respond to people begging: Give them the money and don’t worry about it.I greatly admire Pope Francis and find his humility and compassion inspiring. But I strongly disagree with this advice. My core reason is because all my experience tells me that giving money to people begging does not actually help them. Basically, it is not showing them love.

Simplistic

It sounds kind to tell people to give money to anyone who asks, but we do not have the luxury of such simplistic approaches. We should not be cynical or harsh toward those begging, but we need to have a compassionate realism about the nature of their problems. People begging are not intrinsically bad people and almost always have genuine needs. But handing over cash to them simply does not meet those needs effectively.  The homeless charity Thames Reach estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Rather than helping, handing over cash can actually be killing with kindness.

Friends and family

My professional work is with homeless people, but serious drug and alcohol addictions have also affected close friends and members of my family. Tragically, addictions have contributed the death of people I love, taken far too early. A key thing to remember is that each person begging or approaching us for money is a precious human being of infinite worth. They are far, far more than an awkward situation to be managed well. Our focus needs to be on them, not us.  We need the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

Over the last 20 years I have spoken with hundreds of people who are currently or formerly involved in begging. My articles on this issue have been read by over 50,000 people on R&R alone. I am yet to hear anyone say that the money they have received through begging has been a positive part of recovery journey.  But I have experienced and witnessed countless scenarios where money gained through begging is part of the problem.

Addictions which kill

The Pope’s references to ‘a glass of wine’ are comically inappropriate for the kind of alcohol misuse which is common for many people who beg. Many of the alcoholics that I have worked with can be drinking up to 9 or 10 cans of super-strength lager or cider (9% proof) a day.  Additional cash often just enables them to buy spirits. Money given to people begging does not enable them a celebratory tipple: it is generally feeding an addiction which is literally killing them.

The complexity of compassion

I know that the Pope intends to set an example of kindness, justice and grace.  But more and more money given to people begging will not result in a more just world.  We need to go upstream and invest in preventing poverty and family breakdown.  We need to support programmes which help people travel the hard road of recovery. And of course we need agencies which provide emergency help for people on the streets.

We can long for simple answers, but compassion is complex. To be transformative, our efforts to show grace must always be accompanied by a concern for truth. Helping someone in need is ‘always right’ but only if it is done in a way which actually helps them.

If you are left thinking how should we respond to people begging, see this brief article which gives specific practical steps on what you can do: How should we respond to people begging?

West London Mission works with people affected by homelessness and addictions.

(This article was first posted at Resistance and Renewal.)


Ian Paul adds: one of the first responses to Jon’s original post was that Jon was wrong and Francis was right—because that is what Jesus teaches. ‘Give to those who ask from you’ (Matt 5.42 = Luke 6.30); if we are going to take Jesus’ command seriously, we should give to all who ask, and leave the results to him. It is an exercise in trust.

The difficult with this approach to Jesus’ commands is that it removes his command from its context, and places it into our, different, context. To see the problem with this, imagine applying it to a context where you have something that could be used as a weapon (such as a knife) and someone wants to harm others with it. Should you give what is asked of you? This clearly does not reflect the meaning of Jesus’ command.

There are several reasons why we should be careful about our interpretation of Jesus’ commands—and other commands we find in scripture. The most obvious is that the command, in its context in scripture, is simply not directed to us. For example, the command to ‘sell your possessions and give to the poor’ (Mark 10.21, Matt 19.21) is given to a particular person in a particular context; we would need to do quite a bit of work to turn this into a universal command to all of Jesus’ followers.

But another reason is observing the kind of saying that we are thinking about. The command to ‘give to those who ask’ comes in Jesus’ teaching which mostly closely resembles the wisdom literature of the OT, and which is also found in the circular letter of James. These kinds of sayings are not formulas that can simply be lifted from one context to another—they are general principles that we need to live by. This is clear from the context of the verse in Matt 5: the overarching principle Jesus is pointing us to is the indifferent generosity of God, who gives to all without question.

So Jesus command is not really related to the particular challenge we face when someone begs. Instead, he is asking us to live by the principle of radical generosity to all, without discrimination as to who is the subject of our generosity—but not without thinking about the consequences of our action.


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12 Responses to Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging

  1. Don Benson March 15, 2017 at 10:11 am #

    Yes, our present context is specific to our times and place. We all give a lot of money to needy people, not necessarily by choice but because we live in a society which has a common agreement to support people through our taxes. While we may quibble about the efficiency or the particular priorities of how this is done I guess that few of us would want to see an end to such communal mutual support. And much of this has its roots in our history as a Christian country where what people commonly believed as individuals became reflected in public policy – something for which we should be grateful.

    But of course it cannot stop there. As individuals we know and we come across plenty of people who have needs which, for a variety of reasons, public provision cannot or does not respond. We still therefore have the opportunity and sometimes the obligation to respond as best we believe is right; that may, and probably will, involve real cost to ourselves. And there is still every reason to be wise as well as generous in how and when we give – what we give to someone whose request is not genuine cannot later be given to someone who is in real need. After all, it’s not about how good we feel because of our giving but about how much real good our giving can do (that includes not doing harm) – and that’s equally important whether we have a lot or only a little to give.

  2. David Shepherd March 15, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

    The importance of context to Jesus’ teachings should never be underestimated.

    Jesus repeatedly prefaced each contrast of His teachings with earlier revelation by saying either: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago’, or ‘You have heard that it was said’.

    The OT scripture concerning assistance for the poor deals primarily with four situations: the harvest in the field, the threshing floor, loans, and indentured servitude.

    In particular, as one Jewish writer explains: the Torah recognizes loans not for commercial development but to support those in need. The basic mandate was to lend someone dai machsoro, “sufficient for his lack.” The purpose of the loan was to help restore someone to his former situation, not simply to prevent starvation. Lending is strictly regulated in the Torah. Interest could not be charged on loans of money or food. A creditor was forbidden from seizing as collateral tools necessary for the debtor’s livelihood. A garment pledged against a loan was to be returned for the night. A creditor was forbidden to enter a debtor’s home to take a pledge.

    This gives context to Jesus’ teachings going beyond OT prohibitions which only advocate limited generosity towards victims of adversity. Jesus commands open-hearted generosity in the face of adversity.

    If, as commanded, we are to feed the hungry and clothe the destitute, let’s do just that. Let’s meet the actual need, but let’s not, instead, just hand out cash and/or cheques to any and every person or cause that pleads for someone’s hard-earned money.

  3. Simon March 15, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

    I was reading Paul recently and struck by 1Timothy5v3f “honour widows who are truly widows”. The honouring is in terms of material support but conditions are placed on them receiving such: they are to be godly and prayerful and not have family to help them and aged over 60 and only married once! Quite a few specific hurdles to jump over before they receive Church aid. Presumably such specific advice suggests Paul was trying to manage a particular situation in which widows who weren’t really widows who had other means of support and were young enough to get a job were trying to get food and were a burden to church resources which could be directed to more ‘deserving’ causes??? Paul seems to be saying anyone trying it on or able to source food elsewhere is to be shown the door! Not sure how I marry this to Jesus feeding the 5000 or saying “give to those who ask” but Paul’s instruction remain scared scripture and Im wrestling with this passage.!

    • David Shepherd March 15, 2017 at 6:03 pm #

      Hi Simon,

      I would consider Paul’s requirementa for widows to be an ancient form of ‘means testing’.

      I think that this approach still leaves room for ‘ad hoc’ one-off acts of generosity which don’t need regulation, such as the feeding of the 5000.

      The eventual hunger of the crowds wasn’t attributable to a work-shy attitude. After the demise of John the Baptist, there was such a spiritual vacuum that the crowds (roused by the ministry of Jesus’ apostolic healers) anticipated and met Him at His remote destination.

      So, it is clear that God wants us to be channels of generosity, particularly when maintaijng self-sufficiency becomes unnecessarily onerous.

      As I explained above, the OT provisions for the poor give context to Jesus’ command: ‘give to those who ask’.

  4. David Shepherd March 15, 2017 at 4:49 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    As you explain, it is true that Jesus’ command to ‘sell your possessions and give to the poor’ (Mark 10.21, Matt 19.21) was given to a particular person in a particular context.

    It’s also correct to highlight the danger of ignoring the context of Jesus’ commands. Despite this, it is equally harmful to over-emphasise the specific situation, when after His encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus exclaimed to everyone : “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

    For instance, all are warned not to accumulate wealth on earth (Matt. 6:19), especially when such greed begets behavior which betrays an unwarranted, overconfident anticipation of even greater worldly advancement (Luke 12:18,19 ; 1 Tim. 6:17; James 4:13-16)

    St. Paul goes as far as to command that our surplus be used for the good of others: ‘Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.’ (Eph. 4:28)

    So, I would prefer (and we would all do well) to follow the example of the early Church, which was characterised by generosity, such that, after conversion, the wealthy (e.g. Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea and Barnabus) sold off assets to meet the immediate needs of those who were facing adversity (Luke 19:8; Acts 2:45; Acts 4:33-37; Acts 11:27-30)

  5. James Byron March 15, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    Excellent piece. Francis has blundered into an area about which he knows little. However well intentioned, his glib advice is harmful, and shows the danger of treating anyone as an oracle.

  6. Marie Woodward March 16, 2017 at 3:12 am #

    Thank you for this article. I have had some experience with beggars, both ‘professional’ and subsistence, whilst living and working in India, and would agree with many of the comments made here regarding the need for caution, and for the need to take context into account. I am president of a minuscule non-profit NGO that is involved in rehabilitating railway and platform children in India. In the State where we operate, child beggars are prolific and often targeted by those who are definitely not concerned about their welfare. Giving these children cash hand-outs only make them more vulnerable. The love and care they need can not be provided by “instant cash, but needs sensitivity and the careful building up of trust. I believe that it was this that Jesus was trying to portray in the context in which he spoke.

    Professional beggars soon move away from offers of long term help because their need is otherwise, so they are usually unwilling to make the commitment to remain in a stable situation that will provide them with ongoing assistance.

  7. Rhona Knight March 16, 2017 at 6:39 am #

    Excellent article about loving our homeless neighbour. Having worked in a homeless GP service I consider the need for Christians to be involved at all levels in seeking to truly address homelessness to be great.

    I do have one question though – having spent a month in Brussels last year I do wonder how much the nature and causes of homelessness varies between countries and even cities and what this means in how we address need?

    On another note Serrano’s work on homelessness is powerful. The Denizens of Brussels is one example although he has also done some work in New York.

    https://www.fine-arts-museum.be/en/exhibitions/andres-serrano

  8. Sarah Hillman March 16, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    Jon Kuhrt’s article is interesting but it assumes that there is always somewhere to point people. I occasionally have beggars at the door of my vicarage. I live alone in a small village and feel very vulnerable when this happens, especially as I don’t know whether they are genuine or not. But there are no night shelters to send them to. In a rural area there is not provision. what are we meant to do? There was one night shelter relatively locally but it was closed down. We offer the church porch; some accept, some do not. And I will give food not money. but some are very persistent. I recently had to call the rural dean and ask for help because I didn’t know what else to do with one who came to the door and would not go away. He was unavailable so a male neighbour came to help. The beggar kept asking for money for a B&B for the night, which I didn’t have. The church porch wasn’t acceptable; he refused the offer of food but kept quoting the Good Samaritan at me. which left me feeling hugely guilty that I wasn’t giving him what he needed. In the end the neighbour offered to drive him into the nearest town, and he went to fetch his car. The beggar disappeared at this point.

    • Elizabeth Bridcut March 16, 2017 at 11:32 am #

      The beggar you describe was clearly trying it on – clear with the benefit of hindsight that is! He has used a number of bullying tactics though, which I think are a bit of a giveaway. It sounds to me like you have an appropriate strategy – food and the church porch. Of course that’s not a very long term solution for someone who really is in that type of need but neither is B+B for a night!! Someone insisting that’s not good enough and attempting to guilt you by quoting the Bible at you or questioning whether your attitude is Christian is basically bullying you. I suspect your beggar would have gone away if you’d shut the door on him and ignored him once he’d refused food and the porch (essentially calling his bluff which is what happened when your neighbour went for the car, at that stage your beggar realised he absolutely wasn’t going to get money which is why he disappeared). After all, if the church porch isn’t good enough then neither is your front door step. As regards the wider issues, I wonder why the night shelter closed? Are any of the people who were involved or who used it still around? What is being done instead?

    • David Shepherd March 16, 2017 at 2:04 pm #

      Hi Sarah,

      I do wonder whether, along with meekness, our Christian ethos also needs to display sternness.

      While Jesus commanded His disciples to show generosity in the face of inadvertent adversity (the Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37), He also reminded them that, in the Kingdom of God, thoughtless improvidence will not be indulged or subsidised (the Ten Virgins Matt. 25:1-13)

      Of course, we can’t assume that all mendicancy is caused by the latter. Nevertheless, we must be discerning stewards of the goods which God puts at our disposal.

      The horrific murders of Rev. John Suddards and Mrs. Betty Yates should serve as a warning to every Christian being bullied into becoming a ‘soft touch’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-20171967

  9. Simon March 16, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

    Many years ago, as a priest on a tough Northern Council Estate, a chap turned up at church sunday night. He was cold and hungry and I offered him supper and a bed for the night. The next morning at breakfast I said I would accompany him to the Council Offices and press for a flat for him (about 1/4 on our estate were boarded up, burnt our or abandoned). His reply rather shocked me, “What, no thanks, I wouldn’t live on this estate.” I expect there are many thousands of Refugees who would…..and should be allowed to!

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