Are the homeless a gift to society? In this short blog post I want to argue, in step with the Franciscan tradition, that, in fact, they are. I am, here, heavily influenced by St. Bonaventure and St. Francis. Often certain forms of Liberation Theology, well intentioned as they are, seek to realize a goal which is to end poverty of any kind, even when Christ had told us: “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). Though the endeavour to combat poverty is properly oriented, I think there is a sense in which the homeless are, far from weighing society down, actually a gift without which society would inevitably rot.
Consider the Medieval Franciscan apologia for the fact that many Mendicants (members of a begging order such as the Franciscans or Dominicans) not only chose to live off the charity of society, but also declined manual labour, preferring instead to devote themselves to the luxury of study, all at the expense (literally) of society. Bonaventure argues that insofar as the mendicant orders operate in this way, they are, in effect, providing a spiritual service to society which greatly outweighs any amount of manual labour. In begging, and being dependent on society at large, the mendicants were giving society an opportunity to practice the virtue of charity. Thus, those not consecrated (set apart) for the ‘religious life’ were able nevertheless to participate not only in the life of the Church, but to participate as the laity by being charitable. Of course, there were other ‘goods’ which arose from the fact that the mendicants were devoting themselves to prayerful study, perhaps the most obvious in retrospect being that the Church would have had no Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, William of Occam, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, et al. and consequently the Church would not have been nourished by so many doctors and saints who, with the power of their illuminating teaching “warmed the whole earth” (Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII addressed to Christian philosophers – Aeterni Patris).
This logic, it seems to me, can be applied to the Church in the world today, and not merely with respect to charitably giving to mendicants or monks, but in giving to those who are homeless as a consequence of the structure of society. The homeless, in asking those of us who are not without the essentials (and even live in excess) for alms, are, in one sense, giving us the opportunity to practice charity and true love of neighbour. Thus, we ought always to take advantage of such an ‘indulgence’, and to share our possessions as though they were not our own.
This charity fits the model we see in the New Testament, especially in the account in the book of Acts, where:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,
Of course, people today complain that this ideal is not realistic for the entire Church, for not all can live the monastic life. However, I submit that they have significantly misunderstood the nature of the Christian life; everything the Christian has is not her own, but is properly a gift from God, and the Christian in turn wishes to hold on to nothing except Christ.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Take tithing as an example; in donating money to the Church, we are not deciding how much of our money to donate to God, we are deciding how much of what belongs to God we are going to donate to the Church. From the normative Christian perspective all of our money is actually a gift from God, and thus we are only being entrusted with it as stewards; our responsibility is to decide how best to manage that money for the building up of the kingdom of God. Of course, that is always going to include tending to one’s basic needs, but it is not always (or often) going to include tending to one’s extravagant desires.
The argument runs something like this: the homeless, at least if they beg for alms, provide a service to those of us who are able to satisfy them. They, in begging, allow us to practice charity. In some devotions I found the following two quotes yesterday:
What you do with those who beg from you is what God will do with His beggar, you! You are filled and you empty. Fill your empty neighbor from your fullness, so that your emptiness may be filled from God’s fullness.
The bread which you use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit
~ St. Basil
Some objections may be noted and dealt with very briefly.
- The homeless often use money for morally undesirable ends, including harming themselves through drug abuse, and, therefore, providing them money is simply enabling.
- The money we live off of, such as money from a Student Loan, does not properly belong to us, and therefore to give it away is simply not a responsible use of it.
- The ‘good service’ which the homeless provide might otherwise be provided in their absence, and thus they are not important contributors to society’s health.
- The ideal towards which a society should reach ought to be one where no form of poverty exists.
In answer to the first, I would say that those concerns are utilitarian and are not the concerns of Christian Humanism. When we provide the homeless with money we treat them as ends in themselves and not as means to ends, and we recognize their dignity as free agents. It is not our task to manage their money for them. Of course, we should not fail to recognize alternative challenges that the homeless face, but those challenges give us no excuse to defer to propriety.
Second, the money we have at our disposal is ours to manage as best we can. One must ask the question “how otherwise would I spend this money, and which way would it be best spent?” If we were serious about it not being appropriate to give the money to somebody in need, then we should be serious about not spending it on ourselves if we could go without the good purchased.
Third: imagine, then, a society in which there were none in need of alms – that would be a society on the verge of catastrophic moral collapse, whose impending doom would be equalled only by the society which has those in need of alms and lets them die. The health of society is dependent more on education and moral praxis than it is on economic health.
Fourth, I would accept something like this with one caveat: the ideal towards which a society should reach ought to be one where no form of involuntary poverty exists. However, in such a society, there would yet be a need for mendicants or others to fill the shoes of the begging class.
Finally, a word on what this argument does not imply: it does not imply complacency when it comes to dealing with the very real problem of poverty, homelessness, and the like in our society. Rather, the argument is intended to imply that we should never take the homeless for granted, but should regard them with the deepest affection. For if there were nobody to feed, and nobody to clothe, and nobody to whom we could offer a drink of water, then how could we possibly serve Christ?
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”