WE’RE CALLED TO BE DISCERNING
AND ALSO TO BE CHARITABLE
Salvation Army bell ringers in front of Kroger remind me that Yuletide highlights the spirit of generosity. As I observed in my post of December 5, gift giving, the signature element of Christmas…
“was inspired by God’s gift to us of his human incarnation, the Christ Child, as well as by the gifts brought to the stable in Bethlehem by the Wise Men.”
In our society we’ve gone a little nuts with gift giving, as evidenced by the madness of “Black Friday” — which now begins on Thanksgiving and runs through the entire weekend, culminating in a flood of online “cyber” sales Monday night. And that’s only the start of our annual shopping binge.
With Christmas having become such a complete religious/commercial mash-up, one can readily picture Mary and Joseph checking for sales at the Bethlehem Walmart before settling down in that cave behind the inn.
Orgiastic materialism aside, the folks ringing those bells — and other dedicated fund-raisers who abound this time of year — are promoting a specific kind of gift giving, namely charitable sharing.
The surfeit of stuff that clutters most Americans’ lives today can mask the reality that there are people in need.
Sometimes need results from bad decisions, profligate spending, and excessive debt, to which at least part of that stuff may attest. What gets called poverty often turns out to be mostly wastefulness. In other words, just being broke. A modicum of self-discipline relieves a surprising amount of financial stress and sets you on the road to fiscal recovery.
But this isn’t always the situation, not by any means.
People can (and do) hit extremely rough patches through no fault of their own. Or they start out in disadvantaged circumstances from which they’re never able to extricate themselves.
Christmas is generally when human need comes into sharpest focus. Messages of love and fellowship permeate the atmosphere through holiday displays, greeting cards, popular songs, TV specials, church liturgies — all prompting us to express some sort of benevolence and reminding us there are folks to whom benevolence is due.
That’s a good thing. We all can use a little reminding. But it does call up several recurring (and slightly unsettling) questions, such as…
How can you tell when need is real?
How do you discern a proper response to the call of conscience?
How might you be reasonably sure that your generosity will have a constructive effect?
There’s no denying both Judaism and Christianity see charity as essential. In Jewish tradition helping the needy is a mitzvah, an act of religious obligation. And Jesus, good Jew that he was, told his followers that kindness toward “the least of these” was equivalent to serving him (the Son of God, for heaven’s sake!).
Yet, we’ve all heard stories of those self-identified “homeless” who rake in big bucks with a sob story and a threadbare coat. I recently caught a TV news report about one woman panhandler who set up on a busy corner every day, her luxury car parked down the block. (Such ironies are as old as society itself. A famous Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” features a London street beggar who maintains a villa in the suburbs.)
Likewise, a lot of food given out at the local emergency pantry or served at the parish’s annual community supper finds its way into stomachs that don’t suffer deprivation at all.
We’re often advised that we shouldn’t judge people — that determining the motives behind the open hand isn’t up to us. But somehow that doesn’t seem quite right. Isn’t moral discernment a moral imperative?
Confronting requests for charity often throws me into a quandary.
For instance, whenever I’m approached for a handout my first reaction is to try to be a good Christian and forget that it’s my resources somebody wants to tap. In other words, remind myself to (as good Christians always advise) see the face of Jesus. This makes me feel guilty for my stingy inclinations, so I invariably hand over some cash. But as soon as I cave in to my guilt, I feel like I’ve been a soft touch and should have insisted the recipient show they truly needed my help and will do something worthwhile with what I’ve given them.
“Where’s my moral fortitude?” I ask myself. After all, even if the appeal is genuine, there’s no way of knowing whether my generosity just enables bad habits that may have brought someone to a precarious state in the first place.
And then I feel guilty about that.
There can be opportunities to help in ways that minimize the risk of unintended harm (though they’re unfortunately rare). My mother used to tell of how a scruffy fellow once appeared at her door claiming to be hungry. Her immediate impression was that, hungry or not, any money she might give him would likely be translated into liquid sustenance.
Being possessed of a certain native moral sense (which is to say she was pretty good at sizing people up), Mom told the guy to sit down on the stoop, and then made him a sandwich.
Thus, an appropriate response to a call of conscience without ignoring the need for discernment — charity accomplished, quandary resolved.
Sadly, such alternatives are not always available to us. And anyway, we live in a more paranoid time than when that hungry fellow appeared at my mother’s door. The casual atrocities we hear about in the news these days put us all on our guard, and rightly so.
Or maybe it just comes down to me being more paranoid than Mom was.
Either way, I think her solution points to a moral truth…
Giving is an act of faith.
Even when we aren’t completely certain it’s the right thing to do (and more often than not, we can’t be), it’s usually best to err on the side of generosity. And then we mustn’t second-guess our humane impulses. The Apostle Paul put it well in his Second Letter to the Corinthians when he observed that…
“Each must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
So let’s all respond cheerfully to those ringing bells this year. The Salvation Army does great work helping the poor, and a couple of quarters in the red kettle are well invested.
There are plenty of other worthwhile charities too. Here’s one I’d recommend: The Lingap Children’s Foundation, which runs a life-changing school for poor children in the Philippines — and I’m talking about kids who definitely match Jesus’ description of “the least of these.”
Do you have a favorite charity? There’s no shortage of need, and I’d be interested to know which causes touch your heart. Write in via the comments section below.
And by all means, be discerning. But be generous as well.
Like those Wise Men of old, bring your gifts and follow the brightest star. That will help more people have a Merry Christmas.
If you’ve never read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is a fine introduction. Doyle had a sharp ear for the social nuances of Victorian/Edwardian England. And observing the great detective work through a problem is always fun. This entry in the Holmes library can be read online at…