"You should have given money to the man with no money."
So said my three-year-old son from the back of our car, just as I began to drive away from a stoplight. Next to the stoplight was a homeless man with a sign, asking for handouts. I ignored the remark.
"Mom gives money to the man with no money." Persistent little kid.
"Yes, I know, Matt."
"So you should have given money to the man with no money."
My son has no grasp of the Reasons why sensible adults drive on past the homeless. He has no grasp of the way in which reputable charitable organizations can ensure that you get the most helpful bang for your donated buck. He has no concept of a tax deduction, or the very real possibility that handouts will be misused in various ways. He does not understand how one can be -- as I have been, in my younger days -- taken advantage of by scammers posing as people who need bus fare. I can't convey all of this to him here in the car as we drive home. So: "Matt, we give to people in other ways."
Thoughtful pause from the backseat. "And besides," he begins, "God wants you to give money to the man who has no money." Another thoughtful pause. "You're disrespecting God." Yes, my three-year old said "disrespecting."
After this outburst came a three minute harangue on the topic.
"But Matt," I wanted to say, "reasons." There are reasons. But what reasons could convince him? All he sees is a man in need, and he wonders why his dad can't just stop now to give a little help. Why indeed? In the end, all I could say was, "You're not wrong. But it's complicated."
Later that evening, well after dark, I drove by a different man with no money. He was struggling on his crutches to climb back up the small snow bank on the side of the road where every day for the past few weeks I had seen him standing or sitting, hoping for a handout. As I drove by, I watched as his crutches slid out from beneath him and he fell on his face in the snow. I remembered my boy's lecture and wanted to cry.
A few days later, sitting around the dinner table, I asked him, "Why should we give money to the man with no money?" I was just curious what he'd say. He thought for a minute, then screwed up his face and shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, it's not like they can buy money."
I do believe the reasons. Yes, I could give away all of my money to the men and women with no money and not make a dent in the problem of poverty. Yes, I could be scammed out of my ten or twenty dollars. The money could be misused. These are not good things. As one of my other kids pointed out, perhaps the man with no money could "buy" money with his labor. Perhaps, while not working (in a traditional sense) he rakes in a cool $20K - $30K in handouts each year.
But, in the end, what difference does any of that make? Here is a man reduced to standing on the side of the road with a sign saying "any little bit helps", falling face down in the snow as his crutches slide out from beneath him, lying there late in the evening with absolutely nowhere to go. If I saw anyone I know in those circumstances, I wouldn't drive on by. It wouldn't matter why they were there, or how irresponsible or indolent I thought they were. I would do something. I think.
I can't help everyone; I can't give all my money to the men and women with no money. There is a slippery slope: if I give a little now, where will I stop? I don't know. But I have to admit that I do know that my upper middle class lifestyle won't be dented a bit if I step out onto that slope and slide a little way down it. I also know that if I were -- contrary to all likelihood -- to lose my footing and slide a long way down that slope, the probable outcome is not that I'd suffer great harm but that I'd become a better person.
If I knew the man with no money, I would never drive on by. Neither would you. Yet we do. For the man with no money isn't always a man with no money.
He is the boy bullied by his peers while we stand by and watch.
She is the college sophomore, raped by the star football player, who now receives blame, condemnation and threats for reporting the offense to university administrators.
He is the gay man in our conservative evangelical church, who has just been outed to his family and friends.
She is our sexually harassed student or co-worker, who lacks whatever professional "currency" it takes to make the harassment stop while leaving her career intact.
He is the family member or friend who suffers abuse in his home while we try to pretend it isn't happening.
Every day I see the man with no money standing by the side of the road in a state where any little bit will help, lacking whatever currency is needed to buy his or her way out of bad circumstances. You see them too, and often they are someone we know, someone just like us. Sometimes their poverty is abject and global. Sometimes they are people with means and resources who just happen right now to need some particular currency that we are in a position to offer.
Sometimes the little bit that will help is a few dollars. Often instead it is an encouraging word, a sympathetic ear, an offer of friendship, a letter of support, an honest word to a perpetrator, or something else we can give at minimal (or maybe modest) social or financial cost to ourselves. Sure, maybe we can't sensibly sacrifice all of our capital to the man with no money; but that doesn't mean we always have to just drive on by.