Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It is hot. Natal is nearing the end of it's summer season before the rains kick in. Right now we have some scorching heat and no breeze and not enough rain to keep the temperature down. We sleep with no duvet or blankets, just a sheet and sometimes not even that. If one has to go outside for any length of time one ends up sweating like a pig. Scratch that. Like a pig on a spit over an open flame. Scratch that. Like a pig on a spit roasting over an open flame at a Brazilian churrasco (BBQ) out of the shade at mid-day in the Sahara desert...

Yippee!! Danny and Caz arrive on Thursday.

Yippee!! We found Nelson's blue Mr. the King Dinoco toy car. We thought he had lost it or thrown it in the bin. It was under his car seat. He and his Dad are very happy!

Ethical dilemma. Here's one for you all. Several times a month somebody will come and knock on our door begging, asking for food or money. Each time this happens it sends my head spinning as I have to confront (in the midst of a haze of guilt and frustration) questions like - are they for real? What should I give? How do I talk to them clearly when I don't know Portuguese too well? I know my folks in Chad have to deal with us to an extreme level, and I think my African upbringing has often made me a bit callous to the endless calls for help. I am tempted to shut the door a little too often. This year one of my new year's resolutions is to have greater generosity. Rachel and I live the lives of an exclusive proportion of the country who have access to the best amenities, restaurants, education, housing etc. How can I help Brazil's needy? How can I make sure my motivations are genuine in light of my faith? How does all that correspond to the knock at the door from the man claiming he needs a bus fare to get back to the interior after he has (allegedly) had his appendix removed in Natal?

Generally, my policy has been - give to organisations who are equipped to deal with these problems but still be open to dealing with each person on a case by case issue. For example, I am more likely to give to women rather than to the young man with an empty beer can in his hand (but even then I ask myself if I am judging too much by externalities - what do I really know about these peoples situations and should it even matter?).

This was all brought to a head recently when a chap came round offering to clear up the grass at the front of our house for some cash. I like this, I thought, because he wants to work for his money. But, he came at an awkward time as I was on my way out and I ended up paying him 10 Reais (which is all I had on me) when it should've been only 5. Then I went out for the afternoon and Rach came in. He shows up again later and says to Rach that he cleared our grass but didn't get paid. Rach gives him 5 Reais. So, in the end he got 3x as much money from us as we were willing to give. Rach was (is!) livid and claims she's going to give this kid a piece of her mind next time she seems him. Well, he must plucky, gutsy or crusing for a brusing but he showed up very early one morning last week asking for money for his bus fare because he was hard up. Rach was asleep and so I had to deal with him at the doorstep. I didn't have the Portuguese in me to get into a quarrel with him about how he duped us out of our cash so I just said no thanks and closed the door. Two days later he shows up again, but again Rach can't speak to him cos she's in the shower. I tell him to go away. And this weekend I was home alone and he showed up again and I turned him away. What should I do? And why does he keep coming here when Rach isn't available?

The parables and stories of Jesus are full of examples of generous gestures pushed to the point of irrationality - the woman who pours expensive perfume on Jesus' feet is seen as being in "the right" rather than the accountant's view that the money used from the sell of the perfume should be given to the poor. There are plenty of good arguments about good stewardship, not wanting to foster dependency, careful and sensible giving that can be made for not giving to every beggar who comes by the door, but how much do these points stifle generosity for it's own sake and put us on the other side of what a generous God would really want from us?

Also, the gospel accounts explain that we should treat others how we should be treated and that God frowns severely on those who are not forgiving to others when they have recieved forgiveness themselves. How many times have I done something wrong and been rescued by the generosity and forgiveness of others who don't slam the door in my face just because I erred once, not least from God Himself? Perhaps, I should give this kid a break - or as he burnt his bridges forever by cheating us out of 10 Reais? Again, why not be generous? Also, the gospel accounts also talk about the persistant widow who was granted what she wanted because she wouldn't stop banging on the rich guy's door. Persistance is seen as a good thing for the poor to be doing, so at what point do I stop shutting the gate in this chap's face and give him the benefit of the doubt? The cost to me is really insubstantial too...

After I turned him away this last time, I did feel convicted that I should've at least given him some food, even if not money. I don't know if he will show up again. On Sunday another lady came begging with her 3 year old son. She was courteous and polite and not given to nagging. I gave her 2 Reais and her son a toy car that I knew Nelson would not miss (actually the car had been passed onto him by another generous older kid - keep the generosity flowing, I say). But even then I found myself asking - am I only giving to her to appease my conscience because I turned somebody away yesterday?

Being confronted with the poor is not easy, and making clear and biblical and helpful decisions about a response is perhaps even harder. It's easy to see how many people run away from this - buy a high apartment in a closed compound far away from the rabble, give to charity and wash your hands of it, ignore all requests for help and get on with life. But these are all ways to stop responding, and surely attempting to respond is an essential first step?

Two interesting articles that I have read online that tackle some of these questions form a Christian point of view are here - at Relevant Magazine ("I turned down Jesus") and here at the Other Journal ("Revolution without Cost"). The first is a personal account of a guy working with the poor and the struggles he faces with his own attitude toward them and the second is a critique of the RED campaign - basically a way for consumers to help the world's poor without any loss to themselves. Both are interesting reads if you have the time.

Leave comments if you have any solutions/thoughts/experiences you want to share on this thorny ethical issue.


Ross said...

Hi Dave,

VERY good questions, and difficult ones too.

We see much less of this in our little town of Swindon than in Shepherd's Bush where we used to live so I've not really had to be thinking about this as much.

I did go through a phase of asking God about these things as they happen. We don't know if the person is REALLY in need or will spend money wisely. But God does. And as I did this, sometimes I had a sense that I should give. Other times I didn't.

The other thing...and I confess that I'm far from practicing what I preach...is that I think Jesus wants more from us than even just giving money. Why do you feel that money and food are all that you have to give? Perhaps he'd like a family meal. Perhaps he could use some English tuition? Perhaps he just wants someone to talk to? What is it that stops you inviting the man in and using what little Portugese you have to converse until Rachel is free, and then finding out his real story and real needs?

I know what stops me doing stuff like this: fear - mostly of my pride...mostly of ending up looking silly. But why should I be afraid of that?

I hate quoting small chunks of the Bible out of context so look up 1 Peter Chapter 2, and see what you think of the statement: "if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God." It is better to try to do good and suffer than to not try to do good at all.

It's not my intention to beat you up about this - to do so would be beating myself up at the same time. You seem kind and generous and the fact that you think about these things shows that you are wise in your dealings with these people too!

But the Bible challenges us to more than just charity. It calls us to justice. Jesus would be friends of these people and would be interested in what's causing their poverty. He calls us not just to give, but to love.

What might that mean?


Maclurio said...

Hey Ross,

Appreciate you taking the time to write up your thoughts. I do think I need to do a bit of creative thinking about ways to give, that was a very good point. I kept being caught off guard (not an excuse I know) but next time I think I will chat to him a bit with or without Rach and try and find out a bit about him. In the UK I would take the initiative in situations like this and enter into discussion full throttle - but the language barrier really disarms me. Inviting people in is risky (think theft/violence) and is really not done in Brazil, (we have a neighbour we know well who has a kid who plays with Nelson. I have not stepped beyond her gate and neither has Rach) but maybe that's a way to be counter-cultural.

Thanks Ross!