The director of a local homeless shelter in my town (Savannah, Georgia) once told me that Savannah is one of the best cities in America to be homeless. She was speaking partially about the level of social services available through shelters, churches, and other organizations, but she was also suggesting that Savannah affords the homeless a significant amount of space in which to live. Literal space. So as I drove through the city in the normal course of business, I began looking for these “spaces,” and it turns out that places I had driven by hundreds of times were the “homes” of the homeless. Densely wooded areas that appear to beautify public spaces are shelters and blinders for tents, tarps, garbage heaps, and nightly fires to cook and warm. I never saw them before. I see them every time I drive by them now. They are unmistakable to the seeing eye. A city with a decent amount of walking traffic masks the disheveled walking to and from their hidden abodes.
After locating several of these hidden residences for the homeless, I began having more frequent encounters with the homeless while in the heart of the city. This happened not because I sought them out in an effort to help. They found me. And, yes, they were asking me for money. I am not sure why the frequency of my encounters with the homeless increased after I located their hideouts, but I took it as an opportunity to think more critically about my responsibility to the poor from a biblical perspective. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, never shies away from social issues, and the sheer number of times that it mentions the poor, the needy, and those in need of financial assistance is mind-numbing. John the Baptist exhorts his followers concerning the needy: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11, ESV). The prophet Ezekiel warns those who fail to assist the needy: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49, ESV). These are just two of the hundreds of instances in the biblical narrative where God’s concern for the poor is expressed and God’s teaching for His people is unmistakable: financial blessings generate a responsibility to the poor, and failure to meet that responsibility is an injustice.
A closer reading of these passages (and the many like them) suggests that something much more important is going on in our giving to the poor than fulfilling our side of the just bargain, more important than meeting our dispassionate “Kantian” duties. Gary Anderson argues in his recent book Charity (2013) that both Second Temple Judaism (the theological context of the New Testament) and the New Testament attest to the sacramental character of charitable giving. Drawing heavily on Proverbs 19:17 as the backdrop to the New Testament period, and specifically to Matthew 25:31ff, Anderson posits that charity effectuates the enormous power to open the doors to the Kingdom of God: “charity acquires such power because one meets Christ through this concrete action of showing mercy” (6). Anderson encourages us to put the “efficiency and effectiveness” of our modern social programs in a secondary role and to recover “the promise that scripture provides that one could meet God in the face of the poor. Charity was, to put it briefly, a sacramental act” (7). Matthew 25 puts the scenario best: when Christ returns for the last judgment, He will separate the sheep from the goats, and the sheep will inherit the kingdom because they gave Christ food, drink, hospitality, clothes, and comfort during sickness and imprisonment. Those who inherit the kingdom will query as to when they did these things for Christ. And he will answer: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). The goats, because they did not feed, clothe, etc., will suffer eternal punishment. The upshot, for Anderson, is that Christ is present in charitable acts. The poor, needy, and imprisoned constitute a powerful contact point between the disciple and God. We don’t simply feed the poor because it is an altruistic sacrificing of our own resources that provides a just balance to the universe; we feed the poor because it is a way to see God, and we should want that more than anything.
But that never really crosses my mind when I see the homeless in my town. Instead, I usually ask one or a combination of the following questions: Do I feel like being bothered by this person right now? Do I have anything to give them? How can I act like I don’t see them? Is this person going to take advantage of me? How will they lie? Am I in physical danger? When the Bible says I should help the needy, do I have to take that literally? Haven’t I done enough already? Almost never does it occur to me that I am about to meet God face-to-face (without being bludgeoned to death). Why does the biblical/theological framework of charity escape us? And how can we recover it?
The work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor may offer an intellectual framework for understanding why we have lost the notion of the sacramentality of charitable giving. Taylor contends that over the last five hundred years or so, the world has moved from “the enchanted world, the world of spirits, demons, moral forces which our predecessors acknowledged” to the disenchanted world “in which the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds; the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans; and these minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings, etc. are situated ‘within’ them” (Taylor, 29–30). When encountering the homeless, the disenchanted world restricts us to thinking that the only meaning emanating from this encounter is in our own minds. We generate the meaning of the experience. There is no meaning outside of that which my mind generates. In the world of the New Testament, a person would have expected the world around him to be imbued with meaning, irrespective of the views of the individual subject. The world all around had not only the ability to possess meaning independently of our minds, but it was “endowed with sacramental power” and a “power to impose a certain meaning on us” (Taylor, 32, 33).
A helpful way to understand the distinction between the enchanted and the disenchanted world is to perceive the conceptions of the self therein. Taylor refers to the self of the enchanted world as the “porous self” that is extremely vulnerable to forces external to the self. The fate of the “porous self” is connected to the fate of that which is external to the self. The mind is not shielded from those external forces, as “[t]hings and agencies which are clearly extra-human could alter or shape our spiritual and emotional condition, and not just our physical state....These agencies didn’t simply operate from outside the ‘mind’, they helped to constitute us emotionally and spiritually” (40).
Conversely, the disenchanted self is the “bounded self” that can distance itself from externalities, because they don’t really have meaning. More importantly for our purposes in thinking about homelessness, “[a]s a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’, to use the contemporary expression” (38). In other words, I can “buffer” my mind from the homeless in my community, because I live in a world (and share its ‘worldview’ to a large extent) where no meaning exists outside of my mind and the experiences it has. My fate is not bound up with the fate of the homeless. There may exist a technocratic solution to large-scale social problems, but these solutions have no bearing on my emotional or spiritual existence. Essentially, the homeless mean nothing to me from within this worldview.
If I am to locate myself with the sheep and not the goats, is it necessary to have an enchanted view of the world, and particularly an enchanted view of my relationship to the needy? Is it even possible to recover an enchanted view of the world? The answer to the first question is not clear, but the answer to the second question is “yes.” It would entail rejecting the “bounded self” in favor of a view of the world in which God meets us through the world around us, and not simply as a result of our confessing doctrine. Anderson points in this direction: “The charitable deed lost, in the sixteenth century, its central role making God present to the believer and became simply a sign of the underlying personal faith of the believer. Bereft of this sacramental sensibility the donor no longer had any reason to meet the beggar in person” (8). Further, “[f]aith… is not reducible to mere intellectual assent, it is also a specific way of enacting one’s life in the world” (37). So it appears that one way to recover an enchanted view of the world is simply to do what God has commanded us to do, not merely as a duty to fulfill, but with the expectation that God has called us there because He Himself is there waiting on us. Meeting God in the face of the poor seems like a reasonable way to begin to believe that God exists outside of our minds and that He wants us to engage (and be vulnerable to) the rest of the world. God can overcome our disenchanted view of the world.
Geoffrey C. Bowden teaches in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Savannah State University, with specialties in ethics and politics and in political theology.
Anderson, Gary A. Charity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.