Posted by: Grandma LaLa | August 16, 2015

For Shonda … further thoughts on homelessness, hunger, and ethical choices

My dear friend Shonda posted a thought-provoking comment on facebook yesterday.

“Don’t kid yourself. If you see someone who says they are hungry and you do not give them your change to feed them, you aren’t kind. You are not charitable. That isn’t savvy, you are greedy. Don’t tell me they are just wasting the money on drugs or booze. I don’t care. If you told me you were hungry I would feed you or give you money if I had it. That is someone’s child. That is someone’s mother or father, their sibling. It could be any one of us. We are all one medical bill, missed paycheck or vet’s bill away from being that person.”

Shonda is a person of strong compassion and ethical character.  So I wasn’t surprised by her empathy on this moral dilemma, but I was surprised by her assertion that only one choice is ethical in response to immediate need.  She lives in a smaller community, where this pressing need occurs less often.  We had a good dialogue on the topic in the facebook feed, yet her perspective keeps filtering through my thought processes.  Enough to reflect further here for myself.

Compassion and empathy

I was raised in a family where compassion was a core value.  My parents welcomed foreign exchange students from the local university into our home.  My parents had us actively involved in helping to feed local homeless people.  And our family was regularly involved in relief efforts with migrant workers in the area who lived in abject poverty.  I was taught to see the real human person(s) who experienced need ~ and to see God’s spirit in that humanity.

As a young adult, I worked in rural congregations where I saw hungry people in small communities, often taking people to the local restaurant for a meal.  Then I moved to a large metropolitan area, where I worked in homeless shelters.  I observed first-hand what Shonda so aptly noted: that most of us are one significant crisis away from being hungry and/or homeless ourselves.

When Ron and I go into Chicago, there will easily be 100 or more people en route, asking for money.  Easily 20 or more people just at the train station, and more along every side of every block as we walk.  It’s not realistic in terms of our own limited resources to give to these individuals in the way I would have in a rural community where those needs were infrequent.

Yet I think Shonda is right that our culture increasingly dehumanizes and judges people in need.  Her post is a good reminder that each person who asks is a person with a history and a future more complex than their immediate need ~ and from my perspective as a person of faith, is a child of God.  Whatever we may choose to do or not do in response to that face-to-face request, surely our first (and internal) response needs to be one of empathy, not judgment.

Individual need and systemic factors

As Shonda and I talked more about her post, I realized that the face-to-face presentation of individual human need and suffering is always implicitly a greater moral challenge for me than just the individual need.

There are reasons the person is hungry.  Many of those reasons are deeply rooted in our social, economic, and political dysfunction.  When a person or head-of-household loses their job or suffers a catastrophic illness, why is it acceptable that our culture provides only for subsistence diet?  In some states, people aren’t even allowed to use food stamps for fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, or even cheese, nuts, or beans.  Why is this acceptable?

There are reasons the person is homeless.  Again, many of those reasons are deeply rooted in our cultural choices as a community.  Why is it acceptable that the minimum wage is less than $10 per hour (about $20,000 per year) for unskilled workers in the metropolitan area, yet just to rent a one-bedroom or studio apartment is at least $1,000 per month?  There isn’t affordable housing for rent.  In fact, the most affordable housing is often torn down by developers for pricey, high-end condos and apartments.  Why is this acceptable?

I realized anew, in talking with Shonda, that every individual face of need for me raises much bigger questions and demands much deeper actions rooted in compassion and empathy.

Ethical choices in the face of massive need

It’s a big planet with massive suffering and need.  So how shall we make ethical choices about responding?  Is there really only one acceptable response in the face of immediate need?  That’s not a simple question and maybe one that we need to live with as open-ended.

I keep remembering the 70s and 80s, when I was an activist in the nuclear disarmament movement.  There was a summer where the Indiana Disciples Peace Fellowship (of which I was a member and leader) organized a walk from Moscow (Indiana) and Washington (Indiana), meeting halfway in Bloomington.  We talked with people along the way, trying to raise consciousness about nuclear armaments and the planetary issues.

One of the pastors who joined this witness with his family was a strong activist and advocate for peace.  He knew Phillip and Daniel Berrigan personally.  He had been arrested with them countless times for protests against the Vietnam War and more recently for actions against nuclear facilities.

I admired his dedication and his willingness to make lifestyle choices with such integrity.  But I realized that this wasn’t my calling.  The calling of my own heart was to make a different witness in a different way.  And I worried that he would judge me for not making the same choice and taking the same risks that he and his family had.

Judgment was not his response.  Instead, he affirmed that we each have different responsibilities and different opportunities to witness and to make positive change in the world.  He affirmed that no one witness is “right” for everyone.  It’s a much more complex world than this.  In fact, he said, it really does take all of those different forms of witness to effect change.

That’s where I still find myself in the face of massive need and suffering of the diverse creatures on our planet, including human ones.  In the presence of such need, surely we are asked and expected to first respond with empathy and compassion, not with judgment.  And then we each must weigh our own limitations and powers, as we assess what resources we may generously give in response.

Some will choose to give a few coins to any person who asks.  Others will choose one person to take for coffee and a sandwich.  Some will decide to respond by giving to a local food pantry, while others will advocate for more generous government food stamp allocations and more investment in affordable housing.  Surely each one of these is an ethical choice rooted in a charitable, empathetic response to the persons in need. And surely all of these witnesses are needed to truly effect change in real lives.

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