July 26, 2007
Should charity for the homeless begin at home?
Among Jews and Christians, there is much confusion about the Bible's preferred course for addressing the needs of poor Americans, the dominant assumption being that support for the impoverished is a public responsibility.
Recently, the issue came up in the Seattle suburb where I live. Our local weekly newspaper reported that a tent city for the homeless was to be set up in a church parking lot. In the article, a representative of the city government explained preemptively that the church had every right to do this and so, like it or not, the rest of us had no grounds for complaint.
Apart from the legal question, an implicit moral challenge was being issued: Anyone who did grumble couldn't be a very good Christian, or Jew.
In a subsequent issue of the paper, a letter to the editor appeared making a wonderfully biblical point. I was proud that this lone voice of protest belonged to a Jewish woman. Given the modern Jewish weakness for socialism, I was also surprised.
Would it not be better, she asked, if instead of setting up the tent city, members of the church invited individual homeless people to live with them? That would be so much more personal and loving. It would also provide these needy individuals with role models: functional, successful families, a setting they may never have experienced, perhaps accounting for the dysfunction in their own lives that resulted in their being homeless. Graciously, the writer did not mention that this would not impose an unwanted cost on the rest of us who do not belong to the church and who may feel very ill at ease having an encampment of transients as neighbors.
This personal approach is exactly what the Bible commends to us. I can find nowhere in Scripture where the nation or the city is directed to compel generosity to the impoverished. Nor is a city like ours commanded to assume the responsibility (and dangers) created by someone else's generosity.
While society in general is indeed obliged, it is understood that the society is composed of individuals, bearing individual moral responsibility.
The book of Leviticus turns this ethos of charity into legislation: "If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him -- proselyte or resident -- so that he can live with you" (25:35). Live with you, it says -- not in a tent city, nor in shelters funded by money taken by the government from other people.
The prophet Isaiah was echoing the Pentateuch when he told the Jews living in his time, "Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor [to your] home; when you see a naked person, clothe him and do not hide from your kin" (58:7). The emphasis on a personal relationship with the poor is unmistakable, not a pole's-length interaction as in the model of charity through taxation -- or of inviting the poor to camp out in a parking lot adjacent to other people's homes.
I anticipate a couple of objections. The first might reasonably be raised from Jewish tradition, based on a different verse in Isaiah (32:17). A conventional translation reads, "The product of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quiet and security forever." That sounds like a nice, if somewhat vague, sentiment.
At first glance, the meaning of the verse in Hebrew is quite ambiguous. Having considered a grammatical fine point, however, the Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) interprets Isaiah as offering a comparison between an individual who causes others to give charity and another individual who gives charity on his own without being compelled.
The verse is understood to mean, "The reward of he who causes [others to do] righteousness is peace, and the reward of he who does righteousness is quiet and security, forever." Since the Talmud assumes that peace is the greater reward, the Bible is seen as indicating the superior merit of causing charity to be given over simply giving it yourself.
With this in mind, Jewish communities from ancient times would appoint a communal officer in every locality where Jews lived to collect charity from community members, compelling them to give, if necessary, according to their means. Rabbinic law deemed the merit of this individual to exceed that of the Jews from whom he collected.
Isn't that a pretty good indication that the Bible favors using the power of the government to coerce the citizenry to be charitable over relying on private generosity? Actually, not at all.
For the model of the communal charity collector is a communal, not a city, state, or national one. Specifically, it applies to a religious community, from which at any time you can disassociate yourself. Membership in such an association is voluntary, a free-will act.
All Isaiah is saying is that the person who undertakes the difficult role of pressuring his fellow community members to give money to support the poor deserves an even bigger pat on the back than the householder who writes out his check and voluntarily hands it over.
This Hebrew prophetic approach to poverty is, you might say, the diametric opposite of socialism. In the latter, the burden of your generosity is imposed on other people, with government acting as the enforcer.
The members of my neighborhood church, while being a voluntary community themselves, force the burden of their generosity on me. The city guarantees their right to do so. Church members may live a half hour away, but we who live right here have to deal with having a homeless encampment next door.
A second objection would cast doubt on the sincerity of the Jewish letter-writer who advocated, as a solution to homelessness, not parking-lot camping but home hospitality. Is the solution a remotely serious one?
For some homeless, no. For others, yes. Who are the homeless, exactly? It depends on what part of the country you're talking about.
A 2005 head count of the homeless in L.A. County, conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, found that 24 percent of respondents cited unemployment as the main reason for being homeless. The second largest group, 21 percent, said substance abuse drove them to vagrancy. Another 11 percent said it was a fight with a friend or family member, while 7 percent cited mental illness and another 13 percent could not or would not respond.