Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


Imagine a panhandler who doesn't ask for money, but comes through your subway car just wanting to say thank you. A letter writer* to the New York Times ' Metropolitan Diary last week was interrupted by such a person. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!" he began, and then announced that the donations he solicited on the subway had enabled him to treat a visual impairment and thus get a job. "So I want to thank you! I thank all of you!" Then he promptly proceeded to the next car to say the same thing. The letter writer said he probably hadn't given the man money before; "but I certainly would like to have done so."

That's the thing about panhandling; it can surprise you, and defy simple assumptions and personal policies.

After I wrote about this issue in October, some readers responded with their own thoughts and policies. Frank Dudley of Harlingen, Texas, wrote that when he was a missionary in an African town where panhandling was an urgent issue, Dudley's wife asked a native African how she handled it as a Christian. "She said she judged need by the number of missing limbs!" Dudley recalls. "The more limbs they were missing, the greater the chance that she would help them." 

A couple of readers wrote in to make a point about the proverb, "Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime." They pointed out that a letter writer to the Chicago Tribune was mistaken in saying this was from the Bible. "Jesus didn't put any conditions on his Grace," wrote David Bruce of Canberra, Australia. (This site attributes the quote to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.)

Soon after the blog was posted, I was invited to lead a discussion at LaSalle Street Church in downtown Chicago, where I attend, and where this is a very real dilemma.

"The first casualty of panhandling is the truth," one member began the discussion by saying, noting that at gas stations, scammers use the same story over and over about running out of gas. He later noted—perhaps with the teach-to-fish proverb in mind—that when a parent provides a 6-year-old with food and shelter, it is considered caring; when the parent provides food and shelter to a 26-year-old, it's often looked down upon as preventing a person from taking charge of themselves.

Another person pointed out that the only person panhandling may really help is the giver, by assuaging her guilt while failing to change the receiver's situation. "I realized I wasn't giving for their benefit," she said.

But another suggested we see panhandling as "the 20th century equivalent of gleaning," as described in the book of Ruth—the gathering of the grain that was left by the harvesters.

I asked Mike Post, executive director of LaSalle's Breaking Bread ministry to the homeless, if he would endorse the policy of handing out business cards with Breaking Bread's address in lieu of giving money. "I need a few more grants first," he quipped, but said that he has sometimes used this policy himself. But part of me thinks that gesture is too impersonal and business-like.

Since, to most of us in the room, imagining ourselves as panhandlers was only a hypothetical, the discussion really hit home when two men who were homeless raised their hands to speak. One said he only accepts handouts in exchange for doing small jobs, but that he's usually disregarded before he can make such an offer.

Another man, who had come to LaSalle through the Breaking Bread ministry, said that although "even a panhandler can't tell when he's being conned," he personally knew the desperation of having to ask for money to get a meal or a place to stay the night. He also knew what it was like to be passed on the street over and over by people—including churchgoers—who refused to look him in the eye.

"All I can ask is this," he said. "Let your prayers and your heart be your guide. You won't know the truth. But it's your heart that opens you up." I asked him if it was good to greet a solicitor you don't plan to give to, even if that meant raising the person's hopes. He said yes, absolutely. Everyone in that situation of need suffers from a deficit of dignity.

He added that people would sometimes apologize to him for not giving money. "Don't be sorry," he said. "It's yours." (On the other hand, the sermon that morning on stewardship—see "The Burden of Affluence" here—pointed out that we tend to think of our money as "mine," when we should see it first and foremost as God's.) But some people, he could personally attest, really did just need a few bucks for lunch.

Later that same day, I ran into one of the homeless men on the street who had spoken in the discussion. For the first time in a while, I forked over some money and sent him to a nearby deli. I figured that if someone comes to a church discussion on panhandling, their story is sound. If only it were always that clear-cut.


From the New York Times :

BHOPAL, India* (AP) -- Crawling painfully on her hands and knees, Shakira Ehsan moved awkwardly to the doorway of her dim two-room shanty, located just across the street from an abandoned pesticide plant. In 1984 the plant was the site of the world's worst industrial disaster. Twenty years later, Shakira is one of the thousands of child victims who have carried its toxic burden. Years after her mother was exposed to the cloud of lethal gas that leaked from the Union Carbide plant, Shakira's spindly legs are too weak to carry her body. Her mind has the abilities of a child. … Activists say the area remains a danger, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. But the company says the groundwater around the plant is free of toxins and any water contamination was due to improper drainage and other pollution, not Union Carbide chemicals.

LAIE, Hawaii* — Several changes are under way here in Laie, a little town on Oahu's north shore that serves as the Hawaii center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But none are more striking than those that created this view, at a cost of $5.5 million. Since late last year, a church-affiliated property management company, Hawaii Reserves Inc., has been renovating the wide avenue that leads to the Mormons' showcase Hawaii temple. Termite-infested Norfolk pines have been replaced by more than 70 royal palms. Stout lamps have been added, carrying the eye up the terraced reflecting pools. Then there are the new roundabouts, which when fully planted by the end of the year will burst with color.


• Scholar Thomas Lickona once said that "education has had two great goals: to help young people become smart and to help them become good," observes Wooster student Marissa Bambrey in a paper entitled "Becoming Good: A Pentadic Analysis of the Moral Messages in Elementary School Curricula and Textbooks from Two Contexts." (Pentadic analysis means examining the "act, scene, agent, agency and purpose" of rhetoric.) Bambrey cites David Purpel, who says modern secular education has largely become "a process of learning information and gaining intellectual insights that are presumed to be independent of moral and political considerations" (see the Purpel citation in a partial source list here). In truth, Purpel says, any school always has a "hidden curriculum"—which sounds sinister but simply means "the values, attitudes, and assumptions toward learning and human relationships reflected in the school's policies and practices." Public school textbooks, Bambrey shows, contain myriad moral messages about being a good citizen and member of a community. In fact, one of her most intriguing findings is that secular textbooks tend to emphasize the student's communal identity and obligations, while Christian school textbooks "concentrate on the student as an individual rather than as part of a larger group." (I would have expected the reverse, since individualism is an American creed while Christians are members of a body of believers.) Bambrey concludes that "the teaching of morality is not complete in public and private schools"; both, she says, "give a limited view of morality." She states, "So now, not only are children receiving moral lessons from several conflicting perspectives, whether that is home, school, church, or elsewhere, but they are also receiving incomplete perspectives."

• Speaking of cultural divides, we know the media has a hard time with the terms "evangelical" and "born again," throwing them around without clear definitions, especially after the recent election. But do evangelicals have a hard time with the words themselves? Syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly recalls asking Billy Graham once to define "evangelical." "Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too," Graham told Mattingly in the late 1980s, saying the word had "become blurred." "One man's 'evangelical' is another's 'fundamentalist,'" Mattingly observes. Graham said the mark of an evangelical is one who affirms the Nicene Creed. The Associated Press stylebook defines evangelicals as "doctrinally conservative Christians" who "stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief." Pollster George Barna says all evangelicals are born again, but not vice versa, even though the media tend to use the two interchangeably. Other pollsters seem to be fumbling around for the right words. Exit polls four years ago asked voters if they would consider themselves part of the "religious right"; according to the PreachingNow newsletter, 14 percent said yes. This year voters were asked if they would call themselves evangelical or born again, and 23 percent said yes. The change in wording makes any comparison between the two worthless. Mattingly's column / PreachingNow on exit polls

Christianity Today's Weblog on the "values" election numbers
Bush and fundamentalists: an implausible conspiracy

• For all their "doctrinal absolutes," there's one commandment Christians don't have any compunction about breaking, says Martin Marty in his Sightings newsletter. It's the fourth one, about keeping the Sabbath. "It's simply breaking God's law to be open on Sundays," says independent Christian bookseller John Cully. But the Family Christian Bookstore chain disagrees, having recently opened its 326 stores on Sundays. FCB calls it a "ministry decision"; being closed could deprive someone of salvation (and, of course, deprive FCB of profit). FCB is unlikely to suffer a major consumer boycott; Marty cites a poll that says 80 percent of FCB customers already shop on Sunday. But if FCB shoppers are looking for guidance on their Sabbath habits, they'll have to look elsewhere. One reporter searched some FCB stores for books specifically on Sabbath-keeping, and didn't find a single one. So you'll have to go online to order Marva Dawn's excellent book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly. Marty's entry

• Plagiarism is a publishing sin and a surefire scandal. In an ethically lax society, at least everyone agrees on that. But is there a difference between lazy and exploitative plagiarism and plagiarism as a necessary part of the creative process? The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, a victim of plagiarism, has been wondering about this. Back in 1997, Gladwell wrote a letter of complaint to the playwright of the Broadway play Frozen to complain that several lines in the play had been lifted directly from him and his source in a New Yorker profile. Now, he says, he's had second thoughts. "The truth was that, although I said I'd been robbed, I didn't feel that way. Nor did I feel particularly angry. … On some level, I considered Lavery's borrowing to be a compliment." Gladwell observes, "A savvier writer would have changed all those references to [his source], and rewritten the quotes from me, so that their origin was no longer recognizable. But how would I have been better off if [the playwright] had disguised the source of her inspiration?" When he read the whole script of Frozen, Gladwell says, "instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause." When the subject is music, the ethics start to become even more ambiguous. And wait till you read what Thomas Jefferson said on the subject. Article

The Weekly Standard on "plagiaphrasing"
Gladwell on personality tests

*Requires free registration, or log in with user name and password of "bcread"

Previous/Archive/About/Feedback/Links/CT blog

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

Most ReadMost Shared