Maybe Charity’s the Problem

(Luke 12:32-40)

Anne Lamott, in her wonderful memoir, Traveling Mercies, talks at one point about her decision as a white woman to go St. Andrew’s, an African American Presbyterian church in Marin County, California. She was, at that point, an alcoholic single mother with a two year-old son. She says, “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hang on.”

She talks about being embraced by the community, who took her and her young son, Sam, into their arms, bringing “clothes … casseroles to keep in the freezer, they brought … assurance that this baby was going to be a part of the family.”

“And,” she says, “they started slipping me money.”

Anne Lamott writes:

Now, a number of the older black women live pretty close to the bone financially on small Social Security checks. But routinely they sidled up to me and stuffed bills in my pocket—tens and twenties. It was always done so stealthily that you might have thought they were slipping me bindles of cocaine. One of the most consistent donors was a very old woman named Mary Williams, who is in her mid-eighties now, so beautiful with her crushed hats and hallelujahs; she always brought me plastic Baggies full of dimes, noosed with little wire twists.

I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame until I’d remember that wonderful line of Blakes’s—that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love—and I would take a long deep breath and force these words out of my strangulated throat: “Thank you.”

Lamott talks a lot about the kind of love at St. Andrews, which she wants for herself and her son, the kind of love she wants to embody. And how this is a place that feels like home—in the old fashioned sense of the word—where when you show up on the doorstep, they have to take you in.

Even after she’d sobered up and her writing career took off, leaving her financially stable, Mary Williams periodically brought her a Baggie full of dimes.

Anne Lamott says:

Mary doesn’t know that professionally I’m doing much better now; she doesn’t know that I no longer really need people to slip me money. But what’s dazzling to me, what’s so painful and poignant, is that she doesn’t bother with what I think she knows or doesn’t know about my financial life. She just knows we need another bag of dimes, and that’s why I make Sam go to church.

You see, the thing is, Anne Lamott’s situation had changed, but Mary Williams had not. Mary needed to give that money away.

If you notice in our Gospel this morning, Jesus doesn’t try to impress on his disciples how much better off the poor will be if they receive alms. He’s not trying to persuade his followers that those who are without need charity. Jesus wants to call his followers into the new world he’s announcing, where there is enough for everyone, where people share as a matter of course, into a world that needs them to give their lives and their resources away before they calculate people’s needs—because what’s at the heart of this world is becoming the kind of people whose primary need is to participate in the solidarity that comes from giving.

People generally like the idea of charity because it allows them to maintain the illusion that the haves and the have-nots are a result of virtue or vice, and are therefore a product of choices. (Although the fact of people like Jeffery Epstiein and his wealthy friends—and the evil they chose—puts the lie to that bit of homespun wisdom.)

Charity, a mechanism for voluntarily deciding who gets a portion of what we have, is an especially apt exercise of choice, since it reinforces the modern American notion that only the stuff we choose has any value. To choose to give charity is to take advantage of the power and resources at your disposal for those whom you think are worthy of your attention.

I'm not trying to suggest that charity is evil, or that we shouldn't do it. Historically, it's been an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to making sure everybody has enough. I'm only trying to point out that even in the seemingly basic decision about who gets charity, or even about whether to give charity in the first place, you've already exercised an enormous amount of power that’s not available to everyone.

Choosing, in many cases, is the prerogative of the wealthy and powerful. In my neighborhood if I want food, for instance, I can choose to shop at one of several grocery stores, each competing to provide me the greatest selection of food available. If I feel like something different, I can eat at one of the many restaurants nearby. Or I can eat fast food.

But if I lived in another part of town, I often wouldn't get to choose between bad food and good food; generally speaking, I could choose between bad food and no food—which is to say, I wouldn't get much of a choice at all.

The wealthy and the powerful choose where to go on vacation; the poor and the powerless often just "choose" to stay home. The wealthy and the powerful choose which health plan, which doctor, which hospital they want to patronize; the only choice the poor and the powerless usually have to make is whether to go to the clinic or to the emergency room. The wealthy and the powerful choose politicians who look and talk like them; the poor and the powerless get to "choose" politicians who look and talk like . . . the wealthy and the powerful. The wealthy and the powerful choose upon whom to lavish their charity; the poor and the powerless get to "choose" if they'll take it or do without. Not much choice.

Because, here's the thing: Even though people may be endowed with the capacity to make choices, it doesn't mean they have the wherewithal to choose in a meaningful way. Presumably—at least in the abstract—everyone can "choose" to buy a Maserati. But because only a few people have the means to buy one, having a choice is a theoretical conceit.

Saying to an unemployed single mother on Food Stamps, "You have choices. You should just get a job and buy food for your kids with your own money," may very well be like saying, "The Lottery's an option you seem not to have explored very seriously. You should just win the lottery if you want your kids to eat." The response to which is, "Great plan, Einstein. Why didn't I think of that?"

But if charity only helps maintain the current power arrangements by offering the illusion that for everyone to have enough, those with resources have to choose to feel like helping … then maybe charity’s the problem.

I like the Jewish vision of giving. Hebrew doesn't have a word that equates to the English word "charity" (with its assumption that giving is done from a position of power, that is, relying on the generosity of the giver). The word used for helping the poor and the powerless in Hebrew is tzedakah.

Tzedakah comes from the root צדק, which we translate in English justice or righteousness. On this account, giving is an act of justice, not charity.

What I find especially interesting, though, is that in Judaism tzedakah is an obligation. In contrast to modern American assumptions about charity being done as a favor to those who don't have, Judaism views giving as something owed by those who "have" to those who "have not."

Viewed as an obligation to act justly toward those who don't have the means to make the choices modern Americans value, giving takes on a completely different tone: Giving is something the "haves" are a responsible to do in virtue of their having.

So, here's the irony from where I sit: According to tzedakah, the people who have the means to help others, the people whose ability to choose what they want to do and with whom they want to do it, are the ones who have the least amount of choice when it comes to giving. That is to say, in the pursuit of justice the more we have, the less we get to choose whether or not to give.

Viewing giving as an act of justice to which the giver is obliged, it seems to me, helps correct the imbalances of power by affirming that those who are first will be last, so that those who are last may be first. It is, according to Jesus, God’s good pleasure to give us a world where the coin of the realm isn’t grasping for everything we can get our hands on, but selling what we have and sharing it with one another.

After talking about alms and the solidarity achieved when giving is viewed as a requirement of justice for those who have enough, what does Jesus say? Without an especially adroit transition, Jesus seems to strike out in a different conversational direction:

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves (35-38).

With whiplash-inducing suddenness, we go from talking about sharing what we have in this new world God has planned, to talk about waiting with readiness for the head of the house to come back from the wedding reception. Jesus says that the servants who wait should be prepared, because when the head of the house returns and finds them waiting, he will do something absolutely unthinkable: “He will fasten his belt and have [the servants] sit down to eat; and he will come and serve them.”

That’s the kind of new world Jesus is talking about, one in which Jeffery Epstein will give all his power to every young girl he ever took power away from, where Jeff Bezos will wash the aching feet of those who make their living running endlessly up and down the aisles of his fulfillment centers, where Wayne LaPierre will give his gated mansions to the houseless, his expensive suits to the naked, and his wealth to those who’ve died at the end of a gun, and where Donald Trump will serve food to the undocumented workers at his properties, hold the hands and calm the weeping of Latinx children in Mississippi, and empty the cages of asylum seekers, giving them rooms in his resorts and hotels.

Think about what a world that would be. Not as an opportunity for revenge on those who’ve done great harm, but as a threshold level of living together where there’s enough for everybody, where everyone flourishes, where the first are last for a change, and those who’ve always brought up the rear are ushered to the front of the line, given the seats of honor.

Think about a world in which people of color no longer have to live in fear of traffic stops; where folks are celebrated for who they are, no longer condemned for who everyone else thinks they ought to be; where women feel safe going out by themselves at night; where the elderly don’t have to wonder whether there will be enough at the end of the month to buy the medicines that keep them alive; where the mentally ill are treated the same as our neighbors with heart disease or diabetes; where our willingness to welcome the stranger doesn’t matter where they’re from; and where little kids don’t have to wonder whether their undocumented parents will be there when they get home.

Because, you see, charity’s not big enough for a world like that. No, for a world like that we need justice.