Yesterday I read Mosiah 4:16-27 about our responsibility to care for the poor. Despite having read this many times, I have re-read it twice since yesterday morning. In doing so I have reflected on what is being taught and how it applies to me in the society in which I live. After all, we are to liken the scriptures to ourselves.
The obligation to care for the poor has long been a theme in every major religious tradition. It is also common in modern secular ideologies. It isn't something new.
Today many efforts are made to help the poor at organizational and individual levels among the religious and the secular. For years I (along with hundreds of others) have donated many hours working at a local peach orchard. All of the produce goes to help the poor and those dealing with disasters and tragedies.
Each February or March we prune the trees. In June we thin the trees to provide for the best growth potential. In the harvest season we pick the fruit and stack it in refrigerated trailers. Some fruit is used fresh, but most is hauled to canneries, where other volunteers can the fruit. Some of these cans have made it to places like Haiti, following the earthquake there.
Members of my church are encouraged to fast one day each month. They are to donate the cost of the skipped meals to the church's fast offering fund, which is used to help the poor and needy. For many years the church has encouraged members with sufficient means to donate many times more than the cost of two meals each month.
Members of my Boy Scout Order of the Arrow chapter volunteer many hours each year because we are chiefly a service organization. Part of our volunteer work includes helping the poor. Just two weeks ago we staffed the collection point for our local Scouting for Food drive. This annual event helps sustain a local food pantry for up to eight months.
My family regularly takes items we no longer need to our local Deseret Industries store, rather than selling these things ourselves. The D.I. takes low skilled people (of any religion), gives them a job, trains them, and helps them gain more useful skills. It then helps these people find work. Donating items to the D.I. helps provide the transitional help these people need to better provide for themselves and their families.
For years I have supported the Perpetual Education Fund, which helps people in third world countries obtain a better education so that they can better reach their potential. Many beneficiaries become more productive and charitable members of their own cultures.
These are just some of the things I try to do to help the poor. I don't say any of this to pump my own ego. After all, I am merely trying to reach the minimum standard required of any Christian, and I probably often fall short.
Christian philosopher C. S. Lewis once said that the only safe standard for any Christian when it comes to helping others is that you must give enough that it becomes a meaningful sacrifice to you and to God. You must give up something important to you to bless the lives of those that are less fortunate.
But all of the things I have mentioned above involve institutional efforts to help the poor. When I read King Benjamin's words, I can't help but see this in a more personal light. In his words I perceive more of a face-to-face interaction between the giver and the receiver.
In our modern society we tend to spend most of our lives interacting with those that are not too far from our own socio-economic status. That is, those in the middle class don't often spend much time associating with the poor. We don't frequent the same circles or places (Wal-Mart notwithstanding).
So where do those of the middle class and the poverty class interface in our culture? When I think about this I always think about panhandling. Let me be frank. I detest such begging. We have so many programs available in our society that no one actually needs to panhandle to sustain life. There are places in the world where panhandling might be necessary. But not here. Not really.
Panhandlers play on emotions, or more particularly, on people's sense of guilt for apparently having so much more than the beggar. But the places and methods chosen for this activity say much about those engaged in it. I see panhandlers in downtown areas, around shopping plazas, and standing at freeway exits.
I never see panhandlers standing in front of the manufacturing business where I work as the machinists and welders leave at the end of their shifts. There's a reason for that. You for sure never see any of those guys with the fake "will work for food" signs standing around businesses where serious manual labor is performed. That's by design, not coincidence.
It frankly irks me to be confronted by panhandlers in downtown business districts. Some of these places even have signs put up by the police encouraging people to not give to these people. It's the equivalent of "don't feed the bears" signs in some national parks. And it serves a similar purpose. If no one gave to the panhandlers, it wouldn't be long before you would no longer see them there.
But then I read King Benjamin's condemnation of those that harshly judge the beggars. He says that these accusers have "no interest in the kingdom of God." However, I believe that it is equally wrong to foster dependency simply to assuage one's affluence guilt. Most people that are panhandling in our society do need help, but not the kind that comes from people giving them money.
In fact, it's rather easy to give money to these people without any thought of actually helping them. In many cases we are actually contributing to their harm, but we walk away feeling self satisfied. It would be much more difficult to reach out to the person and do what is necessary to provide the kind of help that would best benefit them.
So how do I bring this all together? Sorry, I'm not there yet. How do I fulfill the Christian commandment to help the beggar while also making sure that I'm not debauching a child of God? It turns out that I've still got a long, long way to go.
Most of the time I'm not willing to take time away from my own plans to truly help beggars one-on-one. I'm too interested in my own affairs to do what Jesus would do. I excuse myself by thinking that I already do enough to help the poor and by rationalizing that they should simply apply to the many programs available to them.
We're never going to solve poverty in this world (see Mark 14:7). But King Benjamin makes it clear that we are obligated to do what is in our power to help the poor, and even to sustain the beggars. I've thought about this many times over the years, and I still don't have it worked out to my satisfaction.