While coming home from church on Sunday, I had one of those encounters that makes me feel so ashamed to be a human being that I become disgusted with myself. I was getting a chicken shawarma plate with everything on it in the local greasy spoon on Queen Street when she walked in. With a deliberate purpose she came up to me and said, “I need one thousand dollars . . . “.
After this masterful “door in the face” technique opening, she proceeded to tell me her story. Parents dead and no family, she just got out of the hospital in a great deal of pain with no money for her prescription medication. It was her birthday and she had nowhere else to go. Could I please, please, please give her forty dollars to help her out?
Looking her over, I felt the familiar wave of revulsion. Missing half of her teeth with sores all over her visible skin, her hair was grimy and not well kept but her clothes were not too threadbare. Despite the obvious signs of extreme wear, the skin of her face caused me to put her in her early thirties. Swallowing my misgivings, I remembered my rule on “how to treat the homeless” and agreed to help her and asked if I could pray for her.
A preacher some fifteen years ago made a point in a sermon that has stuck with me all these years. “Love is not a feeling, love is a choice.” he said, “and so you must love your neighbor by how you choose to treat them.” As a person with a hysterical OCD revulsion for homeless people, I took his teaching and formulated a rule for how I would treat them. I decided that I would always give them more than what they asked me for and try and pray for them in the name of Jesus.
Now I haven’t always kept my rule. Sometimes I get angry at a perceived sense of entitlement and refuse to give anything. Some of them can be threatening and I will not respond positively to threats. Sometimes I honestly don’t have any money and sometimes I intentionally delay going to the ATM until after I am out of the homeless hot zones which vary from city to city. Even if I have no money I go out of my way to get food for anyone who asks for food and not money. All of this I do to try and keep my pathetic little rule.
Actually, now that I think about it, that is not true. I changed my rule five years ago after one homeless man figured out that I would never say no to him if he asked me for twenty bucks. This wasn’t too bad until he figured out my train schedule and was waiting for me one day on the platform. “I am sorry, but I am not your personal ATM.”, I told him. “But I am your only friend and I prayed for you.”, he replied angrily. I wanted to laugh at how pathetic he thought I was. Choking off a sarcastic reply I said to him, “thanks for the prayer” and turned around and left. My new rule became, “The first time they ask me, I will give them more than they ask for . . .”
When I pray for them, I always am careful to say that, “Jesus loves them” because I certainly don’t. Sometimes they begin to get emotional and I will make sure they understand how it is. “Look, Jesus loves you and I don’t. I am doing this because he told me to and for no other reason.” A friend of mine who has seen me interact with homeless people has said of me, “you are the nicest guy”. When he said that I was rather rude. I laughed and said, “you don’t know me at all.” The reason I give to these people as generously as I can is because I don’t like them, not because I do.
But I didn’t share this unpleasant encounter to share my inadequate keeping of a pathetic and legalistic attitude. I shared it because her response was so typical that I finally perceived a regular pattern. As soon as I prayed for her in the name of Jesus, she started telling me how good she had been recently. “I haven’t had a cigarette in three days and I haven’t been drunk in almost a week.” Dale Carnegie wrote in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People that every human being thinks of themselves as essentially morally good and this truth is the Rosetta stone for understanding human behavior. As I go back over it in my mind, it seems like every time I have prayed for a homeless person they respond in a way that makes it obvious that they don’t think they need God’s help. It is almost enough to make me scream. “I need God’s help just to stand here next to you and give you the money you asked me for, how is it that you don’t need God’s help at all?”
To me the essential starting point of any honest discussion about Christianity must be that human beings are sinners in need of a savior. First, we need God to give us life because every human being is doomed to die. Secondly, as I have argued in another post, we need God’s help to live with one another in harmony. These truths are obvious and self-evident and anyone who denies them is not being intellectually honest.
How can I say these truths are self-evident? Just look at the world around us. Does it seem to you that human beings are morally good? Lies, rape, terrorism, murder, bullying, dishonesty, selfishness, theft, passive aggressive abuse, fighting, bitterness, feuds and countless terminated friendships? If a person thinks that they do not need God, then ask them to describe their relationship with their own family. They may have gotten along okay overall, but if a person says they have never had serious friction with the people who are closest to them in the world, then that person is either lying or extremely rare. Such people might exist, but I have never met one of them.
How can an atheist argue against this? “Well, if God didn’t exist, we human beings would be fine on our own.” But according to atheists, we are on our own and this world is the result. The only way an atheist can argue against our need of God’s help is to lapse into solipsism. “Everybody else needs God to be good but thinks they are doing just fine, but I am different. I really am a good person.” I think the antidote to this is to look at just exactly how hard it is to be a truly good person.
Let us imagine that you were a German in Nazi Germany. What would it take for a modern and historically informed person to say that you had been a good person during the Nazi regime? Now this isn’t as high as the standard I argued in my other essay, but it is still pretty hard to attain. In order to be considered a good person, you would have had to risk imprisonment, torture and death in a Nazi concentration camp for a group of people whom you would probably have thought of as I think of homeless people. (Antisemitism had been fashionable in Germany for hundreds of years before Hitler and most Germans were antisemitic to one extent or another.) Can you honestly say that you would have been one of the few Germans who stood up for the Jewish people in Nazi Germany? When I think of how difficult it is for me to give a homeless person a few bucks, I realize just how far I fall short of any reasonable standard of moral goodness.