On Poverty & Handouts


Panhandlers in South Africa make a fortune from young missionaries coming into their country, eager to love people and make a difference. As a missionary who has worked in local townships for the past six months, I have seen earnest young people readily empty out their pockets to anyone in need. But as you walk around the city, scattered posters remind foreigners: “HANDOUTS DON’T WORK.” From talking with many missionaries, as well as from my own experience, I have begun to see that handouts do tend to create a mindset of dependency, perpetuating a lifestyle on the streets. Begging becomes a career that actually pays. This is especially appealing within the city of Cape Town, where the unemployment rate is nearly 40%, but it is detrimental to any long-term mission in the area. People in the townships are no longer affected by the goodness of strangers, instead seeing foreigners as walking ATMs ready to meet a need. Relationships are no longer valued, and friendships are reduced to shallow conversations where people say “the right words” in order to get on the good side of Christian missionaries. Whole families decide working is unnecessary because their next meal will surely be funded by the waves of foreign wealth coming into the communities.

As Christians, we are called to love and empathize with the plight of the poor. The idea of social justice cannot be an abstract ideal left to a few radicals; rather, it must be a lifestyle into which every Christian – no matter his or her position in life, socio-economic status, or occupation – is called. We are invited to bring the justice of Jesus to every social realm: justice as a move to return the things sin steals away, where righteousness is understood because of the payment of blood. Social justice is the act of bringing love, life, and laughter into the lives of people who are counted as casualties in the spiritual war we fight every day. And the Bible is very clear and straightforward about the issue: “feed the hungry and clothe the naked” (Matt. 25), and “freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10). Do these commands mean that we should just give whenever asked? Are we to give and give until we have nothing? Doesn’t that just drain jaded, homesick missionaries like myself? And in the struggle of deciding what is right, I seemed to have lost the compassion and eagerness that brought me here in the first place.

But my compassion and eagerness was real – is real. More real than today’s callousness, more real than this blunted mindset that keeps me from fresh daily revelations of love. Real love, not the fake forced stuff that wears you out and leaves you thirsty. Real love that comes from rest, that comes from revelation and an imparting of the Spirit, that flows out of you like a flood.

I was praying about the contrast between “feed the hungry” and “don’t give handouts,” and the image of those retro 3d glasses came to mind, a metaphor: two separate lenses of contrasting colors, blue and red, working together to create a fuller and more real picture. Yes, we need the long-term and comprehensive knowledge of how best to deal with the mendicant dilemma, but we also need that surging compassion that calls people to give cheerfully without judgment. Head knowledge is driven and fueled by the passions of affection, and those are then ministered effectively by reason. Both heart and mind must be attuned to God’s compassion and his plan.

What does that ideal look like manifested in the real world? Theology must be put into practice. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. I am learning, though, that compassion, much like love, is a choice. We choose to care and put others before ourselves just as much as we choose the contrary. And we are broken people who mess up all the time, but that is the beauty of grace. Only when we are entirely enraptured by God’s love can we begin to love others, can we begin to choose to love others. The ace up our sleeve that worked in Sunday school still works today: what’s the answer? Jesus. It is the love of Christ that mobilizes the church to social justice. What do we do? Pray. Through prayer our hearts begin to mirror God’s, and loving action becomes worthwhile, desirable even. Funny how simple it all is.


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