Our local newspaper had an article recently about the community food pantry, which operates a small “store” over the holiday season where people who meet certain criteria may purchase reduced-price goods for the holiday season.
I figured this would be good news, but the comments section of the article was a nightmare.
One man was irritated because he knows a family who uses the food pantry: they have enough money to afford holiday food full-price, he wrote, but choose to blow that money on cigarettes and video games and then shop at the food pantry instead. Another woman wrote in that she’s heard of people with a habit of pantry-shopping, taking advantage of charity initiatives to stock up on goods, gaming welfare, and otherwise defrauding both government services and local charity banks. One person complained about a family that he said received three “charity turkeys” for Thanksgiving. Another wrote in about a family that requests the church’s help for food at the holidays despite “having a perfectly fine job.”
These writers and commenters, of whom several were proclaimed Christians, obviously thought they’d encountered a problem: people unjustly receiving charity. It’s not that this irritation came from hostility or a lack of generosity. In fact, what struck me from the letters was the sense that the writers really did want to help people – needy people, people who had fallen on hard times somehow. But mingled in that kindness was this thread of fear that in the process of helping needy people, they might somehow help people who didn’t need or deserve anything: fraudulent grifters, manipulators, cheaters, dishonest folk of the sort who would happily make off with turkeys meant for people far less well off.
They were scared that someone undeserving might be the the recipient of collateral kindness. That someone might reach out and snag an act of deliberate mercy and grace away from the person for whom it was really intended.
And isn’t that a wrong way of thinking, for believers?
Perhaps this is the part of the post where you think I will start lecturing about how it’s a myth that there are manipulators and grifters who take advantage of charity services. Perhaps you think I will try to break down to you the poverty levels in the country, and what poverty looks like, and how the concept of need can be complex and multifaceted.
I could do that, but I don’t want to do that. Instead, I’ll just say this: if we assume that the fears of those letter writers were true and that there are vast amounts of undeserving people receiving kindness and cheap turkeys in Jesus’ name…
Because here’s what the Bible says: give. Give to the needy, yes, and also to your neighbor, and to your enemy. Give. In fact, from Luke 6:30:
Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Everyone who asks you. Every single one who asks you. The answer to the “what if fraudulent jerks are taking advantage of charity meant for the poor?” question is “God wants us to be generous servants even to fraudulent jerks who take advantage of charity meant for the poor.”
To those upset letter writers, I wish I could have said this: friend, for the sake of peace I will believe the things you’ve written about are true. Maybe there are people taking advantage of charity and believers doing kindness in God’s name. But God says we have to love them and care for them, too, just as much as we do anyone else. Are you going to withhold, in God’s name, from someone who asks? Are you going to refuse, in God’s name, someone who makes a request?
If you’re worried that because of those people the food is not going to go to those who might need it more desperately, then let that simply be an encouragement to step up the giving game, to keep your eyes peeled for need and cries for help in your community. But let us not start policing our kindness, or being afraid that someone undeserving might receive it if we aim it in the wrong direction.
This isn’t a Biblical dictate, but what God’s love has taught me is this: if I am going to err, I would always, always rather err on the side of grace. I don’t think that being kind to some people who maybe don’t really need it is going to grieve His spirit, or shame Him, or make Him shake His head. But I’m afraid if I begin to police my generosity, it might.
Don’t be afraid of collateral kindness. Everyone needs an encounter or two or twenty with God’s love and grace.