*** Larger principles underpin Pope’s beggar belief

8/3/17; Home / Vol 27 No 4/ Andrew Hamilton
We often find ourselves invited to respond to people who ask us for money on the street. Beggars, homeless people, buskers and charity collectors, and so on.
We can respond in different ways: give them something, decline as a matter of course, decline as a matter of principle, not notice them, establish a set of principles that dictates to whom we shall give or refuse, keep a few coins to give to people who ask, intend to give coins only to discover that we have only notes, or act randomly depending on how we feel.
The most common principles that may lead us to decline have to do with the probability that what we give will feed addiction, and that other people will have to deal with its human, social and environmental consequences.
Whether we give or decline, we then have the choice of looking in the eye the people who ask us and so making our response personal, of entering into conversation with them, or of giving our money almost furtively with eyes lowered. When we walk on we can think no more about the encounter or we can wonder if we have done rightly and chat with friends about how best to respond.
Last week Pope Francis entered the conversation, as always with a challenging point of view. In an interview for what would once have been thought a decidedly unpapal forum — Scarp de ‘tenis, the Italian equivalent of the Big Issue — he recommended always giving coins to people who ask for money on the street.
Dismissing the most common reason offered for refusal — that the money will only be spent on alcohol or other drugs — he asked how we spend our own surplus money.
He added that the most important part of giving to the poor is to engage the recipient personally and to enter imaginatively into their situation. He also spoke of the duty of society to provide for shelter and the basic needs of all its members, and to make migrants and refugees welcome.
Francis’ advice recalled the legendary Melbourne Archbishop Mannnix’s practice of walking into the city each morning and giving coins to people who asked.
“Any principles that shift our attention away from the human being before us are evasions of responsibility. It is dehumanising for us as well as for the person who begs from us.”
To many it will seem to be too categorical. The more interesting point, however, is what underlies his dismissal of principled reasons that permit you to pass by without responding to the person who asks. Our principles leave us in control, with an unbridgeable gap between ourselves and the persons who beg.
The Pope’s line echoed a pithier line from a priest who told how a dishevelled man had come up and asked him for money. He said, ‘I thought that if I gave it to him he would only spend it on grog. But then I thought that if I kept it, I would only spend it on grog. So I gave it to him.’
The humour of the story makes the serious point that we all have one skin, and that the implicit difference between us and them is trivial compared to our shared human dignity and frailty. Furthermore, any principles that shift our attention away from the human being before us are evasions of responsibility. It is dehumanising for us as well as for the person who begs from us. We must constantly renegotiate our principles about people through uncontrolled encounters with the persons themselves.
That is true of the principles that form our personal policies. It is also pertinent to public policy that affects the vulnerable: homeless people, people seeking protection, and disadvantaged young people in the justice system. It is easy to look at the big picture, at the economic and political situation, at the need to allay public disquiet, and to impose a solution. This is then left to the officers of government to administer by implementing the principles inherent in the policy. Asylum seekers are to be deterred, young offenders to be locked up and the homeless kept out of sight.
Of course governments and their officers will also want polices to be administered correctly and humanely. The problem is that humanity and correctness are defined within the limits of that policy, not negotiated through meeting the people affected by it. If the policy itself is inhumane, the great human suffering and alienation that result from it will be seen as by definition acceptable. Policy will have then made invisible the harsh reality of people’s lives and its causes.
As has so often been the case, Francis’ throwaway lines about giving money to those who ask us illuminate much larger social issues.


Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.