Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Original Human Dilemma

I bought a man McDonald's while in Atlanta. He'd wandered up to me in a dirty white t-shirt and carrying an umbrella, his scraggily greying beard giving a little extra length to his chin. Here I was at a church conference where I'd been hearing about justice for the poor while I and my fellow delegates pretended to ignore the poor right in front of our faces as they asked for loose change. The man was hungry, and he'd approached me. Quick decision: let's go get a sandwich.

This was one of the more pleasant encounters I'd had with Atlanta's homeless. Actually, only one could really be counted as unpleasant to any degree. A man professing to be a preacher wandered up to me in the CNN Center food court and asked for some money for food. Having become more thrifty throughout the week (if thrifty is the appropriate term in this instance), I'd begun stuffing extra fruit or bagels in my backpack from my Conference's morning meetings. 'I have two apples here. Would you like them?' 'Well, actually I need money for transportation.' 'Well, that's all I've got for you right now.' As that last sentence was coming out of my mouth, he was already moving on to seek out a more receptive patron. A few days later I'd see him again as he was sitting down with whomever had taken him to one of the court's eateries. We locked eyes for just a split second before I turned my attention back to my own table.

The ambiguity that accompanied both of these situations would remain with me long after I'd parted ways with their principle characters. In the former, he'd be hungry again, and a greasy fish sandwich wasn't what he should have been eating in the first place. In the latter, he probably was really hungry, but didn't want what I had (I refrain here from referring to a relevant yet tritely cruel cliche). Would my simply giving either of them money have been enough, or, could more have been done?

Borg cites a piece of wisdom that I actually heard for the first time while at Synod: 'Give a bit of food to the hungry and they'll call you a saint. Ask why the people are hungry and they'll call you a communist.' He differentiates between charity and justice. He'd designate what I tried to do with the passers-by in Atlanta as charity. However, if I had tried to raise greater awareness, entered into economic debate, sought legislative change, or something similar, it would have been seeking justice. Of course, I wasn't in Atlanta long enough to do anything that extensive, so charity was appropriate action for me.

Can people take advantage of charity? Sure. I'd imagine that's why so many people are quicker to cross to the other side of the street than be approached by my scraggily bearded friend. They've either been burned before, or heard enough stories from others that they 'know better,' or have come up with another explanation entirely.

Can people take advantage of justice? What a much more interesting question. Can a situation truly be called just if one has somehow taken advantage of justice? For justice to be present, exploitation is absent. The two have been in some rough fistfights, and only one gets to be king of the hill at any one moment. How is a system designed to be just, when it is successfully manipulated, still just? Or, can that system remain just while individual cases of manipulation are prosecuted? For my own part, there is never a point when one can say, 'Here, now we have justice. We're done. Thanks everyone. Last one out, turn off the lights.' In said individual cases this may happen, but on a global scale, we should be so lucky.

In our ambiguous, less-than-just world, there is no rest. There is no easily towed line. There are no laurels to give us complete serenity. An act of charity might bring temporary satisfaction, but stomachs the world over keep growling and will growl again. Shall we dare to ask why?