It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.
“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.
But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet.
I reflected on the injustice that pervades poverty: because I can afford to write a check for hundreds of dollars at the beginning of the month, I can afford rent, but because every cent Ron has goes to pay for tonight’s room, he can’t. Which means he and his brother wind up paying six times more for housing than I do in a month. Admittedly my rent is low at present, but let me put it this way: for the amount Ron and Jim have to fork over to their cheap motel every night of every month, they could rent my friend’s lovely apartment with hundreds to spare, or rent my parents’ whole house, if only they had all that money at once. But they never do. Then, because they have no address, important mail (like Jim’s W-2 form, which could have gotten them a few hundred in tax refunds) returns to sender, never reaching them. I brooded on this example of Terry Pratchett’s Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, which states that the rich are rich because they can afford to buy good-quality products which last longer, saving them money, while the poor are poor because they have to spend money hand over fist on stuff that falls apart. (The Boots Theory somewhat predates the worst absurd spending of the 1%.) And I brooded on the twenty in my wallet.
I decided I’d give Ron the money in a few hours, if he was still out there. Then I could be the rescuing hero at the end of the day… but that seemed awfully selfish. Besides, I was really hoping that he’d find the money somewhere else, and I could keep mine. Somebody else’s problem.
But that twenty was still in my wallet, and I couldn’t bear to think of him standing, hunched, cold, rained on, for hours longer.
I thought, “I could go give it to him right now.”
Then something interesting happened: my training kicked in.
My capitalist training, that is: my middle-class upbringing. “You can’t give him that money,” a voice said in my head. “You need that. It’s yours.”
I need it more than Ron? That’s rich. Giving him the twenty would probably triple the money he had, whereas I’ve got thousands of dollars saved in the bank already. But it’s not a surprising thought, is it? I was taught from birth to save: save up for a coveted Lego set. Save up for a trip to Boston. Save up for gas money, for a car, save up for college, for anything, for later. Who knows if you’ll need it tomorrow? Plan ahead. Save up. Not all people have this training, but I’d expect that ninety-nine out of every hundred Americans, middle-class or otherwise, were taught “Your money is yours, and you get whatever you want to buy with it!” Yours again being the critical word; after hearing that enough, Americans start saying Mine early, and most never stop.
I was also taught that the poor are poor because they aren’t smart with money. They give away every windfall they get, spend it on family and friends, blow it on the trappings of status rather than saving to get ahead, to get the actual status. Never mind that most people are trapped by the Boots Theory, trapped like Ron, their money pouring out to pay the debts incurred by simple poverty faster than any windfall flows in: according to conventional wisdom, it’s their own fault that they are poor. “They don’t save money, so they don’t deserve money. They are fools.” So said my training. If I gave away my twenty dollars, it added, I’d be just as much a fool.
But the twenty was still in my wallet. And Ron was still in the rain.
“You’ll look silly,” my training said, getting more desperate. “Running back out into this weather? You’ll stand out, you’ll look strange. And for what? To give up money that you need? Never mind the thousands in the bank! They got there because you didn’t pull damn fool stunts like this!”
But I couldn’t take it any more. “All right, then,” I thought fiercely, “I’ll go to capitalist hell.”
I pulled on my sweatshirt and ran back down to where Ron stood.
“I couldn’t bear it,” I told him, giving him the twenty. “You standing out here in the rain. And ain’t I a Christian?”
And apparently I am. I’ve never been sure, you see. “Mostly Christian” is how I’ve usually been calling myself, because of my doubts. Doubts about the established churches, doubts about the Bible, doubts about the existence of God.
Plus I’ve always been uneasy about the bargaining model of Christian salvation. Frankly, it reeks of capitalism. The capitalist model says, “Give to get back: invest, then enjoy the profits.” The church model says, “Give in this live to get back in the next: a delayed reward.” Which seems selfish to me. I once gave ten dollars to a man begging for money, his children playing nearby, and he called out to me as I walked away, “Treasure in heaven to you!” Now, I’ll take any blessing, but I didn’t stop and give him money to earn myself treasure after I die; I stopped so that his kids would eat that night. I stopped because I thought it was the right thing to do, and rewards didn’t enter into it. The churches cry, “Save your soul!” and I reply, “But I thought we should think of others first.” Ever since Joe Hill’s “Pie in the Sky,” I’ve been dubious of pastors’ promises for the next world.
But it seems I’m a Christian, because working against my capitalist training were a few bits and snatches of Christ’s words―not from his priests but from the Nazarene himself: “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me.” “Do not worry about tomorrow.”
I think you can be both capitalist and Christian, but I don’t think you can be good at both. Either you’re a good capitalist, investing to your profit, and giving nothing without getting something back… or you’re a good Christian and you give to anyone who asks, to anyone who needs it, expecting nothing back on this side of death. This was what Jesus meant. You can make your wealth serve your faith or you can make your faith serve your wealth, but not both.
(This is also why Jesus taught us to keep our charity so secret that even our left hand doesn’t know what’s going on. I’ve tried to follow that by not keeping track of the money I give away; I honestly have no idea how much I’ve donated or handed out by now, and I don’t want to know. I’m violating Jesus’s command right now, of course; in fact I wrestled with writing this whole essay, as it’s a story about me giving money away. But I felt the story was important for teaching reasons. I hope I’m right.)
Giving Ron the money was my altar call. This was when I came to Jesus. I had a street corner for my altar and rain for my baptism. Some may object to this for procedural reasons; some don’t think I can be Christian until I’ve jumped through the hoops they were trained to jump, and with due cause. But my call to Christ was no different than theirs, for Christ’s the one who called me; the rituals and rites are the broad fringes, not the cloth. For the altar see Exodus 20:24, and for the baptism see Matthew 3:11. If anyone calls me out for my unorthodoxy… well. You came to Jesus and confessed your belief so he will save you? I’m fine with that. But Jesus called me to help other people, right here, right now, no salvation involved. If the Lord gave us different marching orders, who are you and I to judge him?
I don’t give two hoots about salvation. I don’t care about my soul. I have little hope of reaching heaven and little fear of hell. I see heaven and hell right here on earth―hell for the billions and heaven for a few! And I see, in the words that Jesus taught us, the pathway to paradise for all in this life, not the next. I see the kingdom of heaven in every city and in every field, now and forever. That’s the salvation I work for. That’s why I’m a Christian. That’s why I was called.
And if all this makes me a fool, if all this damns me… all right, then. I’ll go to hell.