Decisions, Decisions – by Cindy Bourgeois
Spirited Reflection – Sunday, March 16
Rev. Cindy Bourgeois is currently serving Wesley United Church in Regina where, with God and in community, she hopes to participate in the co-creation of the full realization of the Basilea Theou.
A few years ago I ran into Josh, whom I knew to be homeless. I met Josh at the free dinners hosted by my church. We chatted for a bit and when we were about to part he hit me up for a couple of bucks, saying, “Can you spare a toonie? I’m two dollars away from a bottle of wine!” As the words left his mouth he realized this wasn’t the best way to panhandle from a minister. So he added quickly, “I’ve been off the wash for 18 days!”
Periodically, people question the ethics of giving to panhandlers for fear they will spend it on wine like my friend Josh. They say it is better to buy them food or give the money to a shelter or a soup kitchen. The subtext is that impoverished people aren’t making good decisions and we shouldn’t support these poor decisions. But are poor people’s decisions really the problem? What about the decisions rich people make? Perhaps the story of the rich young man and Jesus might shed light on these questions.
The story goes that a rich young man ran up to Jesus and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?” Jesus said, “Don’t steal, don’t kill anyone, tell the truth. You know, just follow the commandments.” The rich young man replied, “I already do all that.” So Jesus looked at him and loved him and said, “There is one more thing you need. Give all your money to the poor and come and follow me.” The young man went home very sad because he was very rich.
The story of rich young man problematizes the notion that Josh’s decisions led him into poverty. The reason people are poor isn’t because of their bad decisions. Our economic and political systems are predicated on there being poor people. We could organize our society such that poverty is eliminated. Policies such as a guaranteed income and a progressive affordable housing strategy are what will lift Josh out of poverty, not “better” decisions on his part. We have to address the unjust structures of our world.
This is what Jesus proclaimed when he proclaimed the Basilea Theou, so often translated as the kingdom of God. He was contrasting the oppressive structures of the kingdom of Caesar with what he called the kingdom of God which is based on love and justice. Jesus was proclaiming a new way of organizing our world that brings good news to the poor, liberty to captives, and to let the oppressed go free. Jesus’ prophetic message calls for changing our underlying structures to create a more equitable world.
Even when we confess that Josh’s poverty is based on our corporate decisions and not his personal decisions, some say that it would be better to give the two dollars to a shelter or a soup kitchen. However, the choice between sharing two dollars with Josh or giving it to a shelter is a canard. Giving two dollars to Joshua doesn’t prevent me supporting a shelter. In fact, I am way more likely to spend Josh’s two dollars on a cup of coffee. Even if that coffee was fairly traded and not produced using child labour the amount of fossil fuel it took to get to my lips caused a lot of damage to the earth. I can’t completely escape the empire any more than Josh can but at least I have a safe, warm bed at night.
Still, some question the wisdom of giving Josh two dollars for a bottle of wine. How is getting drunk a good decision? In fact, helping Josh buy a bottle of wine is practicing harm reduction. When Josh told me that he was “off the wash” he meant that he hadn’t drunk mouthwash for 18 days. Getting high from drinking mouthwash is exponentially more harmful than wine. Buying a bottle of wine is actually a better decision. By helping Josh buy a bottle of wine I was helping him reduce the harm he was exposed to that day.
Making decisions in the midst of systemic inequality is difficult. But it is clear that the rich young man made the wrong one because after he went home Jesus told the disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples couldn’t believe it. “Who then can be saved,” they cried? Jesus told them, “With God, anything is possible.” With God, we can make decisions that will lift Josh out of poverty. With God, we can make decisions that will end child labor. With God, we can make decisions that will allow the rich young man to enter the kingdom of God. Because with God, all things are possible.