Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Christian hypocricy

Let’s talk about the Strib’s Katherine Kersten’s latest column “The future of downtown is threatened by beggars.”

Columnists have relative freedom on the subjects they wish to comment on. Sometimes they express their views not so much in explicitly stated opinions, but in the stories they focus on or the people they interview.

It’s quite obvious from the tone and subject matter in this column that Kersten is sympathetic to the view of people who want to remove beggars from downtown Minneapolis. You can tell because she talks to specific people with this view (Sam Grabarski, Paul Ostrow, and George Kelling) and presents their statements. She doesn’t talk to people with a different view: she merely calls them “opponents.” You can also tell the writer's view with word choice: in Kersten's column, beggars "accost" people, try to "extort money;" other people are "harassed" by beggars, and "feel captive to importuning beggars." Homeless beggars are the threat in such word choice, and non-homeless people--the people Kersten is obviously sympathetic to in this column--are the victims.

We can assume that the ideas she’s presenting, then, are hers, even if somebody else is actually providing the ideas. She’s the one talking to these people and writing a column about what they say: she’s making the choice to present this viewpoint.

Now, one can expect a conservative columnist to condemn beggars and homeless people, and to put the interests of the use of downtown by the affluent and middle class above those of a poor beggar. In Kersten's column, panhandlers are a "nuisance" and threaten "the quality of life" of downtown (quality of life for people who aren't homeless beggars, obviously--I'm not sure Kersten cares about their quality of life at all). But Kersten is also a writer that frequently champions the cause of religion in social issues and human life (at least, she seems to here, here, here, here, and here. Well, at least Christianity--she's not quite so pleased with Muslim practice in public life, as you can see here or here).

As a columnist so interested in the interests of Christianity in society, I wonder if she’s familiar with Jesus’s statements on poor people?

In the gospels, Jesus repeated tells listeners to give to the poor, to help the needy, to not turn away from those that ask of you. Again and again, he tells us that the godly help the poor. Somebody asks you for something? Give it to him or her. Would Jesus tell us that the beggars should be removed from a downtown area for any reason? Would Jesus recommend stricter laws to remove beggars from public areas? How would Jesus respond to this?:

“In Minneapolis, a recent survey confirmed that panhandlers often use donations to buy drugs and alcohol, says Ostrow. Giving to them might seem compassionate, he says, but it frequently just encourages self-destructive behavior.”

I don’t recall Jesus saying “If a beggar asks for money, don’t give it to him because he might use it for drugs or alcohol.” Jesus didn’t put qualifiers on anything: he said that if poor people ask anything of you, you should give. He told many parables about helping the needy among us. He never qualified. He commanded we help the poor. He never talked about being "accosted" or "harassed" by beggars; he never suggested beggars "extort" from you or make you feel unjustly "captive."

Katherine Kersten, do you agree with what Jesus said, that we should give to beggars? Or do you agree with laws to remove this “nuisance”? Do you think Jesus was telling us the truth when he told us the poor are blessed or criticized those who ignore the needs of the poor? Or do you agree with “the proposed rules [that] would ban panhandling at night, along with verbal solicitation of money within 10 feet of a crosswalk, where people feel captive to importuning beggars”?

In "John Donne the Divine and Mundane," Yoshiko Fujito says of John Donne, a brilliant poet and also an Anglican preacher, "Donne's violent dislike of beggars and vagabonds is well known [...] His eyes were always directed toward the upper stratum of society, nobility, and Court. Conversely he violently disliked beggars and vagabonds [...] This attitude may appear to clash with Christian teachings, but shows his absorption in himself..."


  1. Anyone who writes, "Canada, our neighbor to the north," can't have to much respect for their readers. Oh! You mean that Canada.

  2. Maybe she should be praised for not mixing religous teaching with public policy. Or isn't the church/state divide important here? You're not suggesting that Kersten only give us policy that Jesus would have supported, are you?
    I'm also curious if you have any thoughts on the impact of panhandling in the downtown area. I don't work there anymore, but when I did it was at least a nuisance. I can see where it would be a problem late at night and I can certainly see where people would choose to avoid it all together by shopping elsewhere. That's a real problem for a commercial area, isn't it?

  3. But in many other areas, she doesn't seem to mind mixing religious teaching with public policy--that's why I see hypocrisy.

    And something about the tone and subject bothers me: somebody that so frequently champions Christianity in public life basically shows no concern for the poor at all. Her concern is in how the poor bother the rest of us, and that doesn't seem to be consistent with what Jesus taught.

    Beggars have never bothered me. If I see them and I have any cash, I share it. I've never felt bothered or threatened. And besides, am I really going to complain about a "nuisance" when there is somebody standing in front of me WITHOUT A FREAKING HOME! I can deal with a "nuisance"--I'm quite certain that the homeless person's suffering is much greater than any "nuisance" to me.

  4. PV, I still don't see the hypocrisy. If she was saying nothing should be done about for the poor, then I'd agree with you. Her argument is more narrow, that aggresive begging is turning people away from downtown. That may say bad things about the people of Mpls, but that isn't hypocrisy. I don't think the point about fearing loose change will go towards drugs or alcohol is non-Christian at all.
    And let me be clear about my 'nuisance' point. The nuisance wouldn't have kept me away from downtown, because that's not a big enough reason. The safety issue would though. Being challenged late at night can be a scary thing, especially if it's by a group and/or they're bigger than you. I imagine the problem is worse for women. That's something that downtown has to grapple with.

  5. Her article shows little to no concern for the homeless at all. The point of view presented is exclusively in terms of people "accosted" by the homeless. She could go talk to some of these beggars. She could talk to somebody sympathetic to these beggars. She doesn't. She is presenting the view that these people need to be limited, curtailed, and removed.

    She also presents no evidence that people are staying away from downtown because of it: she just says it might happen. Is there evidence people are avoiding downtown because of beggars? If there is, she should present it: it might give her a better argument. She presents the worst cases of beggars actually accosting people as evidence this law is necessary, but Cam Gordon says, these activities are already illegal.

    She is demonizing beggars, presenting them as victimizers of everybody else. That's a pretty awful thing to do--and in my mind, an anti-Christian thing to do. Does she care about that? I don't know. I'd like to hear what she thinks about Jesus' commands to care for poor people.

    Here's the gist: Christians are commanded by Jesus to give to and care for poor people. Kersten writes a column demonizing beggars and saying we need stronger laws to limit their ability to beg. She shows no sympathy for the beggars--she doesn't even try to present their possibility.

    The idea that "you shouldn't give money to beggars because they'll buy drugs and alcohol" is middle class moralizing. Did you notice how it is presented? A "recent survey" (no specifics, no detals) confirms that beggars "often" use the money for drugs/alcohol (what does "often" mean? The majority of beggars do? Some beggars do? Some beggars do sometmes?). There's no actual evidence.

    And furthermore, personally, I DON'T CARE. Jesus didn't tell me to ask beggars what they might use the money for; he told me to give to those in need.

    I can understand the safety issue, and I can understand limitations at night. But within ten feet of crosswalks? To prevent a "nuisance" where people supposedly "feel captive"? That's just demonizing the poor. It's classic "we v. they" reasoning: she sees the beggars as "they," and anybody who is not a beggar as "we." Such a law shows utterly no sympathy for the plight of these beggars whatsoever.

    Kersten often writes about Christianity in public life. I simply want her to explain how laws curtailing beggars fits into Christian teaching. I'm a strong advocate for separation of church and state, though I recognize that peoples' religious principles also impact/influence their political principles (as they do for me).

    I just want to know how Kersten feels about Christ's command to give to the poor, and how this law fits, and how this column, fits into that command.

  6. Let me clarify two points.

    When I say demonization of the poor is anti-Christian, I'm basing it on my reading of the gospels. Sadly, demonization of the poor has a long history within Christianity, from the Calvinist Puritans to Jonne Donne the Anglican minister and to a lot else.

    When I say the drugs/alcohol excuse is "middle class moralizing," that's too vague. Let me clarify: it's an excuse. We don't know what the beggar is going to use the money for, so as an excuse not to help, we justify it by saying, "Well, they'd use it for booze anyway." So we refuse to help somebody in need because that person MIGHT use that money for more self-destructive behavior. Might.

    Kersten may think she's presenting evidence to show that in fact you really shouldn't give money to beggars because they'll use it for drugs/alcohol. But she's not: she presents vague data. "A recent survey" means little if we don't know more details." Saying beggars "often" use the money for drugs and alcohol proves nothing. How often? What does that mean? All we have is a "recent survey" saying beggars "often" spend money on drugs/alcohol. That "often" could still be a minority of beggars and a small use of money. So I see that as an excuse to ignore the plight of a homeless person because he/she "might" use the money for something bad.

    And again, Christ didn't say to ask. He just said to give.

  7. I'm not trying to claim to be a good Christian or a good person; it is not mock humility when I say I believe myself to be neither. I try, but I know I fail.

    But here are the two primary moral principles I got from reading the gospels.

    You must forgive those that do bad to you.

    You must try to help those in need.

    So I react strongly when I feel these principles are ignored by Christians.

    One more comment on that vague survey reference: for all we know, the survey also said beggars usually use money for food. I've been trying to find some surveys myself.

    A survey in the Winnipeg Free Press found 93% of surveyed panhandlers spend money on food, while 41% spend money on alcohol.

    A survey by a research team in Toronto found food to be the number one expense, and claimed money for alcohol was a significant expense, but "but much lower than some have suggested."

    I can still dig around for American surveys. I'm just saying Kersten's presentation of a "recent survey" saying panhandlers "often" spend money on alcohol/drugs is vague (and if people think "often" means "the majority of the time," it may be a misrepresentation). It's the sort of argument used to convince people not to give money to panhandlers and to support laws limiting panhandlers: it doesn't present the facts more thoroughly.