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Columnists

Begging you pardon

Paul Vallely

VallelyThe things our children teach us. A smartly-dressed woman approached us in the street as we left the cinema the other day with a parroted rigmarole about how she needed some money for her bus fare home. I didn't give her any. Why not, asked my 11-year-old. Because I didn't believe her, I replied. She just wanted money for booze.

So why did you believe the man sitting outside the Co-op on the way into the cinema, he asked. Because he looked like he needed it; he was dirty and unshaven and looked like he lived on the streets, so I put a pound in his paper cup. So you just go on appearances, said my son witheringly.

Jesus took a different attitude.  Give to everyone who asks, Luke records him as saying in the list of imperatives that includes love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and do to others as you would have them do to you. Counsels of perfection, the medieval church called them, knowing that so many of us would fall short.

Not everyone does. One friend of mine gives to everyone who asks, however confected their tale of woe; I'd rather I was conned than that I disbelieved someone who was telling the truth, he says. Everyone has their own responses. Another refuses to give cash but offers to buy self-styled indigents a sandwich (and then lectures them on which fillings take less of a toll on the environment). Another informs beggars that he has a standing order for several homeless charities and directs them to the nearest soup kitchen. As to me, I am utterly inconsistent.

A North American called Kelly Johnson wrote a book called The Fear of Beggars a few years ago. Perhaps fear is what determines our reactions.

Begging, particularly 'aggressive begging' is against the law in many countries and such laws are on the rise. We fear being intruded upon (the man with the cup did not me ask for anything, in contrast to the 'bus-fare' woman). We fear being conned, which is why populist newspapers love 'exposés' of organised begging-rings in which people make a living from professional begging and then go back to three-bedroomed semis in the suburbs.

The truth is more banal. Begging increases in economically hard times, which suggests that it is an economic rather than a lifestyle choice. Academic surveys say that around 90 per cent of beggars are long-term unemployed and/or on benefits, around three-quarters are sleeping rough or in squats, and around a quarter are sleeping on friends' sofas or living in crisis accommodation. Most people who beg say that it makes them feel humiliated and demeaned.

Our ambivalent attitude to begging is in part a hangover from Victorian notions of the moral corruption of 'idleness' and the supposition that this, and weak social controls in response to it, lead on to more serious forms of criminality. Again there are myths here. Homeless people are no more prone to serious criminal acts than the rest of the population, though they are more likely to be arrested for minor antisocial activities. Yet is a person asking for money in the street that much more of a nuisance than someone stopping you to ask for directions - or than one of those annoying telemarketers who repeatedly intrude into our lives with unwanted phone calls at inconvenient times of the day and night?

So do beggars con us? Certainly many spend the money they are given getting boozed up. But since many beggars are hopelessly caught up in a web of homelessness, substance abuse and mental health problems, cause and effect can be hard to disentangle. And, anyway, do those who refuse to give in the street really then take the trouble to find an effective charity and donate the money refused to the beggar?

Walter Brueggemann wrote a reflection on the story of Jesus and the blind beggar. The man asks that the power of the powerful one be given, he notes, to one who has no claim except the courage to cry out. The blind beggar names and entreats Jesus. The people rebuke him, but he asks again. He will not be dismissed. He gains his voice from his hope and belief that Jesus is the Messiah. He had waited long enough for the promises which God had made even to a blind beggar - an individual who is handicapped by the powerlessness of blindness and also that of dependence.

It is the reaction of the community that is interesting here. Brueggemann points out that it wishes to perpetuate the blind beggar's powerlessness by forcing him to be quiet. We are all part of the crowd that tries to silence the groans of others because they are a threat to our position.

So the notion that beggars are an annoyance disguises a deeper sense that they are in some way a threat and a cause of fear. The voluntary beggar saints of history understood this, intuitively or intellectually, by publicly embracing what Kelly Johnson calls 'public dependent poverty as part of their attempt to live the good life.' In this sense Jesus himself - with his distinctive attitude to the poor, beggars, and to money in general - is part of a long sacramental history which goes back to the Hebrew prophets. Those who voluntarily choose to be beggars, she suggests, provide us non-beggars with the opportunity to participate in God's heavenly banquet. If we can refuse to be fearful of beggars, our eyes are opened to the kind of kingdom Jesus inaugurated.

You can know this without understanding it. There is something valuable in the human contact involved in the individual act of giving and receiving. It affirms the place of beggar and almsgiver as members of the same community, sharing in the same personal dignity. The man outside the Co-op with the paper cup gave a simpler and more eloquent account of this. As I dropped the coin in his cup he looked up with a smile that travelled to his eyes - and then travelled to mine. 

Paul Vallely