Grace First

Love Without Strings

by Susan Palwick

Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, I knew a man who had once spent ten years as a homeless drug addict. By the time I met him, he’d been clean and sober for decades, and had become an extremely successful writer. He was pulling in movie deals and multi-book contracts. He bought a new cashmere sweater every week. And every time a street person asked him for money, he gave away whatever cash he had.

I was with him one day when we were approached by a beggar, filthy and smelly and clearly drugged to the gills. I didn’t give the guy a cent. My friend, as usual, emptied his pockets.

Afterwards, I said, “Aren’t you afraid he’ll just spend the money on drugs?”

My friend looked at me. “Susan,” he said gently, “I’m still alive right now because when I was an addict on the streets, people gave me money without asking me what I was going to do with it.”

I’ve been thinking about this incident a lot lately, as I watch the War Against Poverty mutate into the War Against the Poor, with blame as its deadliest weapon. “Everything you do is based on the choices you make,” says a particularly toxic Facebook meme on this subject. Individual circumstances, by this logic, are purely functions of personal choice and have nothing to do with birth, upbringing, economics, or health issues. If people are poor, it’s because they’ve made bad choices.

When I volunteered as an ER chaplain, I heard this logic from a lot of ER nurses, always about indigent patients. “Well, it’s very sad, but he chooses to live that way,” as if any child begins life with the goal of becoming a homeless alcoholic in danger of freezing to death in a snowstorm.

Every day, write down three things in your life that you did nothing to deserve. For most of us, it’s a very long list, starting with air to breathe at birth.

I hope it goes without saying that God calls us always to help the helpless. We are commanded to love our neighbors, including the poor. According to the Parable of the Nations in Matthew 25, anyone we help is Christ, who has come to us in the guise of suffering humanity. The Bible tells us repeatedly that wealthy folk who withhold their generosity from the sick and hungry should expect to trade their current luxury for the outer darkness. If you tell a beggar to go to hell, you’re the one who’ll wind up there.

But that makes generosity to the poor sound like extortion. My writer friend gave so freely not out of fear, but out of gratitude. He didn’t care if the people taking his cash deserved it. He didn’t care what bad choices they’d made. He’d made bad choices once, too. The kindness of strangers, with no strings attached, had allowed him to survive until he was ready to make better ones.

The theological term for this is grace: an unearned gift, freely given.

Whenever I hear people judging the bad choices of the poor, I want to ask them if they’ve ever made bad choices. Who among us is without sin? But that gets us back to blame again. The better question, the more gracious question, is, “What have you been given that you never earned?”

This would make a fine Lenten exercise. Every day, write down three things in your life that you did nothing to deserve. For most of us, it’s a very long list, starting with air to breathe at birth. It may include clean water, free public education, access to museums and libraries, loving families, adequate food and shelter, freedom from disease and disability. Many people don’t have these things, and many who do have received them through no personal virtue.

“I’m still alive right now because when I was a baby, people gave me what I needed to survive and be healthy without asking me what I was going to do with it.” What might the world look like if we treated adults with the same grace we wish for all children?

We find one answer in an approach to homelessness called Housing First. This philosophy maintains that housing is a universal right. It places homeless people in permanent housing and connects them to resources necessary to sustain that housing. Any issues contributing to someone’s homelessness—addiction, mental illness, “bad choices”—are addressed only once that person is safely housed.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to make good choices with a roof over your head.

Housing First. Food First. Grace First. All of us have received Grace First, freely given, by the loving hand of God. Let us go and do likewise.

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