Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What Would You Do?

What would you do if you witnessed poverty and injustice firsthand? Would you look the other way? Would you kick someone while they're down? Would you laugh at their misfortune? Or would you be moved to compassion and stand up for what's right? This was the question posed in a segment last Friday on ABC's program, "What Would You Do?"

When you first hear the question, I hope your initial response is that you would step in to help, but the point of the show is to place people unexpectedly in situations and see what they would really do. The show asks unwitting people to give not a hypothetical answer, but a practical one. The scenario is that a Good Samaritan brings a homeless man into a restaurant, seats him at the bar, gives him $20 to buy a meal and then leaves, but the bartender refuses to serve the man and even confiscates his money. While the homeless man, the Good Samaritan and the bartender are all actors, the people seated nearby are not. As the scene is played out over and over again, the question is: if you were sitting next to the homeless man, what would you do? The answers may surprise you.

For those who missed it, here's the segment I'm talking about:

Last Friday, when I first watched the episode, I was moved to tears. Watching it again online, I was moved to tears again. It's hard for me to understand how heartless some people seem to be. While the segment happily concludes that "almost half of the people we met this day" stood up for the man who was being mistreated, that means more than half did not, and to me that's an incredibly sad fact.

The show doesn't report whether or not each of the patrons were Christians, but I was surprised by one in particular. Anthony Gambino wore a cross necklace boldly outside his T-shirt, yet he laughed and made jokes at the expense of the homeless man. I was so thankful when he suddenly had a change of heart (did the cross have anything to do with that?) and took food to the man after he was kicked out.

For me, this is a reminder that just because we call ourselves Christians, that doesn't mean we always do the Christian thing. In separate conversations with two of my Christian friends recently, I was shocked when each told me in essence that they had no compassion for the homeless. One used those exact words, "I have no compassion for the homeless." (!) Like the bartender in the segment, they basically said that they feel homeless people are getting what they deserve because they must have wasted their money on drugs or alcohol. In their minds, it was pointless to try to help these people because they'll only waste what you give them on their next high.

What does the Bible say about it? Consider this:

"The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all."
- Proverbs 22:2

God created us all, and he loves us all. Jesus didn't die for the wealthy only, but for everyone (John 3:16). God's love is shown in the Old Testament, where he commanded his people to provide for the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7; Leviticus 19:9-10). And in the New Testament, Jesus continues to push the point:

"Give to everyone who begs from you, 
and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."
- Matthew 5:42

In fact, while on earth, Jesus identified himself with the poor, spending his youth among the working class and then becoming homeless during the time of his ministry (Matthew 8:20). Hebrews 13:2 makes the case for hospitality by saying, "some have entertained angels without knowing it," but Jesus makes an even stronger case in Matthew 25, where he claims that when we help or neglect those who are in need, we are in essence doing the same to him. As I said a few weeks ago, God expects us to get involved when people are hurting.

The Bible doesn't say we should help only friends and family. It doesn't call us to give assistance only to those who live up to our criteria. It doesn't tell us to screen people first or to rule them out based on how they look or dress or smell or talk. It tells us to give.

Now, maybe you give someone food or gas instead of giving them money if you think they won't spend it wisely, but maybe not. What would happen if you gave someone money and they spent it on the wrong thing? Whose fault is it that they spent it on what they spent it on? Is it your fault? Or is it theirs? In the segment, Arnie Gerber rightly points out that when we give to people, they may spend it on drugs or alcohol, but that doesn't mean it's right to steal from them - or to refuse to give them in the first place. What they spend the money on is between them and God - they will answer to him for it - but whether we give, neglect, or steal from them is between us and God. We have a responsibility to give generously in good faith, and when we do, God is pleased.

"Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor."
- Proverbs 22:9

Another good point is raised in the clip when Jeremy tells Anthony the reason he dislikes the homeless:

Jeremy: "How did he end up here? He wasted his money."
Anthony: "Well, I mean, we don't know that. We don't know that."

The truth is we don't know how that random stranger on the street got where he is. And even if we do know, does that really make a difference? As Arnie pointed out:
"All of us have had bad times... You've never been in bad shape? You've never needed help? You've never had anything happen to you that you wish didn't, or you wish you could get out of? We don't know what...happened to this poor guy!"
In American politics, lately, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the government should offer assistance to those who are down on their luck, to what extent that assistance should be available and who should be entitled to receive it. The debate is fueled in part by a recent study that shows that over 100 million Americans receive some form of welfare (not counting Social Security and Medicare). This is not helped by the current state of the economy and the high unemployment rate.

On the one hand, I agree that too many people abuse of the system, so reform may be necessary. But on the other hand, as our show illustrates, people are more than statistics. Real lives are at stake, and when people are in need, it's not enough to be hypothetical. It's not enough to pray for someone and wish them well; we have to do something about it (James 2:14-17).

Whether you think the government has a responsibility to those who fall on hard times or not, the Church does have a responsibility, and we as individuals do, too. As the story of the Good Samaritan shows, God expects us all to show mercy to those who are downtrodden or treated unjustly (Luke 10:25-37).

Our God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), but Biblical justice is about more than just punishing wrongdoers for their crimes: it's about treating everyone with fairness and dignity (Exodus 23:1-9). In our quest to become more godly, we should be loving toward all people because God loves all people. We should give freely to the poor because we have received God's blessings for ourselves. And we should stand up for those who are mistreated for the sake of what is just (Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3).

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?"
- Micah 6:8

Questions to consider:
What are you doing to fight injustice? Do you turn a blind eye? Or do you get involved?

Does your heart break for the poor and the homeless? What can you do about it?

Are you doing enough? What keeps you from doing more?

If you were confronted with a situation like the one on TV, What Would You Do?

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Please comment on this post. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Is there something I left out or should have covered? Was something confusing? I want to know what you think!