Thursday, February 15, 2007

Panhandling Ban in Kansas City?

There’s a Kansas City council member named John Fairfield (also a Kansas City mayoral candidate, but who isn’t?) who wants to ban “panhandling” in four specific areas of our city. Here’s the article (login required).

Panhandling is broadly defined in the proposal, and would include “any request for money by voice, music, singing or other street performance,” according to the article. This has some musicians and other performance artists riled up, and apparently there was quite a show at the most recent city council meeting as some protested the proposal by performing for council members.

But street performers aside, a deeper question we ought to be asking has to do with the people who aren’t juggling or doing balloon animals or playing their saxophone. Those who are there just sitting, hand held out, their life’s circumstances having driven them to desperation. It is a desperate life that is lived begging for help on the street, no matter what it was that got you there in the first place. Do we really want to consider street folks criminals and run them off, just to make our shopping experience more comfortable?

Some people are quick to pass judgment on people of the street, certain that it must be their own fault somehow, that they must be lazy, that they made bad choices and are now just suffering the consequences of those choices so let them suffer, that they actually prefer to live this lifestyle, or some other such rationalizations. What sucks is that some of those people passing judgment are Christians who claim to be followers of Jesus, the one who says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30, NRSV)

Maybe I’m missing something, but that seems pretty clear to me. I don’t know if John Fairfield, running for mayor and wanting to make a name for himself, is a Christian or not. In fact, I don’t know anything about him. But I think his proposal reflects the worst part of our society, the part that wants to go shopping and be entertained and eat at fancy restaurants without any pesky reminders that some people can’t do those things. What purpose does banning panhandlers serve other than a desire for antiseptic, insulated, isolationist denial of reality? “If they’re not there, we can pretend they don’t exist!”



William Timothy said...

Two quick responses:

1) You haven't been around too much if you don't realize that "pan-handling" is more than a nuisance. Many of the homeless are mentally distrubed. Given, not all, but many. It is a scary thing to be alone and approached by a stranger who makes demands of you that you surrender your change over to them. (Actually, due to inflation, the usual request now is a dollar. "You got a dollar! C'mon give me a dollar!") Factor in a high chance that that person is mentally ill, makes for a very scary situation. It is most unfair for you to say people who don't want to experience that are looking for a "antiseptic, insulated, isolationist denial of reality." My wife was very nearly abducted by a panhandler. (She had been separated from her group.)

2) If you are a follower of Jesus Christ and/or you are interested in the welfare and well-being of a homeless street person, you most certainly do not want to give them cash money. There is too great a chance that the money will go to substance or alcohol abuse. One thing I have learned spending time in social ministry (something my father who spent his career in law enforcement told me when I would listen) even if you limit your assistance to food only or other non-cash assistance, this will often only free up their cash to pay for such abuses.

A true concern for the welfare and ministry for those concerned involves working with them. Building and supporting social ministries that can provide long term help. That is what a follower of Jesus Christ would do, not feel a prick of the conscience when you see a panhandler and walk away from them after dropping a five spot on them thinking you did what Jesus did.

A little less of jump to call judgement call of hypocrisy would be most welcome, please.

Furthermore, it is a bit unseemly for a pastor to be calling out a member of his community by name.

Andy B. said...

William, I'm certainly not claiming that discipleship is not going to be scary or involve risks. Nor will speaking on behalf of God's justice always be "seemly". (Jesus was most definitely not concerned with seemliness.)
However, I concur wholeheartedly with you that ministry involves nurturing relationships more than just "dropping a five spot," to use your eloquent phrase. That actually goes to my point - Criminalizing panhandling does nothing to nurture those relationships, in my opinion.
Thanks for your comment.

William Timothy said...

I'm specifically referring to the "seemly-ness" of calling out a person by name. Is it a practice of your ministry to publicly denounce people by name? Ascribing to them the very worst of human behavior? How can you ever hope to be in ministry to Mr. Fairfield? Or have you dismissed the very possibility? Scripture limits this to just a few many claim the prophetic role and arrogance and self-righteousness.

I invite you to address my first point a little more directly. It's fine for you to make a decision on the behalf of your family as to what level of security and risk you will allow for them (in the name of discipling), but is it just for you to make that decision for mine? Where is the care and concern for those who are weak and vulnerable but aren't pan handlers?

Also, please care to explain why weeding out the practice of accosting strangers and asking for money is an unrighteous act? If you really cared for these people you wouldn't encourage that activity. You shouldn't support enabling substance abuse. You wouldn't support endangering people whom you have imputed an "antiseptic, insulated, isolated denial of reality."

Anonymous said...

"...why weeding out the practice of accosting strangers and asking for money is an unrighteous act?"

Will, thank you for your brilliant, well reasoned posts and excellent question.

FWIW, after reading the referenced article, restricting the times and places to panhandle is far different than "criminalizing" the practice of panhandling.

Dark Gable

John said...

Maybe I’m missing something, but that seems pretty clear to me. I don’t know if John Fairfield, running for mayor and wanting to make a name for himself, is a Christian or not. In fact, I don’t know anything about him. But I think his proposal reflects the worst part of our society, the part that wants to go shopping and be entertained and eat at fancy restaurants without any pesky reminders that some people can’t do those things.

That reminds me of the sweeps of downtown Jacksonville for homeless people before the SuperBowl arrived a couple of years ago -- a concerted effort to make the city look more appealing by treating homeless human beings like trash to be picked up and thrown away. It is a cold and heartless effort.

Andy B. said...

Wait a minute ... something must be wrong - it sounded like John and I are almost agreeing about something. ;)

William, Sounds like we agree, one's level of concern for people in need and mode of response to those needs is a personal decision, and different people respond differently. Judging from your comments, you and I would respond differently.

I think the original post addressed my answer to your final question - "Give to everyone who begs from you," is an unambiguous teaching uttered by Jesus himself.

Thanks for the conversation.

William Timothy said...

Wow. The response of a literalist. Never thought you would be a fundamentalist.

A more thoughtful interpretation of Jesus' command could be, "When someone is in need and asks for help, give them that help."

But I guess of a crack-head needed money for his next hit, they know that they can go to Andy B.'s church. He'll help them get their next hit.

Again I ask, have you forsaken the possibility of being in ministry with Mr. Fairfield by choosing to name and shame him?

And have you taken on the "prophetic" role of decided what level of risk for my family is appropriate based on your own standard of righteousness?

Are you unwilling to communicate how weeding out the practice of accosting strangers and demanding money of them is an unrighteous act?

Or do you wish to end this conversation?

scooterj said...

Some of the panhandlers are "professionals" who earn more money panhandling than most people with real jobs, own their own homes, and drive their own cars to their favorite panhandling spots. Most of the rest spend the money you give them on crack and booze. Giving them money makes things worse. Shooing them off to the shelters is the best thing that can be done for them. Anyone who gives them money is part of the problem.

Andy B. said...

Dear William, I would love to continue the conversation. Please make your blogger profile available so that I will know a little more about you. Thanks.

William Timothy said...

Goodness gracious. Let me identify myself. This is Tim Sisk, frequent commenter, on this blog, and semi-lapsed Methodist Blogger. I by know means intended to be “anonymous”. I haven’t made the change to the blogger 2 registration system, so I have been utilizing my gmail account to login and make comments the last week. I assumed that my email address was made known to the blog owner, so I thought all along Andy knew it was me since my gmail account is my last name dot my first name. I didn’t correct Andy and others from calling me William because I was very focused on some specific objections to Andy’s post. Objections that haven’t really been responded to, I might add.

I’m not really sure in the end why it matters whether Andy or anyone else “knows” who I am. My comments were far from “troll-like”. While they were pointed and strongly made, my intention was to provoke Andy to defend what I found to be a very unfair and un-pastoral post. They were written in the spirit of collegiality, as one elder to an aspiring elder in the United Methodist connection. Had Andy been laity or of another denomination, I probably wouldn’t have commented, feeling little claim or right to do so. This whole point honestly feels like Andy just wants to avoid answering my questions. Especially since you have the ability to block anonymous comments. True, my profile hadn’t been made public. But if it mattered that you know who is commenting before this post, why allow anonymous comments to begin with?

I have two primary objections to Andy’s post and follow up comments.

1) That Andy, as a pastor in the Kansas City community, would call out by name another member of his community in the most public of forums. I described this as “unseemly”. Really, I think it is a violation of pastoral ethics.

Here is what Andy has to say about Mr. Fairfield:

“I don’t know if John Fairfield, running for mayor and wanting to make a name for himself, is a Christian or not.”

Andy admits to not knowing whether John Fairfield is a Christian or not. But he does know this: that John Fairfield is “running for mayor” and that he is “wanting to make a name for himself”. By telling us John Fairfield is running for mayor, Andy seems to be implying that John Fairfield is either corrupt because he is aspiring to a political seat, or that the legislation he is introducing is corrupted by the fact that John Fairfield is running for a political office. Andy allows for neither nuance or some reasonable motivation for Fairfield’s position. Could it be that John Fairfield has a genuine concern for the safety of his constituents, or wants to revive economically depressed areas of the city, or wants to put into place the “broken window” NYC approach to law enforcement that has been so effective in other municipalities’ combat of crime. These all form reasonable planks for a political platform. One may disagree with them or think them misguided without thinking a person is craven for suggesting them. Indeed it would be quite unusual if a candidate for mayor who is also serving as a councilperson didn’t introduce legislation that matched their political platform.

I’m particularly perplexed how Andy knows John Fairfield is doing this because “he wants to make a name for himself.” This is flat out judgment of the evil kind, not good.

I could do the same myself. I could say, I know that Andy is a candidate for ordination. And I know that Andy’s grandfather is a retired bishop. So Andy doesn’t worry about writing careless, insulting blog entries like this one ,because he is secure in the knowledge that it will not affect his ordination whatsoever. (As an aside, I’m consistently surprised at how many of our bloggers are “candidates for ordination” and how incautious they are about what they write. This is not directed to Andy specifically. But I would worry that could absolutely be something addressed by the Board of Ordained Ministry interview process. Blogging started two years after I was ordained, but I can’t imagine taking the risk. Why take the risk of being misunderstood?)

Digression over. Now I don’t believe what I just wrote about Andy to be true. But I cobbled a few things together that I knew about Andy and then formed the most negative view that I could of him. That is what I believe Andy has done to Mr. Fairfield.

But what is worse than all this, and this is what I find particularly appalling, is that while Andy is aware of his own ignorance as to whether John Fairfield is a Christian or not, Andy plows ahead and demonizes him anyway. If he is a Christian, Andy could defend his comments by saying, “I’m trying to right his path.” But Andy, by his own admission, doesn’t know if he is or not. He just plows ahead. If Mr. Fairfield isn’t a Christian, then Andy has all but closed the door to having any possible, meaningful role of spiritual redemption in Mr. Fairfield’s life. It is like telling a Moslem that he is going to hell. It is not an effective way of evangelizing and in fact, would probably be quite damaging to his spiritual well-being. He has closed the door to a member of his community, very nearly literally.

Now I am aware that there are places in scripture where Jesus, Elijah, John the Baptist, and a few others do employ the practice of naming and shaming. It is surprising, however, how few times it is done in scripture. The people of the Bible that do it are spiritual giants. Even more surprising is that not all of the spiritual giants do it. There were very few prophets in the Bible. But there are a lot of people willing take up the mantle of prophetic ministry. Usually this is done out of arrogance and self-righteousness. I don’t if Andy embraces this role for those reasons. But I will say this, naming and shaming is the atomic bomb of ministry. It may be appropriate to have it in our arsenal, but it should never be the weapon of first choice. It should be the last weapon deployed. Even among Christians to other Christians. Remember the last step of rebuke and reconciliation was this step. First we go privately. Then we go with a witness. Then we go public. Andy jumped all the way to step number three first.

2) My second objection was to Andy’s moralizing that those who might support this legislation are simply: “the worst part of our society, the part that wants to go shopping and be entertained and eat at fancy restaurants without any pesky reminders that some people can’t do those things.”

I’ve offered I think reasonable objections to why someone might support this legislation. Safety for our families (remembering my wife’s own near abduction by a pan-handler when she became separated from her group), concerns about whether allowing the practice would enable drug or alcohol abuse. I asked Andy to justify his claim that it is unrighteous to support the ban. Andy’s only response was a tepid literalism of one statement of Jesus in Luke 6:30:

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

I’m surprised Andy would employ the tactic of literalism. One of the reasons I don’t usually engage fundamentalists is how can you ever have a genuine discussion with someone who won’t allow for anything beyond a shallow reading of scripture.

There are, of course, a number of problems with Andy’s literal interpretation. One, the NRSV translation says “beg” which is far from common among English versions. I only found one other English translation, the ESV, which is a revision of the RSV. which is, of course, what the NRSV is too. Most texts say “asks” which paints a much more broader picture of the verse, including for example, occasions when your neighbor wants to borrow you leaf blower even as he hasn’t returned your grill he borrowed last season. I don’t have my Greek Bible at home, so I can’t check the word that is translated here.

But even if “beg” fully captures the Greek word, one has to wonder if Andy’s literal interpretation holds. Recall that in the first century Judea the “social services” of the day was the generosity of pilgrims who made their way to the temple and who passed by those who were unable to work, were hungry, often diseased or infirm and who were utterly dependent upon the donations of these spiritual persons. There wasn’t “soup kitchens” nor governmental assistance. It was a somewhat caste society. Women had limited legal rights. Widows were particularly vulnerable.

But we have those advantages today. We also have a crack, crystal meth, alcohol, and name your abuse of choice problem today. A truly motivated and spiritual person who is interested in helping a disadvantaged person would realize the potential damage a cash donation can be to a person suffering from substance abuse problem. And unless you can effectively evaluate the person you give the five-spot too and can ascertain for certain that they aren’t an addict (and not just that they aren’t going to spend “your” money but that they won’t spend “their” money obtained independent of you on drugs or alcohol). I hardly think Jesus meant we should just give money when we are begged.

A more difficult issue is this: does Andy lock the doors of his car and house when he leaves (even more so if he stays in them?) Because using Andy’s same reasoning, if someone wants to steal from us, we should let them. (“if anyone takes away your goods”).

But even if I’m less right than I think, I think there is, at the bare minimum, room to disagree on the issue. But Andy, remember, said that people that believe as I do are “the worst part of our society, the part that wants to go shopping and be entertained and eat at fancy restaurants without any pesky reminders that some people can’t do those things…[who] desire…[an] antiseptic, insulated, isolationist denial of reality?”

This very, very, long comment fully explains my objection to this post. (But I’m crossing my fingers.) My “anonymity” was completely unintentional, but I wonder, why does Andy need me “to make your blogger profile available so that I will know a little more about you” in order to respond to me”? Is it so you can judge me before you respond? It sure feels like you are just avoiding the questions and changing the subject.

Briefly, while I’m not as faithful as I should be, I attempt to practice what I’m preaching regarding helping the hungry and indigent. I’m very active in and pastor board member serving Starkville’s primary ministry to the disadvantaged. Our Lenten practice this season at my church is to work with Society of St. Andrew (state headquarters 14 miles down the road from our church).

Kevin Shelton said...

Ah... the question of how to handle "pan-handling" is an old with us Christian folk...
It may be true that some who "pan-handle" may be mentally disturbed... it may be true that some who "pan-handle" may be be "professional"... and it may be true that some would spend money on addictions...
What gets to me in this conversation is the "us and theming" character of responses to Andy's post...
Quite a few of us who don't pan-handle and live out on the street are mentally-ill, addicted professionals as well...
Remember that God has created all of us... All of us... in God's image...
Yes, we don't necessarily need to give folks money to feed addictions, but as a pastor who has ministered to the homeless, I find many good Christians that don't do ANYTHING to help the situation, except ignore those who are out on the street as though they don't exist. They prefer a law to do that, so they don't have to.
It would be great if we could all participate in "Building and supporting social ministries that provide long term help," but it's amazing just how many of us really don't support those ministries.
Some of these posts remind me of the response of Ebenezer Scrooge (pre-conversion) in Dickens' Christmas Carol when asked by benefactors if he would give to the help the poor at Christmas. "Are there no work houses? Are there no prisons?"
I'm definitely not perfect in my own responses to the challenges of poverty in Kansas City, and I struggle on how to minister to folks while living within a middle class economic sphere, but I do realize that anyone of us could end up on the street... and we may find we have to beg in order to survive...
I pray that if we find ourselves walking in those shoes, we find more compassion...

Peace in Christ,
Kevin Shelton

P.S. To William Timothy, I understand your family's personal involvement in a very tramautic situation, and I can understand your feelings. But evil, criminal behavior cannot be ascribed to every person out on the street.

William Timothy said...

Kevin Shelton: No, but it would be a denial of reality to realize that a very very large percentage of the homeless and either a) substance abusers or b) mentally disturbed. One of the great social tragedies of our age is when the government emptied "sanitoriums", turning mentally distrubed people out on the street and didn't have any kind of program in place to help these people. That is a moral lapse I hope we all can agree upon. Unless you are willing to invest the needed time with that "pan-handler" to see their need, you can't expect to meet their need with a cash donation. You can, however, risk contributing their great harm.

Secondly, even if "Christians" refuse to follow up and help, what virtue do they experience by being bullied into helping others. We aren't talking buskers here. Though the proposed legislation affected them as well, which seemed to be the point of the linked article. Careful what you call compassion. Enabling destructive behavior is not compassionate.

A stranger walks up and demands you give him something. Demands! And a vulnerable young woman is supposed to "feel good" about that situation. Or a vulnerable old woman. Or a young man. Or a group. Bullying, annoying, shaming, breed feelings of resentment.

I'm not supporting "removing" the homeless to another part of city as what has happened in some cities (like John described in Jacksonville in preparation of Superbowl Sunday). But I think their is nothing unrighteous about limiting when and where we allow pan-handling. Remember, the beggars of Jesus' day went to the courtayard to beg...

If you are seeing in my responses the bit about Ebeneezer Scrooge, well then you are willfully misreading my posts. I'm arguing that the availability of public services and ministries allow for a deeper involvement of Christians into meeting the needs of those who are needy. Quite the opposite of Mr. Scrooge, thank you very much.

And for one who worries that I generalize about the homeless, you seem to generalize about Christians pretty well. We sometimes assume all Christians are to our level of Christianity and forget that our role as pastor is to help people grow beyond a superficial out of sight out of mind care for the homeless. Arranging the homeless at our door and demanding that you help them is not what I would describe a winning discipleship practice.

Tim Sisk

Andy B. said...

Oh, hey Tim Sisk! I feel much better knowing it is you. You are so smart and have such a good grasp of the scriptures; I am always edified by your comments.

Can we just say you and I find ourselves in really different places on this one? I'm pretty sure I understand what you've written here. I just don't agree.

Your specific questions:
1 - I haven't said anything about Mr. Fairfield other than identify him as a candidate for mayor and a sponsor of this proposal, with which I disagree.

2 - Absolutely there are a wide range of motivations for supporting a proposal like this. I agree with you there. I hope you understand that the ideas I write about in my post are based on my own perceptions, experiences, and interpretations. I know that yours are different than mine, but that makes neither of us less faithful than the other.

Finally, I'm always grateful for advice from those who have already been through the ordination process and come out the other side. And I want you to know that I thank God for your ministry with the hungry and indigent in your community. Keep up the good work.

William Timothy said...

Thank you for your kind words Andy. In the interest of fairness and balance of perspective, I check in on your blog a lot. I've read most every post of the last few years. When I comment it is usually when I disagree with you. When I don't, it is usually because agree with you. Consider it tacit approval. If you feel like I give you a hard time, I apologize and realize that my commenting pattern would encourage that feeling.

I do take it from your last comment that this conversation really is at an end. I'll admit disappointment at that, however. I don't believe you are owning all that you wrote in this post. For example:
You did do more than describe Mr. Fairfield a mayoral candidate and sponsor of a resolution with which you disapproved: you ascribed motivation to him in very negative terms "to make a name for himself" and wrapped your disapproval of the resolution with an accusation that supporters were being inauthentically Christian and judgemental. I tried make you aware of how that could be a very unfair. But I repeat myself.

I don't dispute your right to support or reject the resolution for whatever reasons. Of course this is your blog. I once wrote somewhere on my blog or commented on another, I don't expect fair and balanced on blogs, but I do expect fair...

Let me remind you of the language you used about others that support the disputed resolution, you said they are “the worst part of our society, the part that wants to go shopping and be entertained and eat at fancy restaurants without any pesky reminders that some people can’t do those things…[who] desire…[an] antiseptic, insulated, isolationist denial of reality?”

Not the language of love.

God bless your ministry,

Tim Sisk

PS Let me dispel any impression that I am even remotely as faithful as I should be in ministry to the hungry...I've got a long way to go, in that area and every area of my life.

I'm not ready to be judged according to Matthew 25:31-46...

Andy B. said...

Tim, Actually, my "worst part of our society" remark was about the proposal, not about the people. Am I wrong to separate the idea from the people who espouse it for the sake of conversation? I know that it is people who have ideas, but can I not abhor an idea and also respect the person who holds it? Or in this case, have no opinion whatsoever about the person who holds it?

Come to think of it, I could like someone's idea but dislike the person, too, right? But there's not many people I can't find some way to get along with, so that would be rare.

Again, I have no opinion of Mr. Fairfield one way or the other. I do not consider an attempt to "make a name" for oneself a bad thing, especially if one is running for mayor of Kansas City, a slate that now includes (I think) a dozen people. All twelve of them are trying to make a name for themselves at the moment.

~c. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Timothy said...

Never had anybody call me a prick before, especially a fellow Methodist pastor. Thanks for the truth!

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