“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Dickens’s story is a Christmas classic. It reminds us to keep Christmas by looking to the needs of others just as the Creator looked to the needs of his creatures. During this past Christmas (Dec. 17), Durham City Council unanimously decided to keep Christmas by passing a prohibition on begging. I reminded of another Christmas story with a similar situation, but this town didn’t need legislation to accomplish its goal. It was sometime around 4 A.D., when a pregnant mother with her husband needed a place to stay the night. Her husband, Joseph, begged the townsfolk of Bethlehem for somewhere to stay. An innkeeper offered one place that was out-of-sight, a stable for animals. Since Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, his neighbors probably heard that Mary got pregnant before she lived with Joseph. Many people call that a whore, and most people prefer to ignore or avoid undesirables like that. The same desire seems to be at work 2000 years later in Durham. Scrooge felt the same way when he told Tiny Tim not to beg near his office. Perhaps we need the same change of heart Scrooge had.
Friends at the Divinity school have brought some of us other students together to protest this ordinance, namely through letters to the city during the Lenten season. We invited other students to participate, too, should they desire. There have been some questions as to the point of this protest. The goal of this protest is not to allow for the continuance of begging so that the Church will not take care of people in need. Nor do protesters believe that it is the state’s or civil community’s duty to take on this “burden” to the exclusion of the Church. We take issue with the city’s solution to the begging problem and the motivation behind this prohibition. Prohibiting begging is not a solution to poverty, nor does it seek to “protect” someone who is begging in high traffic areas. Wanting to keep undesirables out of sight by making begging illegal motivates this prohibition.
As Christians, we cannot support this “solution.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it well in Discipleship:
"God’s own Son was dishonored and humiliated in order to honor the Father. But the Father, refusing to be separated from his Son, will likewise not be separated from those whose humanity the Son assumed as an equal and for whose sake the Son bore his humiliation" (124).
We cannot accept any “solution” that requires separating certain undesired bodies from desirable bodies in public. The prohibition amounts to indirect segregation by prohibiting undesirables among us to not perform actions that will remind us of their existence. The protest laments a failure to regard the existence of others as grace rather than burden.