Nate Oman, writing for T&S (6 Apr 2012), states: “For many people, being confronted by a panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice. I think these people are confused.” Oman’s solution: Don’t give, there is no moral conundrum. “Giving cash to someone on the street may well facilitate self-destructive behavior.”
After reading Oman’s post, I was reminded of St. Francis, arguably Catholicism greatest saint and an wonderful example to all Christians. I’ve always been fascinated by his life and teachings. On a trip to Italy years ago, I even made a pilgrimage to Assisi. According to Augustine Thompson, in his book Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Francis renounced his inheritance, becoming homeless and earning food by manual labor. When that wasn’t enough to sustain him, he begged. The indignity of panhandling was part of the process of humbling himself.
In Salt Lake City, outside the Broadway Centre Cinemas, there is a gentleman who plays the cello (I haven’t seen him lately, but I assume he still plays). His name is Eli Potash and he is a street musician. “It’s a variety show, that’s what I do,” Potash said of his performance. He syncs his cello playing to the movie showings . . . so he can catch the crowd before and after screenings. In 2010, a local jazz trio provided Potash with a new reconditioned cello, surely an act of Christian charity.
The 2009 movie The Soloist tells the “true” story of Nathaniel Ayers, a vertuoso celloist, who because of mental illness ends up homeless. (I liked this movie a lot and highly recommend it.) The film is about the interaction between Ayers and a journalist who wants to write about (and help) him. The relationship is not an easy one.
I think panhandling is much more complicated than Oman’s portrayal. Do we really want to pass by a cello prodigy, a future St. Francis, or anyone in real need? I think random (and not so random) acts of kindness are important. Oman by his own admission, is dealing in sophistry (or as he calls it “pettifogging hairsplitting”). But still, “moral narcissism.”