A Nasty, Dreadful Thing
Back when my faith was still new and innocent, I brought a crucifix with me to study at the Stanford library. This was not a library that required identification swipe, and generosity sometimes breeds exploitation. I had not skimmed the stars in my astronomy textbook for five minutes when a young Latino man with thick braided hair tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned furiously for me to go outside with him.
My first instinct was to brush him off, in the hopes that he might go away. This was already un-Christ-like behavior. God’s answer to my young faith had arrived – only I did not recognize it.
The man insisted, almost rudely, that I stop studying and go outside with him. I heard some whispers of his name – “Sam” – and the word “brother” many times.
“Brother,” he said, once we had settled on a bench. We were seated underneath some trees. “Do you know who Jesus was?” he asked.
“Brother, do you know what the true message of the Gospel is?”
I nodded again. He bid me explain and confirm that I was indeed a true Christian who indeed knew the true message of the Gospel.
After I replied, it was his turn to speak. He had an unassuming, casual air, and after much rambling about Christianity, my crucifix, spiritual inspiration, and being brothers, he finally asked me to give him eighty dollars so he could visit his cousin’s funeral up north in Portland, Oregon. Looking back, it was clear that he had fabricated this on the spot, but then, in the urgency of the present, I was consumed with the mention of my hometown. Thoughts flickered that this stranger had stalked me or somehow knew where I was from, and was therefore trying to appeal to my sense of kinship as well as my faith.
I responded that I didn’t have much money on me.
“That’s okay,” he said. “We can go to an ATM or something.” And he again repeated my duty as a Christian brother to give him the money.
At this point, I knew he was trying to exploit me. The faintest beginnings of desperation began to set in. “Have you been to Portland before?” I asked him, on a whim. And when he said yes, I asked him if he knew the basics of the town. He broke his stare, his eyes darting, and he said yes again, though with a certain doubt.
I quizzed him on the name of Portland’s mall, Lloyd Center, and light rail, MAX. He failed both questions miserably. “You don’t do this to a Christian brother,” he said, or a variation of it, over and over again. I seized on his failings and fled on my bicycle back to my dorm room, looking over my shoulder to make sure he didn’t know where I lived.
Should I have given Sam the money? For a long time, I was convinced the answer was a resounding no. What then has led to my doubt?
There’s a metaphor that I love. A newly-wed couple were walking along a beach, their hearts bursting with hopes and plans. At one point, the wife looked back at their footprints across the sand. The waves had washed them away.
“We didn’t leave any footprints, did we?” she asked.
“It’s because we weren’t walking on high enough ground,” the husband replied.
The most lasting footprints, of course, are not the widest or the prettiest ones, but the ones made on the highest ground. We are the ones blessed enough to see and feel God at work, his footprints high and deep along the beaches of the world.
Should I have given Sam the money? If our duty as Christians is to emulate God’s footprints, if the fundamental truth is that we are living because we have been adopted as God’s own children through Christ’s radical sacrifice, then the trivial things of this world fall away. If we are to love our neighbors, including our enemies, as ourselves, then shouldn’t I have given troubled Sam my active, caring, dearest love?1 Shouldn’t I have loved him radically? Shouldn’t I have tried to make my footprints on the highest, most lasting ground?
We shouldn’t reward those who would exploit others, but to turn away would be to let them continue unto darkness. And sometimes the best way to touch their troubled hearts is to quietly sacrifice for them, to show them God’s light that dispels all darkness. In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, the protagonist Jean Valjean steals silver from a bishop. But after the police drag him back, the bishop says that Valjean had in fact been given the silver, and that he also forgot to take the silver candlesticks. This scene, of course, is what transforms Jean Valjean and gives rise to a universe of human potential. This scene embodies a radical love that leaves footprints so high in the sand that they can never be erased, instead shining and reverberating through time, infinitely more valuable than silver.
But always there is the problem of a complicated world. Dostoyevsky says that love in real life is a nasty, dreadful thing compared to the love of dreams. And it is. In striving to walk as high as I can, three obstacles block my path – fear, social conformity, and doubt. I am afraid of what might happen if I open to somebody. I am queasy about stepping out in front of people, to violate what have become societal norms. And I am skeptical that anything I can do will be helpful in the long run.
What happens if the person I want to help wants to exploit me? What if putting ourselves out there is risky? Risk is an inherent part of what we should do. God in his will keeps us from real danger; God is both necessary and sufficient. He will never forget nor forsake us. (Deut 31:8) The rest is often a matter of swallowing discomfort, pride, or shame. Moreover, Christ tells us we should not worry about being exploited, but should use such situations to demonstrate love.
I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Mt 5:38-42)
To live the radical life of a Christian has meant to incur the astonished and too often contemptuous scrutiny of the world. To do something bold and radical and courageous, the kind of walking on high ground we should be striving for, by definition means to break with the crowd, break with the norm.2 Paul tells us “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Fitting in is not our goal – living for Jesus is.
How do we know that what we do will have any effect? How do we know that our love will leave a footprint? The answer is that we cannot know how we will influence others’ lives. We can plant and water, but God gives the growth. We don’t have to worry about the complexity of life or our influence.3 We just plant and water. (1 Cor 3:6-9)
Should I have given Sam the money? I realized far too late that I should have not only given him, my brother, the eighty dollars, but twenty dollars more than he asked for. If the fundamental truth is that we are living because God has adopted us as children through Christ’s radical sacrifice, then the trivial things of this world fall away, once we overcome certain obstacles. What is one hundred dollars to someone like me, an adopted child of God with brothers and sisters all around? What is one hundred dollars when it might push someone to think more closely about their lives and see the radical love Jesus called us to?
I should have said to Sam: there – thank you for the opportunity you gave me today to help you, a brother in need. May God bless you.
1 Mt 5:43-48
2 Mt 5:16 Christians are supposed to stand out apart from the crowd – they are supposed to attract attention by doing good. To do so, one must break from the norm, one must be extra generous, extra loving, extra kind.
3 Paul pleaded many times with those churches he wrote to, asking them to follow Christ and hold fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ so that Paul might not have labored in vain (Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 3:5). Paul wished his work to count for something. We can and should pray for influence and strive for it, but ultimately it is beyond our control. We can only plant and water.
Henry Li ‘16 is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House, a staff writer for the Ichthus, and the proud roommate of Peter Hickman.
Dostoyevsky, economics, faith, fear, Les Misérables, literature, love, money