With echoes of Thomas Hobbes.
Meals here were solitary, poor, nasty, British, and short.
Thus Theodore Dalrymple.
No doubt Dr. Dalrymple will be roundly condemned for lacking empathy for the poor, or for blaming the victim, or for excusing Capitalism or The One Percent or The Establishment from deserved blame for the plight of the poor. A close reading of the article, which I suspect is more than all but a tiny percentage of its critics will give it, shows that he does none of these things, except perhaps excusing Capitalism, in a weak unconvinced kind of way.
I was shopping at the local Bulk-Mart last night with one of my minions when a woman approached and begged my attention. In fact, she begged, period. Two thoughts went through my head: First, I am not the most approachable of persons. (Though perhaps the black plastic armor radiates a sense of strength and, by implication, prosperity.) I have to be impressed with anyone that can conquer their fear.
But, second, as it must for almost all attending Mormons in such a situation, the sermon of King Benjamin came to mind. Along with countless discussions in Sunday School and Jedi Quorum that all seem to follow the same trajectory: King Benjamin told us not to turn away the beggar. Of course, King Benjamin didn’t live in a modern industrialized society with its welfare net. Which welfare net is evil anyway, since it perpetrates the very poverty it claims to address. The Church’s program is much better. Anyway, if you give beggars cash, they’ll blow it on alcohol and drugs. So offer to buy them a meal instead.
All of which is probably true. None of which really addresses the problem.
Let me first dispense with the question of what I did in this situation. I observed that the woman was quite a small woman, not remarkably short perhaps but quite slender, and not in an attractive way. She had the pinched face and unhealthy lack of body fat that one sometimes associates with the chronic substance abuser. Alas for the rush to judgement, this is also the appearance one would expect of anyone long deprived of calories, for any reason. Curiously, she was well enough dressed that she would not have stood out at any distance. I mention that because I noticed it at the time, not because I have any idea what it means.
The woman spoke too fast and in too soft a voice for easy comprehension, but the gist seemed to be that she was trying to get out of a bad situation and needed a place to stay and something to eat. God forgive me*, my first thought was that she was running away from her pimp and helping her might actually be dangerous. I noticed she had a small wad of cash in her hand, perhaps four or five bills, of which the one whose denomination was visible was a $20.
I told her I had no cash (pretty much true; I rarely carry anything but an Imperial Platinum debit card) but I was willing to buy her some food. She objected that she had nothing to cook it with, not even a microwave. I suggested some fruit or other food requiring no preparation. I was slightly surprised that she took about half a second to process the suggestion, then agreed. I asked her what sounded good. Bread. I picked a loaf of Luke’s favorite brand (I do not eat much bread since the unfortunate incident on Mustafar; it overloads the glucose monitor and the crumbs catch in the vocorder) and she grabbed a jar of that dreadful peanut butter and jam mix kids like. I went with her through the checkout line. She thanked me profusely the entire time. I recommended she find her way to a shelter; surely there was one in town; she indicated a horror of remaining in town but a willingness to head for one in the nearest big city, if she could get through the night. I recommended one that our local church sometimes works with. (A minion later pointed out, very hesitantly, that the one we work with is exclusively for men. I didn’t know, because my contribution has always been preparing meals rather than actually taking them to the shelter. Live and learn.) She headed out into the night with her bread and peanut butter/jam and I went to find the minion tending my shopping cart.
This sort of thing always leaves me feeling terrible. On the one hand, yeah, I was probably being “taken” in some sense. On the other hand, if there was the least shred of legitimacy to her story — and, surely, she was in great need, if not necessarily in precisely the way she portrayed — then a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly was tragically inadequate.
Then again, perhaps there’s some comfort in having the attention of a retired but still powerful Sith Lord if even for only a few moments. A brief human connection (at least to the extend that I’m not more machine than man now, twisted and evil) and reminder that there is a better world than the one she’s living in at the moment.
Any help I could have given her in a Bulk-Mart late on a Friday night, impromptu, was going to be tragically inadequate. It’s the same as Dr. Dalrymple’s inmates. Yes, they’re criminals. Yes, this beggar likely wasn’t giving me a straight story. It doesn’t change the fact that they badly need help, even if it isn’t quite the kind they’re asking for, and I’m ill-prepared to give it.
And here, I think, is where we see King Benjamin’s lesson for us. They come begging to us, unworthy, and usually for something other than what they actually need most. They invariably misrepresent themselves to a greater or lesser degree in doing so. Still, their circumstances are always pretty hard. But their poor decisions have made it worse.
Sounds like a pretty good description of all of us when we approach God. Except that God is infinitely better prepared.
No, I’m not going to tell you what social policies the Gospel dictates, because I’m not sure I know and it’s not really the point of my post.
*I mean that quite literally.