A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two tunics

It occurred to me recently that there is a Bible verse I often refer to as a moral principle (though, as with most of my principles, I am but an imperfect example).

It's funny because I have thought of this verse so many times but never really considered the full application before now.

Often, if asked how to live, Christians will refer to "Love your neighbour" (Leviticus 19:18) or "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44) or "And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8). And they are all such lovely all-encompassing verses that I'm a bit surprised to realise that I also have set a lot of store by Luke 3:10-11.

10"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

11John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."

I love the advice because it is so practical. "Love your neighbour" is the command, but this is a good example of specifics - if you have more than you need, give to someone who needs it. If this has never come up in a Christian Anarchy meeting (or "Christianarchy" :) ) I will eat my remaining tunic.

It's funny, I thought of it recently because a friend made a comment about "the coat you always wear". It has occurred to me that I can be somewhat parsimonious when it comes to clothes. I have one winter coat and one summer coat, plus two hoodies and a number of jumpers (sweaters, to Americans reading), most of which I was given. There's a small part of me that deeply believes that it is sinful to buy anything expensive. Of course it's perfectly fine for my parents to get me a laptop... Ahem.

And I felt, for a short while, a little smug, as I have one coat and thus am not hording many coats that the poor might be wearing.

And even better, I was given the coat by a friend and so it too is not sitting unused in a wardrobe.

And then it occurred to me that it's really easy to take Bible verses and twist them so they're about green living or anarchism or voting for the Republican/Democrat party, or not buying a coat because you're tight, and perhaps I'd missed the point somewhat.

There's a horrible tendancy in Christianity (and society in general) to emphasize clean living (no drinking, no smoking, little sex for some, low carbon emissions and recycling for others) above actually loving other people and doing good. And here lies the flaw in my smugness. I am not good for owning one coat and therefore not giving one to the poor. I would love to say that having one coat makes me better than people with two coats, but it doesn't, it just means that I have come up with a more subtle way to get out of sharing. On the plus side, it does mean that I can buy another coat if I want, just I should be on the look-out for someone to give the old one to.

The other thing that occurred to me was, how can I apply this motto further? I am sure I have a few things I don't need, even if a tunic is technically not among them, and when it comes to food we tend to buy as we need, although we do enjoy having guests.

There are always lots of collections going around for clothing for the homeless, and of course, if global capitalism had been around in John's time, he'd have probably had a few things to say about bank accounts (right now, "Don't bother", probably). Of course, I thought, giving money to charity and clothing to charity shops or homeless shelters or similar, is really in the spirit of what John was saying. Give to the needy, don't hoard up for yourself. Matthew 6:19 and all that.

But actually, I thought, maybe charities and collections actually aren't what John would have had in mind if such things existed at the time. I'm not saying they're not really good things, especially for overseas aid, but John doesn't say, "I am collecting unneeded tunics and distributing them to the poor", he says "share with him who has none".

And the implication of this is that we should make the effort of finding "him who has none" and making sure he gets our spare tunic and leftover spag bol. This again emphasizes the difference between clean living Christianity and actual Christianity - you can tidily and efficiently give to charity, there are standing orders and direct debits and ways to do it without even trying, but it takes effort and courage to personally find out who is in need and how we can help them. It's tricky and sometimes messy, and means you may end up among everyone whom society hates - the homeless, the asylum seekers, the poor, the working classes, people with learning disabilities, criminals, the mentally ill... the scroungers, the druggies, the conmen, the loonies, the scum... the needy.

Because helping people is not just about paying someone else to do it - in order to make a real difference we need to give ourselves. It's not just about the tunic, it's the person sharing the tunic who can make the difference. It's not just about being warm, it's knowing someone cared enough to figure out that you actually needed a tunic and wanted to give it to you.

Maybe I just know too many Christian Anarchists (Christianarchists... snort...) but I'm tired of how impersonal Christianity - and society - can be. It's possible to care for people at a distance, with charity and direct debits and shoebox presents and letters - but let's care for them up close too.

PS: I really wanted to call this post "Two Coats of Saint"...

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