I remember that at a certain church I used to be involved with we would give out grocery store gift cards to folks that came in looking for money. The pastor was always interested in sitting down and chatting with the people before actually handing over anything of monetary value. Now this can of course be a good thing depending on the motives of the pastor. However, the reason why the pastor would want to sit down and chat with the individual would be to suss out whether or not the church was being “taken advantage of”.
I’ve heard this sentiment a good bit recently. We assume that charity is a generally a good thing but that it can be taken advantage of. And so we find ourselves in a conundrum. We want to be charitable of course, because this will help us to feel good about ourselves and will massage our consciences so that we feel we actually give a shit about folks other than ourselves. Charity = good. But damn the bastard that ever try to take advantage of me and my charity. The charity I offer is valuable and is not to be trampled upon. If I’m being charitable to you then you damn well better be grateful and may God help you if you think of taking advantage of my kindness. And so we’re charitable, to a degree, so long as our dignity remains intact. So long as people realize that we’re not just some sort of goodwill vending machines that dispense love and goodness for free. No sir, our charity comes with expectations. And this all works well for us, especially since, for the most part, our bourgeois Western Christianity trains us to ignore the cost of the gospel.
But of course, this talk of “making sure we’re not taken advantage of” comes into conflict with the gospel. Now, I’m not suggesting that love ought to look the same in every situation. I believe we’re to be wise and in this sense there’s no need to treat everyone exactly the same. Some folks out there genuinely have impure motives and desire to take advantage of the love/kindness of others. However, if we’re seeking to follow Christ Jesus we can never from the outset decide that we will not be taken advantage of. Take 1 Corinthians 13 for example. A passage that is usually read at most weddings and has become rather sentimental:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres, (1 Cor. 13: 4-7).
One blogger remarked that in light of this scripture, love is fucking stupid. Sure, we love those who are in need because it helps us feel good about ourselves. It helps us feel like we actually love folks other than ourselves. Yet, in reality, this “love” is merely something that props up a particular image of ourselves, that we care for the poor and oppressed, that we are generous and charitable folks. But perhaps it’s worth thinking about the consequences of bracketing our “love for others” with “we will not be taken advantage of.” Love is patient? Does not dishonour others? Is not self-seeking? Keeps no record of wrongs? Always trusts? Always perseveres? Always hedges its bets in order to protect itself? Hell no. To be sure, the love that Christ Jesus calls us to is a love that leads to the cross. It’s a love that ends in death. And the way there is no parade. It’s a love that is abandoned, trampled upon, spat at. It’s a love that claims nothing for itself. In short, if we love as the gospel demands we do then we can be sure that we’ll be taken advantage of. We don’t like this of course, because we like to think we’re entitled to respect and gratitude. I mean if there’s one thing we can know about Jesus it’s that he was never taken advantage of.
What do you think? Am I off base here? Am I just being an ass?
Can we truly love others while being concern about protecting ourselves and making sure we don’t get taken advantage of?