Years ago, when I was in the business of developing package holiday tours, I traveled on a junket to the city of Lima which was sponsored by the government of Peru. The Peruvian government tourist office was trying to convince the travel industry that Lima was about to become the hottest destinations for North Americans. I had never been to Peru before, but based on what I knew of the conditions in Peru, I strongly doubted that Canadians would be flocking there in great numbers. The now defunct Canadian Pacific Airways, had just opened up a new air route to Lima and it was my job to put together holiday packages for the airline. These government sponsored tours are designed to showcase a destination in its best light. So, I was not surprised when we were quickly hustled out of the airport in luxurious limos and taken to the best hotel in the city. That night after a magnificent meal we were briefed by the government tourism officials on what we could expect to find in the streets of Lima. During the course of our briefing, we were warned that from time to time during our stay we would undoubtedly run into “the odd beggar or two.”
The odd beggar or two? That phrase struck me as odd at the time. But now it fills me with shame as I remember passively listening without comment. We were instructed not to let these beggars bother us. We were assured that many of them weren’t nearly as bad off as they looked and that we shouldn’t allow them to play on our sympathies and spoil our stay in Lima. According to our guide, begging was a way of life for most of the people who lived on the streets and if we showed them any courtesy, they would only try to take advantage of us. We were also warned to leave any valuables in the hotel safe. Wearing jewelry of any kind was strongly discouraged by our government guides.
The next morning as we prepared for our sightseeing tour, my assistant John and I, we dutifully deposited our valuables into the hotel safe. Before we left the hotel, John, who’d been on a few of these junkets with me in the past, asked me if I had enough change. John knew that our guide’s instructions about giving money to beggars would have, as usual, fallen on deaf ears. John didn’t like the idea that no matter where we were, if someone asked me for a handout, I always tried to oblige. John insisted that giving money to beggars sends out the wrong signal. He insisted that if you give money to one, then you’ll have to give money to all of them, and there’s no way that you can solve a beggar’s problems with a few coins, let alone deal with the problems of all the beggars who’ll jump on the gravy train. John and I had long since stopped arguing about the matter. We’d worked together for a long time, and we’d agreed to disagree, besides I was his boss, so rather than try to argue with me John just sort of looked out for me and tried to make sure I didn’t get myself into too much trouble. I had assured John that I had enough small change to see us through the morning, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught from the homeless children of Peru.
It only took about ten minutes before my pockets were empty. When I ran out of coins, I was stunned when John took over where I left off. In the past, John had always managed to stick to his guns, but these kids somehow managed to get to him. It’s difficult for North Americans to understand how small children can be allowed to roam the streets. The poverty is beyond comprehension. I don’t remember much about the city of Lima. I couldn’t tell you anything about the tourist attractions which we visited. But I can still remember the pain and desperation in the eyes of the children we encountered. At lunch, John and I filled our pockets with left over bread and bits of cheese, which we gave to the children who accosted us outside the restaurant. John kept blaming me for starting something that we had no hope of finishing. But despite his insistence that we adopt a tougher stance, it was John who hustled over to the shop across the street and bought several loaves of bread, which he distributed, to a small band of kids who followed us the rest of the afternoon.
As we headed back to our hotel, I think both John and I took some consolation in the knowledge that for at least a few hours, the little band of kids who were following us, had food in their bellies. We were discussing the relative merits of buying these kids dinner, when a boy, who couldn’t have been more than about ten years old, came around the corner and blocked our way. Before John could do anything, the boy grabbed me by the arm. John was about to reach for the boy’s shoulder, but something in the boy’s appearance stunned John into stillness. The oozing sores which covered most of the boy’s face were revolting. It was as though this child was actually rotting before our very eyes. Before John or I could recover from the horror of being in such close proximity to septic human flesh, the boy reached for the silver necklace which hung around my neck. I had tucked the silver cross which hung around my neck inside my shirt so as not to attract attention to it. But as the boy took hold of the chain, the cross was revealed. The boy hesitated for just a moment, and the two of us exchanged a glace which contained such sorrow. And then in a flash, the boy, the chain, and the silver cross were gone.
I wasn’t too upset about the loss of a cheap silver chain and the cross was something which I had picked up in a flea market in London. So, all in all, I wasn’t out more than about twenty bucks or so. But John was livid. He was furious and nothing I could say or do would calm him down. What upset John the most was his conviction that by stealing a cross the boy had crossed a line which was unforgivable. As John saw it, the moment of hesitation meant that the boy actually knew what the cross represented and then he stole it anyway. Peru is a largely Roman Catholic country and as John saw it, this kid had to know that what he was doing was wrong. The fact that this kid might have been starving wasn’t any kind of excuse as far as John could see. In John’s world, some lines should never be crossed, no matter how desperate you are.
Word of our altercation on the streets of Lima, eventually got back to our government guide, Mano, who, tried to understand John’s indignation over the theft of a cross, but somehow his heart just wasn’t in it. Mano did his best to explain the desperation of the children who live on the streets. But when John’s anger could not be consoled, Mano asked us if we’d like to see where most of these kids come from. So, the next morning Mano took John and I to a landfill just outside of Lima. There in the garbage of the city was a world I will never forget. Men, women and children living and dying in the decay and the filth of the city. Children, toddlers, poking around in the garbage trying to find something to eat. The smell and the stench of the steaming, rotting garbage was indistinguishable from the smell and the stench of the rotting children.
In that stinking mess, we saw things which still have the power cause me to weep. John, without speaking a word, began to empty his pockets. But there was no way that he or I could even begin to make a dent in the need. By the time we returned to the car we had quite a following. With no more cash left, we were desperate to get out of there. And yet, surrounded by such human need and overwhelmed by human stench, we stood by the car paralyzed by despair. Mano encouraged us to get in the car, but we just stood there, and we listened as the children tugging at our clothing and they begged us. They tried to get us to give them something, anything which would help them to survive. It was then that John took off the gold chain which hung around his neck. I couldn’t help noticing the gold cross which hung from that chain. John reached out to littlest of the boys and placed the treasure in his hands. Neither of us said a word on our way back to the hotel.
It wasn’t until about three weeks after we returned home that we actually talked to each other about our experience. John was having a difficult time reconciling what we did for a living with the weight of human need. Somehow helping to organize holidays for wealthy North Americans just wasn’t enough for him anymore. Six months later, John enrolled in teachers’ collage. He can’t help all the children, but he can and does help wherever and whenever he can. John is a righteous man.
For years the well-known phrase in the Book of the Prophet Amos, annoyed me. According to the story, Amos hears the annoyed voice of YHWH say, “Spare me the racket of your chanting! Relieve me the strumming of your harps! Instead, let justice flow down like a river, and righteousness flow like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I could always relate to the longing to let justice flow. But righteousness was something I had little or no appetite for. In my mind, the idea of righteousness was always associated with the holier than thou crowd of self-righteous religious types. I had no desire to see righteousness flowing like an unending stream. The WISDOM of our Hebrew ancestors was hidden from me by the limited translations which I had always been offered of the Hebrew word tsadiyq. The common way our English word righteousness has come to be understood fails to capture the rich meanings of tsadiyg. In Hebrew and indeed in modern Judaism, tsadiyg goes so much deeper than mere righteousness. Tsadiyg is a way of being in the world which embodies the LOVE which is the DIVINE MYSTERY we call, “God.” For to practice tsadiyg is to seek ways of helping people in need. Tsadiyg is to be generous with your time and resources, to be charitable. Tsadiyg to be known not for your religious piety or self-righteous concerns, but to be famous for outrageous acts of generosity, kindness, and indeed charity. Charity, the word itself is an old-English word which comes from the Latin Vulgate’s translation of the Greek word, agape, which means LOVE. To be tsadiyg is to be LOVE in the world!
When I think of my old friend John’s outrageous act of charity, I know full well that his momentary act of desperation was irrational and in the end it probably did very little to change much of anything by the world’s standards. It could even be argued that it would be perfectly reasonable for me to respond with self-righteous indignation considering John’s initial reaction to my own feeble attempts to respond to suffering. Over the years I have heard all sorts of reasonable, some might even say righteous arguments, about why charity is futile. Many of us will refuse to give charity, arguing that we must get to the heart of the matter and solve the problems behind the suffering. Which brings us to the deepest meaning of the word tsadiyq, which is to seek justice. Justice, the kind of justice which Jesus embodied with his very life. The kind of justice which Marcus Borg described as “distributive justice.” Or as John Dominic Crossan puts it, “justice is when everyone has enough.” Tsadiyq is not an either-or way of being in the world. It’s not charity or justice. It’s both and. Charity and justice. Tsadiyq is outrageous acts of generosity. Charity if you will which is after all LOVE. Tsadiyq is also seeking justice. The kind of justice which concerns itself with distributing the blessings of Creation in ways which ensure everyone has enough. Justice which is in the words of Cornel West, “Justice is what LOVE looks like in public. Charity and justice are not either-or propositions, they are tsadiyq, a way of being LOVE in the world. Which brings us right back to righteousness. Righteousness an English word which comes from an earlier English word, “rightwise.” There’s WISDOM at the heart of righteousness. HOLY WISDOM Herself, the ONE our Hebrew ancestors speak of as dancing at the birth of Creation, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. (Proverbs 8:22-31)
Let it be said of us that we embody tsadiyq, that we seek ways to be generous, charitable and outrageous in our efforts to serve others, that we are seekers of justice, so that all may have enough, that in our efforts to embrace tsadiyq we are rightwise in our desire to be LOVE in the world, so that justice may flow down like a river, and righteousness flow like an unfailing stream. Let it be so among us. Let it be so. Amen.
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