To Fish or Not to Fish

fishJesus never said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life!” Confucius said something like that. A lot of people who don’t like to give alms quote that. Ironically, a lot of right wingers say it to oppose food assistance programs and other aid programs. I say, ironically, because they are the same people who oppose support for public education. We all know the grain of truth in the saying. The problem is, that it has been turned into a slogan to advocate against direct aid to poor and starving people, including children.

Jesus did say to give to whoever asks of you and to not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing when you give to the poor.

There is a grain of truth in Confucius’ saying. That is that a man will be better off if he has some skills. I don’t think he meant to say withhold the fish until he learns to catch one himself, even if there is no river or lake or pole or line or hook to be had. This reminds me of something a wise African (again, not Jesus) said, “Empty bellies have no ears.” But there is only a small grain of truth in Confucius’ saying. I don’t use it at all. It is not part of my vocabulary, because I find it generally demeaning and paternalistic.

Just because a man is poor does not mean he knows less than me. I know a homeless man who went to Yale and is articulate and sharp. Odds are, he could teach me more than I could teach him. He is of African descent. I am of European descent. I have friends with means who can rescue me when I get into trouble. He does not. He does not have a chip on his shoulder, though. He is cheerful and proud in the best sense of the word. It is a small thing to share some food with him for what I receive in return. I know veterans who have never been able to reenter society fully after combat. They have life skills for coping on the street without harming anyone and actually making it safer for many who are less aware. Do we make them jump through our hoops or do we just respect them for who they are and share God’s bounty for what it is? It is God’s bounty, is it not? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” We need to stop arrogantly and greedily thinking that it is our own to hoard and not to share. I am crying now. I will stop.

9 Replies to “To Fish or Not to Fish”

  1. As a graduate student in psychology, I know that many of the homeless are in need of urgent mental health care – some that are very brilliant and talented otherwise (a brilliant man can get schizophrenia the same as a less brilliant person). You can’t “teach a man to fish” if he does not have the mental faculties necessary to do so. You can’t expect that kind of bootstrapping from a person who has such an illness. If someone has a broken leg, we wouldn’t expect them to just be able to “get up and work,” so why expect it from someone with a mental illness? This is a great post.

  2. I appreciate the post, too. It is exactly right and it made me think.

    I’m curious, though, if all ya’ll think there is anything wrong with doing both — caring for the poor directly, as you say — giving them a fish — but also helping those to learn how to fish if they are able?

    Beyond that question, I’m wonder if you do object to this conference, are you advocating what is, in my mind, the opposite approach — which is to delegate caring for the poor to government?

    Or are you advocating that we all get out into the streets and become personally involved?

    It seems to me that just as Jesus did not say to teach a man how to fish, He also did not say delegate giving fish to the poor to government.

    I think that conservatives and progressives alike suffer from the same malady: we don’t want to actually do the work of feeding and caring for the poor with our own hands and a sacrifice of our own time. We are all so wrapped up in our busy, distracted lives that we either want to teach people how to fish, or we want to pay somebody else to give out fish.

    What do you think?

  3. I advocate direct action, indirect action, government action, jubilee principles of fair distribution and redistribution and second chances of the Scripture incorporated into our government and society.
    If you don’t have the time, send us your money. We receive no government money, because we never want the government restricting what we do. we had to sue the city in federal court in order to continue serving the poor last year.
    Training for jobs that aren’t there is just feeding the social work industry.
    COGs is starting some high and mid tech cottage industries that will hire and train some of these people. A portion of the profits will provide for more.

  4. Well, I was hoping for a substantive discussion about this, so after I asked my question here, I posted this post of yours on the AOI Observer blog because I thought it was a good one and raised legitimate questions about the idea of “teaching a man to fish.”

    I am disappointed there wasn’t much of a response here, so I’ll share part of the conversation that we had on the AOI blog in the context of the upcoming SVS Poverty Conference:

    One person quoted your post, and wrote:
    May 30, 2013 at 12:08 PM
    “I know a homeless man who went to Yale and is articulate and sharp. Odds are, he could teach me more than I could teach him.”

    If he went to Yale and is articulate and sharp, he is poor by choice. He’s actually the servant who buries his talent. St. Paul instructed the Church at Thessalonica to deny charity to such men.

    Ronda Wintheiser says:
    May 30, 2013 at 12:13 PM
    Unless, of course, he is ill physically or mentally and consequently unable to work?

    Another wrote:
    June 5, 2013 at 9:35 PM
    Good point, but the whole concept of “disability” has become elastic. My dad used to work part-time at the local Goodwill (as did my grandfather in his retirement). I often accompanied both to work and saw many people who were mangled or amputees. Some were mentally challenged. Yet there they were giving meaning to their lives and trying to pull their own weight, often helping others.

    On the other hand I saw dozens of able-bodied people who are “disabled” and receive SSI benefits. Are they 100% whole? No, but nobody else I know is (myself included).

    Except for a few hard-core cases, if public assistance is removed, people will go out of their way to at least try to make a living.

    Ronda Wintheiser says:
    June 5, 2013 at 10:52 PM
    Yes, I agree they will… I think it’s human nature.

    I guess I was speaking literally when I used the word “unable”. I had in mind a couple of scenarios — not hypothetical. I was thinking of someone like my sister who spent 15 years or so on the streets as a crack addict and an alcoholic. She was disabled — completely nonfunctional — by her alcoholic disease. It wasn’t until she engaged a treatment program and her own spiritual healing that she regained the desire to make her own way.

    And then there are those like my daughter who is 21 and has autism. She is and always will be unable to make a living or take care of herself independently. She functions on the same level as a 5-year-old. She doesn’t even comprehend the concept of “making a living.”

    And yet another person wrote:
    June 7, 2013 at 11:41 AM
    I used to supervise a day center for developmentally disabled individuals. I would say about 50% of them had jobs, some doing the work that a lot of able bodied would not do at a local grocery store, the others spend all day putting the toys in plastic bubbles for the bubble gum machines. Local companies would contract these jobs to the center and would actually bring the materials for these folks to assemble while at the center. The pay was meager, but the work, at least to them, was priceless. These people, who we would label “wards of the state” were busting tail every day. What was more interesting was that they never complained, they smiled, and lived for that work. A much better attitude that I have most of the time.

    I will never be able to reconcile the image that I saw there to that of those who are “able” and chose not to work in order to live off the state, or to most of us (me especially) who grumble at our jobs. It sort of breaks the stereotype of who is handicapped and who isn’t. Perhaps it redefines things.

    I would also suggest that those whom I “supervised” knew and understood the value of their work, they understood (even if not completely cognitively) on some level, spiritually perhaps, that they were making a living or even serving. It was almost a sort of liturgy, a joy that I don’t know that I had ever felt.

    Work, fulfilling work, taking care of oneself and others, providing a service, is MOST DEFINITELY a spiritual sense or attribute and I would suggest that this is what is lacking in American society. Especially among those who live off the state. This is the real evil of the state. It takes away our ‘spiritual sense’ on all levels of society. It slowly kills on a spiritual level by getting in between God and His creation.

  5. C’mon, you guys. We learned this stuff in kindergarten. 🙂

    You know, the story of the Little Red Hen.


  6. I don’t know what you meant by that last comment.
    But to post a discussion out of context on another blog is not exactly kosher or considerate to the posters. Conversations take place in a context.
    But to reply, I find it coldhearted and judgmental to say that people choose to just live off of the government. It is obviously written by someone who has never had to do so. It is not an easy life. It is almost a full time job just to barely scrape by at a hunger level these days.
    Very coldhearted and unchristian. This is the problem with the whole approach to that conference.

  7. Well, I apologise if what I pasted here seemed out of context; I thought it really fit in.

    I asked permission to do so, too, so I wasn’t being inconsiderate of the posters.

    Don’t you remember the story of the Little Red Hen?

    The Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat.

    She decides to be a good steward of it — of her “talent”.

    She wants to multiply it, and she knows that she can only do that with a lot of hard work. So, being a community-oriented kind of gal, she asks for help from the other farmyard animals.

    But… they decline… They are counting on the Farmer to feed them, so they don’t need to help the Little Red Hen with her grain of wheat.

    So she plants it herself… and then at each stage of multiplying her talent — harvesting the grain, threshing it, milling the grain into flour, baking the flour into bread… she asks again.

    Who wants to help me with multiplying this talent?

    No one helps.

    But of course, once the Little Red Hen has a loaf of aromatic, freshly baked bread, everyone wants some.

    Jesus said to feed the hungry, though, so she did. She fed her children. She fed those who weren’t able to feed themselves.

    But she had also read II Thessalonians 3:10, so she declined to feed those who could have helped, but refused.

    Mr. Coulter, I have lived off the state in the past, so I do know what it’s like.

    Have you?

    It’s slavery. To begin with, they intruded on just about every aspect of my personal life, intruding on choices I was making, moralising, and pressuring me to make different choices. More politically correct choices.

    I signed up for the assistance because I didn’t want to work that hard. I wanted my life to be easier and I didn’t want to struggle.

    In the end, it took me years of struggle to get off the programs because every time I was able to make a little extra money on the side, they took some of the benefits away.

    It robbed me of some of my dignity and self-respect. So eventually, I bought a small basket business with a credit card and I did without a lot of things so that I could get off the assistance.

    I feel a lot better now. I know that struggle is not something to run away from. There is self-respect to earn as well as a living.

    Which is something my daughter and the other disabled folks the guy above know but that apparently, you don’t…

  8. It was not clear to me that you had permission to share their comments here.
    I have had to receive assistance from the state before and from churches. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This does not mean that the state or the church should not be giving. It is never comfortable to be on the receiving end.
    You do not know what I do or do not know. I have been working with ex-offenders and homeless people for almost 30 years. You had a credit card, so you could buy a job. These guys can’t.
    There are no bootstraps to pull up!
    The assistance program in this country has been designed to keep people dependent. Everyone agreed it needed reforming. It got reformed. The problem is, the reform was written by rich men who had no concern for the real experience of people and no concept of what new problems and loopholes they were creating. Now we have massive Social Security Supplemental Income fraud and people being put on psycho-active drugs who don’t need them. They do this, because they can’t buy a job and don’t want to be homeless and freeze to death or starve when their 5 year limit runs out.
    I started my own business while on unemployment, on a shoestring and a credit card. I know. I use everything I have to help as many as I can escape the welfare trap and homelessness. And I scream against the demeaning, dehumanizing system. I have set reporters loose to expose the fraud in the social work industry. Don’t tell me what I don’t know.

    What I do know is that most so-called Christians have mistaken their blessings for personal success and have become greedy and unmerciful and have forgotten that all through the Scriptures, God tells us to give to the poor without condition or judgment; just like you wanted them to at the assistance office.

  9. No, not “just like” I wanted them to at the assistance office.

    You didn’t pay any attention to what I wrote about that experience.

    It’s weird, Mr. Coulter. I’ve conceded your points whenever I could, and looked for the things we agree about. I’m trying to find common ground with you and achieve a sense of friendliness as we debate.

    You seem intent on being as crabby and condemning as possible. You obviously have no respect for or interest in what I may have to offer.
    You don’t even acknowledge the things I’m saying to you. You just barrel through with contempt and irritation that is palpable.

    I didn’t say anything about what you know or don’t know. I asked.

    I wish it were obvious to you that we agree about a lot.

    The one thing we don’t agree about is that Christians should delegate to government what God has asked us to do personally.

    Fr. Hans Jacobse recently wrote elsewhere about his experience of doing this, and yes, I do have his permission to repost it.

    Fr. Hans Jacobse says:
    May 27, 2013 at 9:03 am

    “I can’t speak for Paul Schroeder’s organization because I don’t know anything about it but I do have a model that works.

    “When I lived in Minneapolis I was involved with Trinity Mission, an Orthodox organization that grew into the largest private food bank in the state of Minnesota. I was the liaison between Trinity and the Greek Orthodox churches.

    “As the food bank grew, dealing with the homeless became more pressing. We saw the homeless in two categories: transitional homeless and chronically homeless. We couldn’t do much about the chronically homeless because we were not equipped to deal with the causes — drug addiction, mental illness, and so forth.

    “The transitional homeless we could do something about — and did. A Greek Orthodox parishioner gave us the use of a fourplex he owned in the city. We moved families into each apartment, paid the utilities, bought the food, a bus pass, diapers, needed clothing and so forth for four months. Within those four months they had enough time to get themselves back on their feet, and most of them did.

    “Two of the best places for them to get their new start was McDonald’s and Walmart — businesses excoriated by the left but willing to hire anyone who would work. For many the stepping stone these jobs provided moved them back into economic self-sufficiency. Four months of no expenses allowed them to save money to rent a home, find better work down the line, and so forth.

    “The greatest resistance we encountered was from the state-sponsored food banks. On several occasions they tried to shut us down. Fortunately Norm Coleman (lost the Minnesota Senate race to Al Franken in a contested election) was mayor of St. Paul at the time and came to our defense. Our success rate was higher than the state sponsored outfits.

    “I generally don’t trust organizations that romanticize poverty. I am impressed with some ideas I see implemented in FOCUS that addresses the root causes of poverty, of which there are many. ”

    The difference I see in what Fr. Hans was involved in from what happens with government is that the interaction between the giver and the receiver is based on love, so it is far less demeaning than it is when you go into a beehive of bureaucrats looking for help.

    What’s more, a relationship of love is developed wherein evangelism may occur, and wherein the receiver may have an opportunity to be a giver, at some point, and thus regain some of his or her dignity, if necessary.

    In other words, the receiver meets Christ, and His Church.

    Why on earth would any Christian give up that opportunity by delegating the task to government? Makes no sense to me.

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