Can your theology answer THIS question?

Throughout this quarter, I kept running up against a wall when I thought about the theology that we studied for our Introduction to Theology course. As I mentioned previously, we studied one author (Paul Tillich) and his systematic theology, which was very complicated, enriching, but also thoroughly academic and often times, in my opinion, somewhat disconnected from reality. For the course, we were required to meet with the professor to discuss our thoughts, and we talked about some of my reservations. It was basically this question: Can your theology answer these questions, that I have run into in travel, work, and life?

And I wrote them up. Somewhat more articulately than I spoke them when I was in his office. Here’s the first one.

What is the appropriate response to a begging eight year old at the Mumbai local train station, a baby strapped to her hip, a brother in tow? When I give these children money, what does it mean? Is it simply the right thing to do without question? In doing so, am I supporting the begging cartels that pimp out these children, that rent babies to begging children? What should I be more concerned about: supporting a system that exploits, or the demand in front of me?

I had an argument with a coworker in Mumbai when I gave money to one of those children. I recognized her; she was always at the Nallaspoara stop. She begged at the rickshaw stand and she had a baby strapped to her hip, a little brother walking around behind her. Both were dirty, hair matted, and she didn’t speak any English, so all she said was “Didi, didi,” and held out her hand. I observed that the Indian men who we worked with gave her money at one point, and so I gave her my change. This girl told me that I shouldn’t give money; it only goes to the cartel leader, or their abusive father, or whoever forces them to beg. (Let’s leave aside, for a second, that we don’t know what their background is, or if anyone is forcing them to beg.) I replied, “Well, maybe they won’t get beat tonight because they made enough.” And that, to me, seemed logical enough. But not every day. Some days I didn’t want to. Some days I didn’t have any extra.

children from the One! International School

But how critical would our theologies ask us to be of systems like this? Tillich is big on ambiguities. You can’t know anything, really, about anything; it is all gray, no black and white. But what might he say about the things that children are forced to do in cities like Mumbai? What might he say about the ways that children are raised in communities of deep violence? Is this merely an “ambiguity of life”? That doesn’t seem like a legitimate answer to my question. There must be a better answer to a child beggar than “slip her some change”, and I know it can’t be “don’t support the cartel at all”. So can your theology answer this question?

[Picture is the kids from Khar at One! International practicing their adorable Tortoise and the Hare sketch, almost two years ago now.]

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