I sat down this morning to write a serious post about the ethics of love, compassion and social policy. In particular, I wanted to talk about how Christian love, in order to be real and not just a pious gesture, must expose itself to the risks of deliberation and practical action within the field in which it is concerned to act.
But somehow, instead of that serious piece the following little parable came out. I hope that in its silly way it raises the issues that a more straight-laced piece (still to be written) will need to cover.
It all started simply enough. A homeless guy called Jim turned up on my doorstep one day asking for money to buy food.
Now I’ve been round the block at least once, and wasn’t falling for that one (‘food’ … yeah right). But I did feel very sorry for Jim. In fact, more than that, I felt angry that the system had so let him down, and that he was forced to go house to house for food. It was typical of the lack of compassion and commitment from the government. It was OK for them to fly around in helicopters to fund-raisers, but their heartlessness towards the poor and the homeless made me ashamed to be Australian.
So I offered Jim some actual food, not really thinking he would go for it.
To my surprise, Jim said, “Sure, whatcha got?”
As it turned out, not much. Shopping day was tomorrow and the cupboard was bare. But my wife had baked a cake for Bible study, and I didn’t think she’d mind—so I offered Jim a hefty slice.
He accepted with a smile, and I took a selfie with me and a grinning Jim. Up it went to Facebook #cakeforJim.
And that was that, or so I thought.
The next day, Jim was back with ten mates.
“Got any more cake?”
Since (according to my wife) the way I had “hacked the cake to pieces” had rendered it no longer worthy of Bible study, there was plenty to share with Jim and friends.
This time the Youtube clip of me handing out the cake was tagged with #cakeforeveryone (Jim’s idea). And I was pretty pleased (just quietly) with how much engagement it got. Quite massive numbers of views, likes, shares and tweets.
But the next day, three disturbing things happened.
First, I was out driving, and saw a card table set up outside the local Woolworths, manned by a somewhat cleaned-up looking Jim, with a sign saying “Great cheap cake: $2 a slice”. I slowed down to stare, and Jim smiled and waved.
Second, when I got home, 115 scruffy looking people and a TV news team were on the front lawn. Three thoughts flashed into my mind in this order: “If they damage that newly laid Sir Walter, there’ll be hell to pay”; “This could be huge—I’ll be on TV tonight!”; “We have no cake”.
I elbowed my way inside, and headed in panic for the kitchen. The wonderful smell of baking greeted me, and there she was (the trooper!), cutting up two massive slabs of chocolate cake. “Nice of you to turn up, Mother Teresa”, my wife said. “They started arriving three hours ago.”
I gave her a grateful peck on the cheek and carried out the cake to the waiting multitude.
But then the third disturbing thing happened. I noticed that Jim had turned up, and was talking intently to 12 or so of the group, who then shouldered their way to the front and took three slices of cake each before I could do anything about it. I also noticed that five of the ‘homeless’ people were in fact uni friends of my son who lived in student digs around the corner.
This was getting complicated. Clearly if this was going to continue I would need to put some rules and guidelines in place. But in the meantime, the cameras were rolling, and so I kept smiling, and even found the nerve to give a little speech: “I don’t consider myself a hero. Just an ordinary person with a few ounces of compassion for the homeless. What I want to know is why the government can’t find even a shred of humanity in their cold hearts. I’m only giving out cake because they refuse to!”
The cake was soon gone, and very shortly thereafter so was the crowd, although a dozen who missed out on cake hung around for a while looking disgruntled.
I went back inside and sat down to do some hard thinking. Obviously I’d started something, and there was no backing out. It wasn’t worth thinking about what social media would do to me if I bailed at this point!
But if this was going to work longer term, I’d need to get organized and have a system. I didn’t want Jim and his gang reselling most of my cake outside Woolworths (and doing who knows what with the money); I didn’t see why I should be supplying cake to those student bludgers around the corner; and I definitely didn’t want the lawn cut to ribbons any more than it already had been.
And there was also the problem of cost. It this kept growing, we wouldn’t cope. Cake doesn’t grow on trees! A modest bit of cost recovery would clearly be necessary.
So the next day when the crowds started to assemble, I was ready for them. I met them outside the front gates, which I’d closed and bolted. I’d set up a little rope line so that people would have to form an orderly queue, and I’d made a sign saying, #cakeforeveryone, $1 a slice, 1 per person, genuine homeless people only (no students!).
This seemed extremely reasonable to me, and still very compassionate. But there was a fair bit of muttering—more than I expected—and a decent number of people drifted away.
When Jim got to the front of the line, he paid for his piece (I know where he got that money from), and asked whether he could take six more pieces for mates of his who were too sick to make it. I said absolutely not, and he fixed me with a bitter stare and said, “You heartless, bureaucratic, little &*$#@!”.
I was shocked by this. But not nearly as shocked as when Jim pulled out his mobile (where did he get that from?!) and snapped a photo of me frowning next to my sign. It was all over social media before I’d even run out of cake #moredashedhopes #cakeifyoucanpay #capitalismwinsagain.
This was a disaster.
I tried to explain the complexities in a post on Facebook, but no-one wanted to listen. You wouldn’t believe the comments I got. All of a sudden, people just hated me. It was unbelievable.
But not as unbelievable as what greeted me next morning, when I went outside with the cake and the money tin.
There was a smallish line of somewhat defeated looking people waiting for cake. Across the street, however, a massive crowd was shouting and chanting on the nature strip. Jim had rounded up his mates, the uni students had brought along most of the arts faculty, and a TV news crew was filming the whole thing.
I stared in horror as they held up their banner.