On the way to school we pass an old bearded beggar, holding up his humble wares. I passed him going and then in the evening, coming back from an event. That time I stopped, gave him whatever money I had, and asked him his name.
His name was Chaminda and he said he needed money for his mother, who had cancer. To buy Sustagen (a nutritional drink). Chaminda looked pretty old himself so I was surprised by this. I kept going and I haven’t seen him for a few days.
In Sri Lanka the assumption is that beggars are lying, or that they’re part of some scheme to rip you off or something. To this I always answer, who cares? What a shitty scheme, to stand on the street all day. What a rip-off, 500 rupees here and there.
We live an an age of global ponzi schemes run by bankers and wankers, which regularly destroy the real economy. We get ripped off through wage theft and the theft of the entire climate every day. And we worry about the beggar standing by the way.
We worry so much that one person might get something they don’t deserve, and I think beggars really deserve it. He’s the one standing in the hot sun all day, while I cruise around in my air-conditioned living room. What if he spends it on drugs? Who cares. God knows I’ve spent enough on drugs myself.
What I find most striking about the beggars on the edge of the system is that, at least here, they engage in some token form of capitalism. They sell incense, or lamp wicks, or camphor balls, or some trivial commodities. They still have to carry offerings to the god Capital, before we give any donations to them.
This is what gets me. A person cannot have worth as just a person. Even charity is defined on how you can be useful to me. We cannot just give. Everything must be an exchange. A tax benefit, a gala event, or some camphor balls in the shade. Capitalism is so all consuming, everything must at least look like a trade.
Ever more often since the pandemic, we get beggars at the door. For some reason I always think that they might be angels, or that the Buddha was a beggar as well. As Jesus said:
And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
And then I remember that Jesus said to give away everything and follow him, and I truly feel that I’m not giving enough.
Sometimes, given our culture, the people try to bow and worship me, for giving them like $10. I try to stop them. It feels sacrilegious. I mean, it is. What do we really worship? What is this smiting god?
A lady and her husband came around the house, selling woven doormats. I bought some with the children. She then came back and asked for a large amount of money, saying she needed to restart her business after some mishap.
With begging I’m always struck that we give people enough for a daily meal, but never enough to feed themselves. Survival but never the investment to get up and out. It’s like don’t die on me, but don’t live either. So I gave her what she asked for.
People practice mutual aid like this sometimes. Often families or widows will ask for a few goats or even a cow, to gain some income. It is the classic entry into ‘the economy’, getting some basic form of capital which can generate income, and not just the daily hand to mouth.
Then she called again about how her mother died and she needed money for a funeral. Whatever I gave isn’t really enough. It’s never enough. Do you have enough money? Does the biggest billionaire? Everyone seems to always want or need more and more. It’s like it cannot be enough. The whole system is fucked and it doesn’t want to be unfucked.
Who’s going to sell incense? Who’s going to make doormats? Who’s going to form the reserve army of the unemployed, desperate to labor for survival? Who’s going to stand on the street, showing everyone else what awaits them if they fuck up?
Beggars are not on the edges of capitalism in that sense. They are a vital part of capitalism. They are the personification of the idea that we cannot take care of each other, that we should not take care of each other. When we pass them without doing anything, it’s like taking capitalist communion.
I guess this is why I often think of Jesus when I pass beggars. He said “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” As St. Teresa of Avila said,
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
But what have we done with Christ, or the Buddha, or the Prophet Muhammad? Christ is a golden trinket around our necks, his instrument of torture wrought in the instruments of capital. The Buddha is picking up the priest in a Mercedes Benz for a dhane. The kaaba in Mecca is surrounded by shopping malls.
Every prophet becomes entombed in a church, which itself becomes a huge holder of capital, and which then does just little bits of charity on the side. We are all beggars in front of capitalism, even gods must ask for donations to survive.
Every day I pass people on the side of the road, and every day I continue going down the same road. Sitting in a literal investment vehicle (cars go up in value in Sri Lanka), spewing fumes out the back, while people furtively tap on the window, reminding me of everything we leave behind.
Honestly, I look at beggars and I feel like I leave myself behind. I leave Jesus behind. I leave the Buddha behind. I see all I’m supposed to do, and I think it’s too fucking hard, it’s too inconvenient, and I just can’t be bothered. I just give some token amount of money, close the window, turn up the radio, and drive on by.