Can “bad money” be accepted for a good cause?

Q.  I recently read the law in Deuteronomy that forbids bringing “the earnings of a prostitute” into the house of the Lord. I was reminded of the scene in Gone with the Wind where Belle Watling, who runs a brothel in Atlanta, wants to contribute money to support the city’s hospital for wounded soldiers.  No one else will take her money, but Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, who’s portrayed as an exemplary Christian, does accept it, figuring that the hospital needs all the help it can get and that Belle’s motives in this case are noble.  Do you think Melanie did the right thing, the “Christian” thing, in light of this law in Deuteronomy?  (She doesn’t challenge Belle to stop promoting prostitution, but she might be able to do that eventually, if they could slowly develop a relationship, for the purpose of which accepting this donation would be a necessary beginning.)  More generally, should “bad money” be accepted for good causes?

That last question gets answered differently by different people.

Mother Theresa was criticized for her willingness to accept money from figures such as Charles Keating, who was infamous for his role in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, for which he was found guilty of fraud.  However, Mary Poplin, who lived and worked for a time with the Missionaries of Charity, writes in her book Finding Calcutta that the transfer of money from Keating simply illustrated for her the truth of the biblical statement, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”

On the other hand—perhaps to the opposite extreme—Amy Carmichael, founder of the Dohnavur Fellowship in India, felt she could only accept money from truly committed Christians who had given it in response to a direct leading from God.  (This was largely because she looked to the provision of unsolicited funds as a source of guidance and direction.)  She would not allow money to be raised for Dohnavur by “entertainments” or the sale of goods, and she actually returned money if she had reason to believe it had been raised through emotional pressure or manipulative appeals.

So maybe the decision whether to accept “bad money,” however this might be defined, for a good cause is something that should be left up to the conscience and leading of each individual, and we should respect what each person decides along these lines.  Margaret Mitchell certainly seems to have wanted us to admire Melanie’s Christian sympathy and kindness in welcoming Belle’s gift for the hospital, perhaps, as you say, as a first step towards a relationship that might help Belle ultimately recognize the evil of prostitution.

The law in Deuteronomy, for its part, is not specifically addressing the question of “bad money” for a good cause.  Rather, it is forbidding the Israelites to practice or permit temple prostitution, which was a financial mainstay of Canaanite religion.  Since Amy Carmichael founded the Dohnavur Fellowship in order to rescue Indian children from temple prostitution (a work the fellowship carries on to this day, along with organizations such as the International Justice Mission), we might say that she was honoring that law in its truest spirit, even if interpretations of its implications for accepting “bad money” for a good cause may differ.

Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (portrayed by Olivia de Havilland) speaks with Belle Watling (portrayed by Ona Munson) in the film version of Gone With the Wind.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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