Toxic Charity Book ReviewMar 21, 2012
Author, Dr. Robert Lupton, will be a panelist discussing the "Implications of When Helping Hurts for Christian Philanthropy" as part of our Global Leadership Network Annual Meeting May 18-20th in Atlanta, Georgia. You can learn more about the annual meeting here.
The impulse to help others in need is a beautiful and compelling force, a human movement that is bound up in the very nature of God. Compassion leads us to do bold things, to make large sacrifices, and to care across socio-economic lines. Compassion is in our spirits, an imprint of the divine on us all, moving us to show mercy. But compassion and mercy unbalanced by a keen eye to injustice results in charity that furthers barriers to meaningful transformation and maintains the gap between rich and poor. Compassion unchecked cannot create sustained change in an individual or family’s life.
In Toxic Charity Robert Lupton exposes unbalanced compassion and calls those who would help the poor to move from us-centered service to community-driven, people-centered development. In a society ordered around efficiency and results, those who engage in and support charitable work are often blinded by both. Throughout the book, Lupton reminds his readers that efficiency and speed are not the measure of success in poverty alleviation efforts, because lasting change in lives and communities takes considerable time and relational resources. Inseparably, the goal of true charity is not adequate food, money, and shelter, but holistically thriving individuals and communities. Lupton reminds Christians to sharply consider results in light of this foundational goal. Perhaps a large part of our toxicity in attempting to help the poor is more due to misplaced focus than anything else. We see others in need and are moved by compassion to act. But our focus and vision often stops there. Toxic Charity calls us to refocus our vision, considering the capacity, resources, and assets of the individuals and communities we seek to help. Reevaluate your compassionate service along with Lupton and consider how it may be more of a service to yourself than it is to the poor themselves.
Chalmers: A major challenge of Toxic Charity is to “redirect traditional methods of charity into systems of genuine exchange.” Lupton describes welfare as an addiction, not mainly on the part of recipients but of those helping them. What are your thoughts on the challenge for churches and others to shift their current ministries to be more developmental?
Marco: Lupton’s very blunt presentation to the toxicity of many church’s and organizational approaches to charity and outreach is convincing, especially based on the fact that he has been both a recipient and a participant in these actions. Many churches have never truly analyzed whether or not their ministries and missions are truly serving a greater purpose beyond the ability to put a checkmark on the church’s scorecard. The status quo has demanded that things continue because that is how they have always been done. The thought often is, “Outreaches to the community are good, whether or not they create dependency, because we are called to reach out to the poor.” Often members of the church question the actions they are participating in, but feel guilty for doing so. We are called to love our neighbor, and nobody has taught us another method of loving our neighbor. To give to the beggar on the street is a question that every believer who wants to be obedient to Christ has wrestled with.
Lupton educates us about a better way. Presented almost as a plea from somebody who has had to suffer through multiple churches’ grand projects and begging people to listen and change, Lupton shows us that there are steps that everyone can take to improve their service, support what God is already doing on the ground, and help be agents of real change.
I am reminded of my time teaching a Sunday School class at a juvenile detention center. Every Sunday prior to our class, a different church group was given the command of the service by the chaplain. Every Sunday the church pastor would preach a message, and make an altar call, and every Sunday all of the young people would stand and walk up to the front. Every Sunday! As one of those few outsiders who were there Sunday after Sunday, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the testimony of those church members when sharing how wonderful their outreach was, and how all the kids were so moved by the message that they all received the Lord. Was God working? Sure. Who am I to say that one of those kids wasn’t being sincere in their desire to repent and receive Christ? At the same time, my experience there also led me to see that the best source of transformation was the chaplain who daily spent time with those kids.
So how can a suburban (or otherwise distant socio-economically) church participate in the ministry of that chaplain or an urban ministry? The answer from Lupton’s perspective, in very simple terms, is to go, listen, and let those who are on the ground lead. Is a church or individual capable of taking this approach? Only with humility. We must accept that our education, greater economic status, or experience managing businesses does not give us authority to usurp the leadership of those who are members of a community
Chalmers: Lupton challenges supporters of poverty alleviation work to go against conventional financial wisdom by focusing their investments instead of diversifying them. What do you think of this advice? What is the draw of focused investment?
Marco: We can’t be all things to everyone, but we can be something to someone. Lupton suggests adopting a community, and having the church seek ways to successfully engage with that community, even by moving into the community, building relationships, and discovering the existing assets that can maximize transformation. Because development is long term, it requires a long-term holistic approach. If a church or resource partner spreads its “investment” (i.e. Resources) among a diversified portfolio (ie. Group of organizations and communities), they will often be seeking short-term results. If a church or resource partner focuses its resources, they are more likely to become agents of Kingdom change.
Chalmers: This, however, is not always how the resource community thinks when it comes to charitable giving toward poverty alleviation. When it comes to compassion, people often do things they wouldn’t think twice about doing in the business world. At various points in the book Lupton encourages readers that they need to put on the business lenses they use at work if they want to best promote sustainable, transformational development. Have you seen this dynamic at work?
Marco: In business training we are told that all capital expenditures must result in a proportional return on investment (ROI). How do we as a nonprofit measure adequate return on investment? How do we make capital expenditure decisions when our growth often will only result in more people served, and therefore higher operational expenses? The relationship between more people served and revenue is often inverse in the non-profit world.
Lupton draws us to the concept of thinking in terms of considering the value of our organization in terms of return on investment, with a long-term community transformation mentality. Without a doubt, the business-trained mind says that this is absolutely correct. The right indicators must be in place to determine successful outcomes (i.e. Key Performance Indicators), in order to ascertain whether or not the organization, program, or outreach is worth the high associated cost. Nonetheless, this is often distant from the reality of those who are working in the trenches whose measurements are often subjective and therefore impossible to quantify in terms that would satisfy a group of “investors.”
The counter argument is one that puts the value of one person who has restored in a right relationship with God, self, others, and creation, as priceless, infinite and eternal. Therefore, the argument goes, any expense is justified even if only one soul benefits, if only one family is lifted out of poverty, or one child is put on a path to success. How could we put a price on a starving child who was given sufficient food and medical care to lengthen his life?
It seems to me that Lupton’s exhortation is to find the balance between these two poles. Life is valuable because it is created in the image of God, and has been bestowed with inherent dignity and worth. On this fact alone, no price is too high and no sacrifice too big to seek the restoration of people to a right relationship with God, self, others and creation. Nonetheless, there are effective and ineffective ways to achieve this. Caring givers and advocates should seek to educate themselves about the most effective methods, and pursue organizations and approaches that have proven to give the greatest true return on investment. Lupton argues that these are those methods that are able to empower the communities that they seek to restore by listening to them, engaging them in the development, and giving them ownership of the process and the results.
Chalmers: What is your advice to churches and organizations that do not have the capacity or place to catalyze a community development process in their neighborhood? What are ways they can better work in light of the broader neighborhood and systems they are a part of?
Marco: My first suggestion is to see what is going on, and ask how you can support the work that is already present. Sit down with organizations that are highly respected and considered to be effective within the community. Pick one, maybe two that fit within your passion. There are people and organizations that have been involved in the work of that community for years. Seek them out, and find ways to serve them and volunteer for them. Don’t look to do your own thing.
Second, join efforts and forces with other churches in the area. Yet, this is where idealism often clashes with reality. One would hope that as Christians we could put some of our differences aside and reach across denominational boundaries, but often this is the greatest obstacle to community outreach. I was a member of a church that was asked by another congregation to teach a Bible study class in the local public housing community. The other congregation had the inside opportunity and had been invited to do so, but didn’t have the volunteer staff to do it. When the discussion came up among the elders, it was outright rejected, although the church I belonged to was seeking inroads into the public housing community. They, grievously, did not want to be associated with the other church in any way.
Chalmers: Perhaps this is a bias that churches and individuals need to examine. How much of our unwillingness to partner with those not exactly like us (theologically, politically, racially, economically...) is actually warranted and how much is unnecessary, selfish judgment?
What questions can we all be asking ourselves to evaluate our current partnerships? What questions can we be asking ourselves to evaluate the toxicity of how we help the poor? (We’d love to hear your responses in the comments section below!)
We enjoyed Toxic Charity and found it helpful for continuing to form a framework for walking with the poor and heartily recommend it to you. You can purchase a signed-copy of Toxic Charity here.
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