Toxic Charity: Good Work

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

The second vignette in this chapter is about the dignity that is given to us by “productive, meaningful employment” (p. 152). Here’s how Lupton starts off:

Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. And the creation of productive, meaning employment fulfills one of the Creator’s highest designs. Because of that, it should be a central goal of our service. (p. 152)

And he continues at the end of the section:

Our earliest glimpse of the cosmos is a creative God at work. And the original design of paradise pictures humanity at work... Work, all work, is an invitation from God for us to take an active role as coparticipants in an ever-unfolding creation. (p. 154)

Lupton isn’t wrong here. But he isn’t exactly right.

It is true that the opening chapters of Genesis show us a God who is engaged in the creation of the cosmos, and it might even be true to call that work. It is also true that Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden “to till and keep it” (Genesis 2:14, NRSV), and it might even be true to call that work. If you are going to search for the dignity of work in scripture, you could do worse than this image of a creative God and a laboring Adam. Such work is a blessing.

But it is also true that not all work is a blessing and that there is more to the story than cosmogony and paradise. After the man and the woman eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God curses them. For the man, the curse is work:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19 NRSV)

There is, perhaps, a lesson here. There is work that is good and fulfilling and life-giving. Like ordering the cosmos or tilling and keeping a paradise where there grows “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9, NRSV). And there is work that us cursed and soul-crushing and life-taking. Like the toil one must do to break through thorns and thistles so that one can eat bread until returning to the ground.

And this takes me to the story Lupton is telling in this section.

A neighbor’s house had burned down and, while the rubble had been cleared, Lupton decided to take on the job of clearing our the smaller debris and cutting the tall grass and weeds that had taken over. It would be a full day of work, so he “blocked out Monday” (p. 152) in his schedule. On that Monday morning, he picked up some supplies and noticed a group of day-laborers looking for work for the day, “just what [he] needed.” (p. 152) He selected two of the workers and ‘negotiated’ a wage by asking how much their labor would cost: “‘Ten dollars,’ they responded. Agreed.” (p. 152)

Lupton continues, describing the people who remained in the crowd of day laborers:

Strong, able-bodied men, up early in the morning, eager to work, willing to do menial labor for minimal pay. What inner drive compelled them to endure such a contest? Overdue rent? Child support? Families back in Mexico? Alcohol? The responses would have varied greatly, I know. But none would have revealed the underlying motivation: meaning. Life offers no fulfillment without work. (pp. 152-153)

Sigh.

Lupton is right that there are many people who are willing to work at menial labor for illegal – and immoral – rates of pay. They are willing to do so because they have to do so. Rent, child support, families far away, families nearby, medical bills, car payments, grocery bills, children hoping for college, etc. are not abstractions but real lived experiences. So are lack of opportunities, lack of education, lack of documentation for legal work, employer discrimination and a thousand other social factors that will force people to take jobs they would otherwise avoid for wages that would otherwise be insulting.

There is, in short, a larger social context in which day labor – and all labor – exists. It is a larger social context in which some people (like Lupton and me) are able to find fulfillment and meaning in their work and in which other people (like many low-wage workers) are able to use work to gain some access to fulfillment and meaning outside of work. In other words, I might enjoy going to work and find great meaning there. For others, work is the means by which they make the meager living necessary to find meaning in their families or hobbies or friends or what have you.

Or, to put that another way, some of us till and keep in a life where grows every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food and where we need not worry about the necessities of life; others eat in toil all the days of their life, struggling against thorn and thistle, living by the sweat of their brow until they return to dust. Some of us are blessed and some of them are cursed.

But Lupton doesn’t pay any attention to that. Instead he pays $1.25 per hour and counts on the meaning of that toil to make up the rest.

Toxic Charity: Service with Dignity

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

The first vignette in chapter nine is about attentive listening. Robert Lupton begins with a statement that, whether he knows it or not, captures the essence of what Paulo Freire called ‘dehumanization’ in a theological context: “Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth. And anything that erodes a rightful sense of pride and self-respect diminishes that image.” He further notes that those who have been “devalued by society” are especially aware of their own dehumanization at the hands of “the dominant culture” and that those serving the poor “have the responsibility to listen to what those in need are saying and... what is not being said.” (pp. 147-148)

And he is right.

Lupton goes on to illustrate this with a conversation be had with his neighbor Virgil. To summarize: A church group had put $20,000 worth of work into Virgil’s home, which he was deeply grateful for; however, he also felt insulted by the volunteers who came into his neighborhood because they insulted him and others by giving compliments – about how surprisingly clean the house was or how surprisingly smart the children were – that they weren’t even aware were backhanded. Lupton’s organization had arranged for these volunteers to come into the neighborhood, and he quickly moved to correct this problem by incorporating sensitivity training into volunteer opportunities.

Unfortunately, this made the conversations between volunteers and those being served stilted and over-cautious. Volunteers who were seeking not to offend couldn’t have the discussions they once had. This caused Lupton to question the value of having volunteers come into the neighborhood at all, but Virgil was quick to remind him of the good that the volunteers had done. Virgil went on to suggest that perhaps things would be better if the people in the neighborhood were the ones inviting the volunteers in. To take it even farther, the volunteer program now also includes guided conversations between volunteers and residents on worksites and in homes. It may not yet be to the point of friends helping one another, but it is now far more than outsiders coming into a neighborhood to help people they pity.

Perhaps the most important statement Virgil made, though, is this:

Trying to get rich white folk to change their deep-seated views by putting on a one- or two-hour sensitivity class isn’t going to change anyone. That kind of change takes years of close relationships... If neighbors agree that the price is worth the help, then they’ll welcome the volunteers and let honest friendships develop naturally over time if they’re going to.” (p. 151; emphasis mine)

Virgil knows what he’s talking about. And now Lupton has a very different volunteer program... which is clearly much more developed than the one he talked about in chapter five.

This is an excellent story. If there’s one thing that I hope I’ve been advocating through out this series, it’s the importance of developing the very long-term relationships and honest friendships that Virgil speaks of.

So what is this doing in this book?

Lupton writes about the importance of listening to what’s not being said, so let’s think for a moment about what’s not happening here. Virgil did not, to our knowledge, have to take a $20,000 loan out to have the work on his home done. Church volunteers didn’t send money in order to hire local people to work on each other’s houses. Lupton didn’t pick up on something that Virgil didn’t say. Virgil’s dignity wasn’t harmed by the fact that he was helped; his work ethic hadn’t been eroded by the volunteers; he hadn’t become deeply dependent on these church groups.

Instead, someone who had needed help spoke to his friend about some problems with how he had been helped and the neighborhood was mobilized to develop better relationships with volunteers, long-term relationships and honest friendships. We ended up with an attempt to practice charity – love - better. And most of what Lupton has been advocating throughout this book seems to have been missing.

Hobby Lobby Invests in Contraceptive Manufacturers

On the one hand, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the fact that the 401(k) retirement plan that Hobby Lobby provides to its employees, as Molly Redden at Mother Jones puts it, “held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices, and drugs commonly used in abortions.” After all, if you follow a chain of investments far enough, you’re almost bound to find a certain amount of hypocrisy. This, I suspect, is true even though – as Redden states – “religious investors can turn to a cottage industry of mutual funds that screen out stocks that religious people might consider morally objectionable.”

But perhaps this revelation will help Hobby Lobby and its supporters recognize that despite the company’s supposed Christian values, Hobby Lobby’s primary allegiance is to profit.

Hobby Lobby and the Anarchy of Mammon

Corporate Religion

Hopefully, everyone is familiar with the current ridiculousness that is Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. For those who aren’t, here’s the summary:

The Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) requires employers over a certain size to provide health insurance for their employees. That health insurance must cover all forms of contraception at no cost. Hobby Lobby – and, in a separate case, Conestoga Wood Specialties – don’t have a problem with providing most forms of birth control, but don’t believe that they should be compelled to provide insurance that covers emergency contraceptives like Plan B or certain other forms of birth control like IUDs. Hobby Lobby specifically believes that it should not be subject to this mandate because its “religious beliefs prohibit them from providing health coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices that end human life after conception” and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act states that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

There are plenty of reasons that Hobby Lobby’s position is problematic, but I want to focus on just one: Hobby Lobby already has a religion, and it isn’t any form of Christianity that has a sincerely held belief that contraception is wrong.

Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has made the point more than a few times that most white evangelical Christians don’t believe that contraception is wrong. Until recently, very few white evangelical Christians believed that contraception was wrong. In fact, it’s probably true that very few white evangelical Christians believed contraception was wrong until an African-American president and a Democratic majority managed to successfully pass major healthcare legislation.

Fred is also right that in ten years it will be inconceivable that there was ever a time when white evangelical Christians were ever anything but adamantly against contraception. Such a position will be as inconceivable as the idea that white evangelical Christians have ever been anything but fiercely anti-abortion. And yet as recently as 1973, the Southern Baptist Convention – while being against ‘abortion on demand’ – had a much more liberal position on abortion than it and many other white evangelical bodies have today... even going so far as to approve of Roe v. Wade.

Of course, religious beliefs change over time. Christians in general did not always believe that it was morally acceptable to charge interest on a loan, for example, and few Christians would insist that it is immoral to do so today. But when ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ swiftly change in a way that it otherwise advantageous to the believer, it is important to interrogate why those religious beliefs have changed so suddenly. It is one thing, after all, if the change in position over contraception by white evangelical Christians is the result of careful examination of other ethical positions. It is quite another if it is the result of a general political animus against any Democratic proposal (especially one brought into legal reality during the presidency of an African-American man).

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, bspencer has a similar point. Just as all religions change over time, all religions have a beginning. So what’s to keep an employer – or anyone else – from arbitrarily making up the rules to a new religion as the need presents itself? In bspencer’s example, the objection is to paying for insurance that covers allergy medication. But the objection could just as well be to paying a minimum wage or following OSHA guidelines or paying taxes. Where we seem to end up is in a place where the ‘religious objection’ and the government’s requirement to show that its own laws and regulations are not a ‘substantial burden’ apply to any belief that a person claims is a ‘religious’ one.

But that seems to me to lead to mere anarchy.1 Once we open up the religious objection in this way, there’s nothing to keep any person from claiming that any law violates the sacrosanct personal religious doctrines that they hold at the moment: one might have a religious objection to wearing clothes or recognizing private property or being required to have a license to drive or what have you. Suddenly, all objections to specific government actions can be claimed as religious objections and all disputes with the government are religious disputes.

But religion has to be more than whatever beliefs one happens to hold at the moment, no matter how sincere. Even though there are tremendous difficulties in defining exactly what religion is, it seems to be generally agreed that ‘religious’ beliefs are involve the beliefs of a community over time. And this is why it is important that most white evangelical Christians do not believe that contraception is wrong. This is how we tell which ‘religious’ beliefs are idiosyncratic – and thus might not be sincerely held religious beliefs, even as they are sincerely held for secular reasons – and therefore, perhaps, should be investigated by a different standard than the normative beliefs of a particular religious community. This is, for example, why there is a difference between the Catholic conscientious objector and the Quaker conscientious objector. The first is not part of a community where pacifism is normative, and thus has an additional burden to show that his pacifism is ‘religious’ and not simply a momentary belief that is convenient for keeping him safe during this war. The latter is part of a tradition with a well established belief in pacifism and therefore her beliefs are that much less likely to be beliefs held simply for personal convenience.2

So there must be something to ‘religious’ beliefs that distinguishes them ‘secular’ beliefs; some trait that let’s us know whether this or that belief is a ‘religious’ one. I have my doubts that the government is competent to determine what that difference is, but in any case where there is a question of whether a corporation can have its own ‘religious’ beliefs that difference must be part of the conversation.

There is also something more here, however. It is completely possible that Hobby Lobby really does in some sense belong to a distinct ‘religious’ community that has sincerely held certain beliefs about birth control over time and that it has endeavored to uphold those beliefs in its business practices. But there is also the simple fact that it is involved in business practices: it has a ‘secular’ commitment to the obtaining of profit even if that obtaining of profit is tempered by other ‘religious’ commitments. And here the line between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ comes into view. We usually do not notice that religious character of capitalism or statism, but any good scholar of religion can quickly and easily point out the disturbing similarities between devotion to the market or the state and devotion to the more traditional gods.

And this is what makes the idea of corporations having religious beliefs truly frightening. It is one thing, after all, if Hobby Lobby can demonstrate its religious bona fides in the fact of the Affordable Care Act. It is quite another if corporations turn the pursuit of profit into its own religion (or, more likely, simply become honest about its status as a religion). It is possible that Hobby Lobby really does have an overriding commitment to a certain idea of Christ, however wrong I might think that idea is. It is also certain that other corporations have no such overriding commitment and would simply seek to have whatever ‘religious’ beliefs are necessary in the moment to maximize profit.

This should give Hobby Lobby pause. It is questionable whether a company can be both for-profit and Christian: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24, NRSV) Hobby Lobby needs to ask itself whether it is fighting the contraceptive mandate because of deeply held Christian convictions or because avoiding the mandate improves its profit margins. Likewise, David Green – the owner of Hobby Lobby – needs to ask whether his $5 billion in personal wealth is becoming of a Christian.3

And the Supreme Court needs to ask what precedent is being set here. If corporations are able to have religious beliefs and if religious beliefs are defined by the one who holds them, does that risk profit becoming the god of most – if not all – corporations and their allegiance to that god becoming unassailable?


  1. Which isn’t to say that I’m against anarchy per se. I can appreciate the desire to live in a society where the coercive power of the state is given up in favor of voluntary community even though I cannot imagine human beings in our present state achieving such a community. It is, rather, the ‘mere anarchy’ that is little more than each person being able to do as they please that I reject. 

  2. It is conscientious objector status that would perhaps be the best winner in a world where ‘religious’ beliefs are simply whatever beliefs one holds sincerely at the time. It is currently very difficult to be a conscientious objector if one is not a member of a historic peace church, but it the ties to tradition and community were made unnecessary, then perhaps one really could avoid service if one objected to this particular war. However, I sincerely doubt that the power of the state – or the market – would ever be allowed to be so brazenly questioned. 

  3. I am well aware of Green’s charitable work and that he is a signatory to the ‘Giving Pledge’. That does not change the fact that a$5 billion is an obscene amount of money for one person or family to control. 

Toxic Charity: Chapter Eight Wrap Up

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

As I went through this chapter, I kept saying that I liked the points that Lupton was making and that if he had started with this chapter and kept it in minds while writing the rest of the book, we would have a very different book in front of us. It is impossible to argue with the oath that he proposes or with the importance of community development. With the exception of the basically incoherent last section of this chapter, the problem here is not what Lupton has written. The problem is what we know – from having read the rest of the book – he means by it.

And what he means by it is indeed problematic.

I don’t think I need to rehearse my criticisms with the books as a whole here. Those criticisms are readily available in the posts that make up this slow read and will be available at the end of this series, which we are rapidly approaching.

But I do want to say one thing. I have heard from congregations and the people who make them up that this is a good book. And I think many of those congregations and people have their hearts in the right place. They know that some forms of charity – and some charitable organizations – are toxic. They know that some forms of charity – and some charitable organizations – do more harm than good. And what they want is a way to avoid the toxic and harmful forms of charity and adopt the nontoxic and beneficial forms of charity. They want to know how to do this work of charity better.

And they think that Lupton is telling them how to do this.

But I am increasingly convinced that Lupton is not interested in telling people how to do this work of charity better. I think that he is not interested in exploring how people can live charitably. Rather, I am increasingly convinced that Lupton wants to convince people that charity itself is the problem.

And I think, in the end, that this means that he sees no alternative to the social, economic, political and spiritual systems that create and perpetuate poverty, inequality, suffering, oppression, etc.

And that troubles me greatly, because if the church should be doing anything, it is challenging those systems and presenting credibly the alternative that is the Kingdom of God.

Poverty and Proximity

Sarah Jaffe had an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week. Go read the whole thing, but read especially these two paragraphs:

I say “you” deliberately here, because much of the writing about low-wage workers tends to obscure just that fact — that these stories could well be about you. Too much writing on the left and the right has tended to treat the people in some of the nation’s most common jobs as if they are some exotic Other rather than our neighbors, our family members and ourselves. McDonald’s workers are trotted in to tell stories of hardship again and again, pushed for more detail, asked to lay themselves bare.

It’s a particular kind of emotional labor that we ask of these workers. In addition to the strength and courage to tell the boss, to his face, that you’re walking out because you’re sick of how you’re being treated, we demand that you perform the role of the poor person for us, and we squabble over the right things to do for you. Our discourse on poverty is fed by stories of misery; it gorges itself on tales of cracked ceilings and no heat and feeding the family on a few dollars a week. But this is just another way that the poor must prove themselves “deserving” and for the better-off to feel righteous for helping them.

Now, go back and read them again. They’re that important.

One of the greatest tricks that modern American discourse of poverty has pulled is that ‘the poor’ are – to use Jaffe’s words – “some exotic Other”. The national conversation on poverty tends to try to convince us that ‘the poor’ are in some far away place: another neighborhood, another city, another part of the country, another country altogether.

And churches participate in this creation of distance by thinking of ‘the poor’ as the people we serve who are outside of our church community. We might do local service – working with Habitat for Humanity, for example – but that is almost always for people outside of our immediate community. We might go on mission trips, but those are by definition for people who are at a literal distance from our communities.

But, as Jaffe again points out, ‘the poor’ are not an other. They are in our communities. They are a vital part of our communities. They are our neighbors, our family members and ourselves. They are the servers at our restaurants. They are the cashiers at our stores. They are the tellers at our banks. They are our healthcare workers. They are our public safety personnel. They are our communities.

And that means that what the discourse of distance tries to tell us is a lie.

‘The poor’ are not some exotic Other. They are us.

There are people in our neighborhoods and our business communities and our churches who are living paycheck to paycheck. There are people who are wondering how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage or utility bills or car payment or medical bills. There are people who are sleeping in a relative’s guest room or on a friend’s couch or in their car or at the shelter or not even at the shelter. There are people who do not know where their next meal is coming from. There are people who don’t know how or whether they will make it to next month or next week or tomorrow.

And they are standing next to us.

And, too often, we don’t even know it.

...

The church needs to be a lot of things. It needs mission trips and service projects and social justice committees. It needs youth groups and Sunday schools. It needs worship services and choir rehearsals. The church needs to be many things.

But at least one thing that the church needs to be is a place where people can ask for help and support from their communities. It needs to be a place where our eyes – all of our eyes – are open to the incredible need that exists in all of our communities. It needs to be a place where we can see that ‘the poor’ are not some exotic Other who must perform poverty in misery so that they will receive help from a stranger.

It needs to be a place where ‘the poor’ are not ‘the poor’ but are our brothers and sisters in all of their beauty and brokenness.

It needs to be a place where our hands – all of our hands – reach out in humble service and joyous fellowship.

Toxic Charity: When Collaboration Is Not Enough

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

Let’s start at the end of this section, and the end of chapter eight:

If collaboration is to ultimately benefit the community, it must be guided by ultimate outcomes... When community residents, local businesses, educators, and entrepreneurs come together to discuss important issues and develop action plans, community capacity increases. The community is then in a position to identify those additional resources required... to enable them to accomplish their goals. (p. 146)

That is a fair statement. Community development – if it’s really going to be about the community and not about outside interests or the community elite – requires the entire community to come together to determine their own future. This may include outside constituents – like service agencies, businesses or the market forces of global capitalism – or it may not, but the point is that it is up to the community. There’s an obvious weakness here, of course: all but the most isolated of communities are already caught up in realities influenced and determined by outside forces. But the core point remains valid: community development is dependent on the self-determination of the community.

But that’s not what this section is about.

Lupton begins this section with a very different idea of collaboration: “Collaboration... In social service, it’s cooperating for funding.” (p. 141)

It is true, as Lupton says in the next few sentences, that many grant-making organizations prefer making those grants to groups of organizations in collaborative relationships and that some agencies create somewhat artificial collaborative structures in order to take advantage of that preference. It is also true that collaboration offers many benefits, including “increased efficiency, economies of scale, elimination of duplication, and comprehensive service.” (pp. 141-142) And it is also true that some forms of collaboration – Lupton gives the example of Kroc Centers – might not be good for all communities.

Now, there’s a good opportunity here to look at what makes some collaboration good (e.g., democratic development involving input from the entire community) and what makes some ‘collaboration’ bad (e.g., placing a single multi-billion dollar service complex in a community without input from that community). But Lupton doesn’t take it. In fact, he doesn’t really talk about collaboration at all. Instead, he takes this opportunity to criticize service and make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it distinction between capacity building and service providing.

We can see this shift in topic when he writes about the research of John McKnight, who founded the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and who has researched asset based community development. Lupton describes McKnight’s research as criticizing services because,

(1) they divert money away from poor people to service providers, (2) programs are based on deficiencies rather than capacities, and (3) services displace the ability of people’s organizations to solve problems. (p. 145)

He then goes on to write: “[C]ollaborative efforts of organizations may actually serve to disempower the poor.” (p. 145; emphasis mine) Now, it is possible that McKnight really does believe that collaboration is problematic, but it is not collaboration that Lupton has just described. Rather, it is service (and I’m willing to bet that McKnight’s understanding of service is more nuanced than Lupton’s description implies). For reasons I cannot fathom, it is as though Lupton wants the reader to conflate the two ideas and come to the startling conclusion that both services and collaboration are bad.

And it is on this point that this section dissolves into the incomprehensible. As the last paragraph of the section – the paragraph with which we began – says, collaboration is good when it is collaboration between residents, local businesses, educators, etc. And such collaboration will result in a community that is then “in a position to identify those additional resources required (which may include service agencies) to enable them to accomplish their goals.” (p. 146) In such a situation, those service agencies – whether internal or external to the community – become collaborators in the development of the community. Such services – chosen by the community and invested in its development – seem as though they would be good things as well. In the end, both collaboration and service, done well, seem to be good things.

Which leaves me mystified as to what Lupton is attempting to do in this section. He passes up the opportunity to discuss good collaboration vs. bad collaboration or good service vs. bas service and instead manages to both criticize and compliment collaboration and service without making any such distinction.

Toxic Charity: Community Development Fundamentals

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

I wrote in my last post that if Lupton had begun Toxic Charity with that section and kept it in mind while writing, I suspect we would have a very different book before us. That sense continues in this section on the fundamentals of community development. Lupton begins by outlining three ‘stops’ advocated by Switzerland-based non-profit Medair: Relief, Rehabilitation and Development. Each of these ‘stops’ overlaps the others and has a part to play in moving a community from meeting immediate survival needs through increasing the ability of that community to respond to changing circumstances to “improving the standard of living for a population over many years of decades.” (p. 138) He then goes on to outline some principles to guide community development efforts. Among those principles focusing on things such as community, assets, leadership development and pace. (pp. 139-140)

All of this is excellent advice for organizations attempting to meet human need. Moving from meeting immediate needs to improving standards of living over the long term is exactly the sort of work that the non-profit sector should be doing. Similarly, the principles that Lupton offers are wonderful guides to developing long term community developing relationships with poor communities.

I am left to wonder, though, where this Lupton has been in earlier portions of the book.

I wrote before about a tension that runs through Toxic Charity between different kinds of relationships: “the trust-based relationships founded in agape that point to a potentially revolutionary style of charity that blurs the distinction between insiders and outsiders and, perhaps, even helps us live into the kingdom of God... [and] the transactional, rule based, score keeping relationships that turn charity into a handmaiden of modern Western capitalism and perpetuate injustice.”

Here, I suspect another tension beginning to show. I have criticized Toxic Charity heavily for its intense support of global capitalism and market-values and I have criticized Lupton for what I take to be his uncharitable concern that charity will foster dependency, erode work ethic and damage human dignity. Lupton, I have argued, appears too eager to deny people charitable assistance that he designates as ‘harmful’ or ‘toxic’. In this section, we see another side. Here, Lupton, among other things, acknowledges the need for relief and rehabilitation, recognized the reality and value of interdependence and indicates the importance of “indigenous leadership” (p. 140) that presumably could deny the power of the market as arbiter of values. I am tempted to suggest that Lupton is recognizing that the systems of global capitalism that help create and perpetuate poverty are unlikely to be able to solve those problems without an alternative way of organizing human life acting as a supplement.

None of which is to say that we don’t see the Lupton we are used to poking through. He is quick to point out that when we “focus on incentives” we should use lending that “is collateralized and has accountable repayment schedules” (p. 140), that “grants should be in the form of incentives rather than charitable gifts” (p. 140)1 and in his example for this section he writes of the importance of a crime reduction program that included demolishing a public-housing project and replacing it with privately owned mixed income apartments.

But I think that it is valuable to recognize the presence of this tension. And I continue to think that if this tension had been in front of us from the beginning of the book – and in front of the author while writing it – we would have a very different work.


  1. This “rather than charitable gifts” feed my theory that the title of the book – Toxic Charity – does not refer to a kind of charity that is toxic, but to the idea that charity is toxic by its very nature. 

Linky Goodness (March 12, 2014)

Some items from the saved pile:

Richard Beck (Experimental Theology): Theology and Peace: Part 1, Why Scapegoating is Like Axe Body Spray

The psychological reversal here is quite startling: Claiming to be the scapegoat so that you can scapegoat others: Claiming to be harmed so that you can harm others: Claiming to be injured so that you can injure others: Claiming to be the victim of violence so that you can inflict violence upon others.

Peter Enns: North Korea and a reminder to western Christians

Why aren’t we known across the board as the people who rage against abuse of power and the suffering that comes from it? Why aren’t we the ones that others look to and say, “I’m not really on board with what these Christians believe, but I know I can count on them to not stand for it when they see people suffering at the hands of corrupt and unjust rulers”?

Zachary Goldfarb (Wonkblog): Here’s proof that making money makes you more right-wing and less egalitarian

The authors concluded that their study confirms what many economists had already suggested: that people’s political choices are often motivated by self-interest.

Morgan Guyton (Mercy Not Sacrifice): No, David Brooks, the poor are not the prodigal son

Poor kids don’t have inheritance money to squander, and they often don’t have a stable home to which they can flee in their mid-twenties when life caves in on them. It’s not that rich people need to see that they are the cruel, heartless elder brother in the prodigal son story; there are many generous, compassionate rich people. The problem is rather the stereotype that poor people are in poverty because they “dropped out of school, committed crimes, and abandoned their children.” And thus they need to “repent” by becoming middle-class because helping them before they “repent” would be “enabling” them. As long as that stereotype is allowed to represent poverty uncontested, our rich congresspeople will continue to do things like cut the food stamp program in order to “teach” poor people “self-sufficiency.” Poor people make bad choices about as readily as rich people do, but they’re born into impossible circumstances where there’s no grace for bad choices.

Greg Hampikian (New York Times): When May I Shoot a Student?

In light of the bill permitting guns on our state’s college and university campuses, which is likely to be approved by the state House of Representatives in the coming days, I have a matter of practical concern that I hope you can help with: When may I shoot a student?

Adam Kotsko (An und für sich): A thought experiment

If the first distribution regime were the only possible one, I think we’d all agree that it would be better not to have the drug at all than to allow, say, 1% of the population to become Incredible Hulks and walk around among us — even if the Incredible Hulks were able to “create jobs” by forcing the weaklings to slave for them.

Christina Sterbenz (Businessweek): The For-Profit Prison Boom In One Worrying Infographic

No quote, just check out the graphic.

Toxic Charity: Community Transformation

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

If Robert Lupton had begun Toxic Charity with this section and kept it in mind while writing, I think we would have a very different book in front of us.

In this section, Lupton identifies a core problem of “dysfunctional communities perpetuat[ing] pathology” (pp. 132-133) and the need for people with the resources of healthy communities to engage in “geographically focused vision with measurable goals over extended time.” (p. 133, emphasis original). He goes on to write that in attempting to engage in this vision, it is important to identify the leaders and resources of that community and to “listen [sic] and respect indigenous leadership and learn the dreams of the people.” (p. 136, emphasis original).

I could not agree with this more. However, there are some details I want to add.

First, I think Lupton identifies communities with neighborhoods a little too strictly. Some communities are geographically restricted neighborhoods and some cross those geographic boundaries. This is a minor point, but I think that it is still important to note that – while geographic focus is valuable – it can be useful to think in social networks and communities that are not confined to a single geographic area.

Second, with people from different communities meet in humility and service we can easily see – and Lupton points out – that all communities have resources. While Lupton points to three major resources that may be found in some communities and not others – safety, good schools and economic viability – we should not be too quick to assume that other resources may be found in ‘poor’ communities that are often not found in middle-class communities. Those of us who are among the haves can learn from those who are among the have-nots how to improve not only their communities, but ours.

Third, among the things that those of us among the haves from those who are among the have-nots are different ways of organizing human life. For example, while we might imagine economic viability in poor communities being dependent on microloans and entrepreneurship, a poor community may imagine economic viability to be dependent on greater community interdependence and the creation of new market structures. Similarly, while we may imagine better education being dependent on after-school programs, another community may imagine a better education being based on forms of community schooling and access to better textbooks. The point is that if we are listening to and respecting community leaders and learning the dreams of the people of that community we should also seek to understand the way they organize human life in their community and respect that... and, I would suggest, learn from that.

Fourth, the logistics of entering into these relationships does not have to be as strict as Lupton suggests. While he makes a distinction between community development (a geographically focused vision with measurable goals over an extended time) and community service (presumably other forms of community ministry), I think that there is room for both.

For example, the organization that I work for is engaged in community development in some areas of our community and community service in other areas. The areas where we are doing community development and those where we do community service are interrelated, but require different kinds of responses in order to have an impact. We also accept mission trip volunteers from across the United States, some of whom come year after year – or even several times a year – and some of who come less frequently. Some of these mission trip groups – almost all of whom are from churches – see our community as one to which they are dedicated. Others have communities closer to home to which they are dedicated, while a trip to our community is an opportunity to learn from the work we are doing. The point is that community-to-community relations can be complex and that there is room for different churches to have different kinds of relationships with different communities as well as for there to be multiple layers of relationship.

With those pieces added, I could not agree more with the ideas that Lupton presents in this section. But this doesn’t seem like the attitude that Lupton has been presenting in the book so far. Instead, it very much seems like the rest of the book has been concerned with presenting a certain ideology as the way to relate to and help those who are poor. And that is unfortunate, because I think that the attitude displayed in this section would lead to a way of thinking about helping the poor that would be nothing short of revolutionary.