Moving Forward

One of the side projects I’ve been working on is a personal website, under my real name, featuring my bio, portfolio, and occasional blog posts. Part of what I’m going to do with the new site is take some of the work from Radical Charity that I’m particularly proud of, polish it up, and post it there. Since the new site will also be my primary site, I am going to end this site and move the Radical Charity name to the new one.

I’m not quite sure on the timeline for this, but it will be in the next few weeks.

If there’s specific content at Radical Charity that you would like to see on the new site, please let me know in the comments!

Quiet for a Bit

Some projects at work, plus two new side projects, are taking up a substantial amount of my time at the moment. Unfortunately, this means that things will be even quieter than usual for a while. I will resume regular posting as soon as I’m able.

Looking for the Next Slow Read

It’s been a while, but after more than a year and somewhere around 60 posts we’ve finished Toxic Charity. You can find the complete series on the Slow Reads page.

It is now time for a little break from the slow reads. But I would like to start thinking about the next book – or other work – we’ll go through on Radical Charity. I’d like to get away from the ‘the way we do charity is a problem’ genre of books while keeping the focus on charity and Christianity. Other than that, though, I’m open to suggestions.

So, dear reader, what would you like see the next slow read cover?

Toxic Charity: Concluding Thoughts

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.

Over the last year-and-a-few weeks, I’ve gone through the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert Lupton in rather more detail that I suspect anyone wanted. In this final post on the book, I’ll summarize my overall impressions.

The Nuts and Bolts Practical Advice

Let’s start with the one thing I found good about this book: in general, the nuts and bolts practical advice is good. Striving to empower the poor, subordinating self-interest to the needs of those being served, measuring and evaluating the impact of ministries, etc. are all positive things that every charitable organization – religious or secular – should engage in. If what you’re looking for is some basic tidbits of practical advice, then you could do a lot worse than Toxic Charity.

The problem, of course, is that you could also do a lot better. Lupton provides glimpses of practical advice that have become common knowledge among service providers, community developers, and ministry leaders; however, he provides very little detailed exposition on any of them.

That’s not to say that he provides no models of what he would think of as better forms of ministry, merely that what he does offer is scant and poorly organized. There are, for example, a whole six pages of ‘community development fundamentals’, of which two pages are a description, one-and-a-half pages are principles, and two-and-a-half pages are an example of improving a neighborhood by building a golf course! Thirty-odd pages later, he returns to ‘asset-based community development’ for roughly three pages. Put simply, any church looking to create a roadmap to implementing Lupton’s vision for ministry will have to piece that together on their own. And that means that they would be better off looking for that roadmap elsewhere.

Anecdotes and Gut Feeling Rather Than Data and Analysis

If we are serious about the question of how effective churches and charities are at helping the poor – and especially if we are going to run with the charge that traditional charitable models not only don’t help the poor but actually hurt them – we need several things: an understanding of what it means to help the poor, a way of measuring the effectiveness of charitable organizations, on-the-ground observations and measurements of those charitable models, etc. If we’re going to take the extra step of proposing that other models – microloans, forced entrepreneurship, etc. – are more effective in relation to a certain understanding of helping the poor, then we’re also going to need observations and measures of those models and ways to compare them to traditional models.

In other words, we need data.

What we get, though, is anecdote. Nearly every section of every chapter has a story in it, which can be good and effective writing, but none have any actual data in them. In some cases, this is understandable: how do you quantify the effects of dysfunctional relationships like the one between Ann and Janice, or the feelings of someone whose family receives Christmas gifts from charitable visitors? While we could do studies on these things and others through surveys and interviews, I can’t fault Lupton for not conducting them. In other cases, though, there is data available: I was able to spend several posts on the subject of microloans because of the excellent work of Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who also explore other data related to how we help the globally poor. Poor Economics, of course, came out after Toxic Charity, but I find it hard to believe that Lupton had no opportunity to use actual data in his work.

This is especially important when we look at how Lupton characterizes the moral quality of traditional charitable models and their effects on the poor. It is one thing to suggest that traditional charity doesn’t help the poor. It is quite another to say that it “encourages ever-growing handout lines” (p. 4), “diminish[es] the dignity of the poor” (p. 4), “erode recipients’ work ethic” (p. 16), “deepen dependency” (p. 16), and so on. These are serious charges – and common right-wing talking points against anti-poverty programs – and they need to be backed up by more than Lupton’s bare assertions.

But in most cases in Toxic Charity, we are left with Lupton’s anecdotes and assertions. Moreover, these anecdotes and assertions are themselves often incomplete. In some cases, it is simply a case of leaving out details that Lupton doesn’t deem important to the point he is making at the time. For example, he describes Georgia Avenue Urban Ministry (now Urban Recipe) as a ‘food co-op’, ignoring the much more complex model that it actually practiced. This is, perhaps, a minor point. Why would Lupton need to explore such ministries and programs more deeply than necessary to make his point? But there is something important here, and we see it throughout the book: Lupton tells us just enough of a story to confirm his assertions, but nothing that might cause us to call those assertions into question.

In other cases, it is a matter of not looking beyond his own ideological blinders. Lupton tells the story of a family being brought gifts at Christmas by well-meaning donors and of the father of that family slipping away in embarrassment over not being able to provide those gifts himself (p. 32-33). In the midst of this story, he notes that “even the most kindhearted, rightly motivated  giving… can exact an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity.” (p. 33). Lupton isn’t necessarily wrong about this, but he manages to tell this story and make this assertion without examining the toll that exploitative economic systems – the systems that ensure this father is out of work or that his work does not lift him out of poverty – take on that same person. Interestingly, we see this very system when Lupton writes about the dignity of work: a section in which Lupton himself hires day-laborers at frighteningly low pay – running no risk that these same laborers won’t be in front of the Home Depot the next morning vying with others for low-wage (often illegally low) work that will not lift them out of poverty – while pontificating about the dignity that work brings and suggesting that the real reason they take this work on is that “life offers no fulfillment without work.” (p. 154).

Finally, in a few cases, he accepts the research and analysis done by others uncritically. For example, he uncritically accepts Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, a book that applies the same ideology to foreign aid and its recipients that Lupton applies to charity and its recipients. He does this while ignoring the larger colonial, post-colonial, and cold war contexts in which much of that aid took place, a criticism that has been applied to Dead Aid itself (you can find a library’s worth of criticism here). None of this is to say that Dead Aid provides nothing worthwhile or that aid to Africa isn’t worthy of reevaluation. Rather, it is to point out that Lupton uncritically accepts the conclusions of a book over which there is considerable debate. Importantly, he does this without engaging with any literature that disagrees with his ideology or his conclusions.

Overall, Toxic Charity ends up being little more than Lupton’s opinions ‘backed up’ – insofar as it is possible to back things up in this way – by anecdotes. They are good anecdotes, of course, and Lupton’s opinions are informed opinions; Lupton has years of experience engaging in urban ministry. However, Lupton is not simply sharing his experiences. He is asserting that traditional charitable practices are actively harming the poor in rather specific ways and that we need to radically overhaul the charitable sector to align with a particular ideology. And taking those assertions seriously requires more than anecdotes and gut feelings, it requires real data and thorough analysis.

Christ and Ideology

The subtitle of Toxic Charity is ‘How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)‘. The book isn’t just about how the church ought to serve the poor, but it is about how the church should serve the poor. That being the case, one might expect there to be a serious exploration of both the nature and purpose of charity broadly construed, but also the nature and purpose of specifically Christian charity. That’s not to say that Toxic Charity should have been a philosophical or theological treatise on the charity. It is, however, to say that there should be some thread of a discussion of what responsible Christian charity – charity that is responsible to both the recipient and to Christ, who we are reminded by the Gospel of Matthew are one and the same – looks like.

That thread is, of course, absent.

Lupton does write about the church: he writes of the scandal of “religious mission trips” (p. 5, with further references on pp. 14-18 and 65-70), he refers to his own Presbyterian church (p. 11 and again on pp. 65-66), he writes a section on “ministry entrepreneurs” and another on how “bad business equals bad ministry” (pp. 18-26), there is the already mentioned Christmas story (pp. 31-39), there are various anecdotes about and examples of church-based programs for the poor (see especially pp. 51-61), there is a brief look at the relationship between faith and trust (pp. 61-63), he laments a lost relationship with a church over poorly organized volunteering (pp. 70-75), he discusses what churches’ ‘mission portfolios’ should look like (pp. 75-78), he writes about a Christian ministry seeking to end hunger in Kansas City (pp. 97-102), he writes at length about the work of Christian microlending organization Opportunity International (pp. 18-22 and pp. 108-125), he reminds us that we are created in the image of God and thus have “intrinsic worth” (p. 147), he reminds us of the sacredness of work through reference to vocation and God’s own creative activity (pp. 152-154), and so on. He occasionally references scripture: Micah 6:8 receives the attention of almost an entire section of a chapter (pp. 39-42) and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is name-checked (p. 44), while other scriptural references lurk in the background or appear more subtly in the text. And he offers some references to Christian thinkers and leaders: Jacques Ellul (p. 34), Gary Hoag (p. 45), Andy Bales (pp. 45-46), and Ron Sider (p. 46).

In short, he looks at the church and Christian practice through the lenses of scripture and his own experience. Moreover, he both complements and criticizes the church for its approach to service to the poor. What he does not do, however, is present a vision for charity rooted in the gospel. He does not present a vision of specifically Christian charity. Rather, he presents a critique of and vision for charity rooted firmly in the ideology of global market capitalism.

As already mentioned, Lupton’s characterization of the problems with traditional charity is a litany of common conservative complaints against anti-poverty programs: they diminish the dignity found through earning what one has, they erode recipients’ work ethic, they deepen dependency, etc. All of this appears to be rooted in the fact that traditional charity is based on the radical of idea of giving to a person as they have need (see, for example, Matthew 25:31-46 or Acts 4:32–37). According to Lupton, this way of performing charity creates toxic relationships. Lupton believes that rather than engaging in such ‘toxic’ charity, we should seek opportunities to enter into relationships based on “reciprocal exchange” (p. 37):  “The challenge for those of us in service work is to redirect traditional methods of charity into systems of genuine exchange.” (p. 38)

In other words, true charity is not giving to those in need, it is selling to those in need.

Lupton goes on to make cases for the importance of making the poor work – even if that means that they must become entrepreneurs and take on the associated risks (p. 121)  or work for day-laborer wages (pp. 152-154) – and the importance of providing the poor with access to loans and, therefore, debt (pp. 113-123).

In short, Lupton is proposing that the problem with charity is that it is not capitalism. His solution follows rather logically: the poor need to be re-embedded into the systems of global market capitalism. While I have tremendous doubts, I will not deny the idea of the redemption of capitalism. It is possible that we may yet find a way to reform capitalism so that it is not a horribly exploitative system that enriches a minority while leaving the vast majority of people mired in poverty. What I will deny is the idea that global market capitalism as it currently exists is compatible with the Christian gospel. That incompatibility is only magnified by the practice of demanding that the poor pay for assistance, whether from the meager savings they have or through interest-bearing loans.


Toxic Charity has become a popular book, and the ideas that are in it are even more popular. I have ceased to be astonished at the number of articles I see proposing ways to reform charity that amount to little more than moving the poor into low wage jobs that will keep them poor or asking them to take out loans in order to maintain their current level of poverty, all while reducing access to anti-poverty programs and charitable services. I have little doubt as to why these ideas are so popular: the oldest exercise in moral philosophy is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

Perhaps that’s taking it a bit far, but the logic of Lupton’s proposals – that giving is toxic, while work and debt are healthy – is perfectly amenable to the ideological atmosphere in which we live; an atmosphere where almost everything is thought to have a cost. Under the logic of this ideological atmosphere, someone must bear the cost for improving the lives of the poor, and Lupton places that cost squarely on the poor (who pay the cost in dignity and self-sufficiency) and, in an underhanded sort of way, on the donors (whose money is wasted). He does this while essentially arguing that the market for improving the lives of the poor is inefficient: the dignity and self-sufficiency spent by the poor and the money spent by donors are all wasted as the lives of the poor do not actually improve. In a sense, what Lupton is proposing is a more efficient market that become more efficient by paradoxically shifting the costs to the very people who by definition cannot pay them: the poor.

There is a reason that I say that this is an atmosphere where almost everything has a cost. Wealth can be created for those who already have it without exacting a cost: loans create new money for lenders in the form of interest by, according to Lupton, tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of the poor. This isn’t entirely wrong; new money really is created in the lending process, but it is also true that the costs of lending are often hidden from lenders. Those of us lending money in the form of microloans don’t have to worry about the interest rates, strains on social capital, or the fact that many of the globally poor would gladly trade the opportunity to be entrepreneurs for a job with security and a steady paycheck.

The reason that this whole scheme troubles me is twofold.

First, this is precisely the opposite of the Christian gospel, where the year of the Lord’s favor is preached without the assumption that there will be payment for it. Indeed, if the kernel of Christianity is grace, then it is the case that what we offered by God cannot be paid for. Not simply, I think, in the sense that we do not have sufficient funds to make payment, but because attempting to make payment is to deny what we are offered. The moment we imagine grace as something to be paid for in a ‘reciprocal exchange’, we deny that it is grace. Insofar as we imagine the kingdom of God, I think that we ought to imagine it as something based in gracious giving rather than ‘reciprocal exchange’. Or, to put it another way, as I already wrote: I do not think Lupton’s ideas are ultimately compatible with the Christian gospel.

Second, one of the things that I think charity should be is an alternative to the power of capitalism. If charity simply becomes a kinder, gentler form of capitalism – or, at least, the illusion of a kinder, gentler form of capitalism – then that alternative is lost. This may be less of a concern to most people, but I believe it is of critical importance. Poverty exists at least in part because there are large and powerful economic and political forces that create and maintain it. Of course, throughout Toxic Charity, Lupton does not take notice of the larger systems in which the poor – and the non-poor – are caught. He is, rather, happy to place the blame for continued poverty on an alternative to capitalism and propose capitalism as a solution.

All of these are reasons I cannot recommend this book. Toxic Charity presents some useful nuts and bolts advice on mission work, but there must be better resources on how to create asset based community development ministries. Other than those useful tidbits of advice, though, Toxic Charity misdiagnoses the problem and goes on the present part of the problem as part of the solution. In the end, I am concerned that as more churches and organizations adopt the principles – and more importantly the ideology – in this book, they will only serve to move us further from the real, systematic reform necessary to truly lift communities – as opposed to a few select individuals – out of poverty.

Toxic Charity: The Prescription

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.

Way back at the beginning of this series – in May of 2013! – I wrote that Robert Lupton had two goals for this book: (1) to give a diagnosis of where the charitable sector has gone wrong, and (2) to provide a prescription for getting it on the right track. After we finished the sixth chapter of the book in December, I wrote a summary of the diagnosis that Lupton had given in those chapters.

The basic diagnosis that Lupton gives is this: “[Americans] are very generous in charitable giving, [but] much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.” (p. 1) and the reason that American charity is either wasted or actually harms the people it is supposed to help is because it encourages a sense of entitlement among the poor, encourages their dependency upon welfare organizations, reduces their self-sufficiency, destroys their sense of entrepreneurship, infantilizes them, and so on. 

If you’ve been reading this series, then you know that I have massive problems with this diagnosis. I want to leave those problems aside for now, however, and focus on Lupton’s prescription. Assuming for the moment that his diagnosis is accurate, what does he think that we should do in order to address these problems and make charity better?

As I’ve written repeatedly, Lupton’s prescription seems to be to refine capitalism in such a way that the poor are no longer excluded from the market systems but able to participate in them. He seems interested in creating a sort of capitalism-for-the-poor. Not, of course, in the sense of a capitalism that serves the interests of the poor – something that seems like a contradiction in terms – but a capitalism that can continue to make use of the poor even after they have been excluded from more traditional markets.

We can see this in who Lupton turns to in search of a vision of ‘wise giving’. He does not seek advice from the people who would benefit from such giving, but to people who have benefitted from modern configurations of global market capitalism: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. He goes on to advocate for microlending, a popular practice of dubious efficacy that requires the poor to take on additional debt in exchange for access to capital so that they can open or improve their one businesses (I covered this at some length: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5). He suggests that collateralized grants (i.e., loans) should be used to improve the lives of the poor rather than charitable gifts. He affirms the dignity of work by employing day-laborers at rates below minimum wage.

There is a certain logic here. The kind of global market capitalism that Lupton seems to advocate demands that people work in order to earn the money to purchase the goods and services they need to survive. It is certainly the case that requiring people to participate in that system will make sure that those whose work ethic is eroded or who have a sense of entitlement will find it difficult to get what they need to live. Putting people in a situation where they cannot receive help unless they demonstrate the sort of work ethic that Lupton approves of should force them to adopt that work ethic.

It is also, of course, an incredibly cruel logic. There are simple times when an incredible work ethic or spirit of entrepreneurship simply isn’t going to lift someone out of poverty; and leaving a person without access to charitable resources in such a situation is heartless. To a degree, Lupton recognizes this. He is willing to way that there are times when ‘betterment’ is needed. After natural disasters, for example. He is quick to add, however, that ‘development’ is more important and should be the focus of charitable organizations if we are not to see people fall into ‘lifestyle’ poverty. Lupton is not, after all, heartless.

So, if Lupton’s diagnosis is correct, then his prescription has some merit. If the problem is that charity as it is currently practices makes people unable to become self-sufficient in the world, then there is some value in demanding that they become self-sufficient. The problem, of course, is that Lupton’s diagnosis is not correct, a topic we’ll turn to as we conclude this series.

Never Do For Others What They Can Do For Themselves

It has become a commonly recited principle among those who write about charitable service – especially mission trips – that we should never do for others what they can do for themselves. This principle has long rubbed me the wrong way and I’ve had difficulty articulating why it has done so. I think I’ve collected my thoughts and found my voice on this, though, so let me give this a try.

There are two big reasons that I find this principle problematic.

First, we don’t apply it to most other relationships.

In almost no circumstances to we respond to a family member or friend who asks for help by making an assessment about whether they are able to do the thing in question themselves. Even when it comes to strangers, we tend not to make that sort of assessment (we make all sorts of other assessments, of course, based around race, gender, class, etc.). Responding with that kind of evaluation would be considered inhospitable if not downright rude. As anthropologist David Graeber puts it: as long as the need is great enough and the cost low enough, the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ is assumed to apply. Put another way: the polite response to any reasonable request is ‘yes’.

There are a few exceptions to this, of course. Business transactions almost always require some sort of exchange. There are reasons for that which we don’t need to go into here. Simply accept that business is different than how we behave in personal relationships.e

Additionally, we make an exception when we’re trying to teach a lesson. There are certain things that can only be learned through practice. Some of those things – like playing the violin – are skills. A student wouldn’t learn the skill if someone else practiced for them. Some of these things – like the value of hard work - are social norms. A child won’t learn the social norm if someone else always meets that norm for them.

And, of course, there is the exception of the poor. Somehow the poor are always an exception to otherwise perfectly normal behaviors. Someone who wouldn’t think twice about giving a well-dressed stranger a few dollars because he forgot his wallet will refuse to buy a homeless man a sandwich for fear that it will create dependency. It strikes me that it is as though we feel that we must teach the poor some lesson about self-sufficiency or the value of work or some such thing. As though people who spend so much time unable to rely on support of others need lessons about self-sufficiency. As though someone who must constantly endeavor to find enough food to eat and a safe place to rest needs a lesson about hard work.

It is an attitude that is infantilizing and patronizing. Except in very specific and very limited circumstances, we do not begin a relationship on the assumption that someone is already entitled or dependent or lacks a work ethic or what have you. We begin relationships on the assumption that everyone is acting in good faith. It is perfectly possible that such a relationship will turn sour; that a family member or a friend or a stranger or, yes, even a poor person will be exploitative. But that is a move we make as the relationship matures and we come to understand the dynamics of the actual relationship. Beginning with that assumption is uncharitable and insulting; it may even be an obstacle to forming real, honest relationships.

Second, there is a certain lack of humility in thinking that a group of strangers can decide what someone can or cannot do for themselves.

There are a variety of things that we as outsiders might think that an individual or community in need should do. There are also a variety of reasons that individuals and community don’t do those things. Sometimes, it is true, the reason that the individual or community isn’t doing those things is because they don’t know to do them, or they don’t believe that they have the capacity to do those things, or they don’t want to do those things. It is often the reason that the individual or community isn’t doing those things is because there is an actual obstacle: there isn’t the money, there isn’t the labor capacity, there isn’t time.

It is a fact of life that when someone is poor, they have to prioritize. And the thing that you or I may think of as ‘something they can do for themselves’ is simply a low priority. Low enough, perhaps, that the poor person can’t be bothered with it at the moment; not so low that a volunteer can’t do it.

A family member, a friends, a caseworker, or a local service organization who knows the person or community member well might be able to make an assessment and decide how much and what kind of support that person or community needs. They can make these decisions.

But a group who is visiting on a mission trip cannot. There is simply no way that the group has enough information and a strong enough relationship to decide what a person or a community can and cannot do. The most that such a group can do is operate off of assumptions that its members are bringing to the situation.

So can we please, please retire this principle?

Toxic Charity: Chapter Ten 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.

I’m skipping the very last section of chapter ten because it’s really a conclusion to the book as a whole. I’ll return to it when I come to the conclusion of this slow read.

In general, the advice that Lupton gives in chapter ten isn’t bad advice, and some of it might even go so far as being good advice: asset based community development really is a good thing, evaluation and research really are necessary to creating and improving ministries and services, true partnerships between congregations and local service organizations are necessary for positive mission trip experiences, and so on. This is all good advice on how to make ministry to the poor and marginalized better. It’s also the kind of advice that one would find in almost any modern book on how to create effective ministries to the poor.

What is troubling about chapter ten are some of the undercurrents: blaming fundraisers for the negative portrayals of urban neighborhoods, references to ‘lifestyle’ poverty, references to the ‘worthy’ poor and thus the implication that there are ‘unworthy’ poor. These little bits here and there are stark reminders of the troubling ideology that is explicit elsewhere in the book.

Toxic Charity: What a Good Service Project Looks Like

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 last real section of chapter ten – there is a mini-section concluding the book afterward – is about what a good service project looks like and, like the rest of chapter ten, is generally good. I happen to work with an organization that relies on a large number of volunteers who come on mission trips to work with us. Lupton’s broad suggestion that there should be a partnership between churches (or any group) and the local service organization is good, and the specific steps that he lays out – planning, reaching agreement on expectations and purpose, fellowship, etc. – is vital. So, too, is the mission experience being meaningful both to those serving and those being served.

Here is what I would add. Both churches and local service organizations have mission cultures: issues and causes that they are interested in and ways that they are used to doing things. When a church and a local organization come together those cultures may complement one another or they may challenge one another. Both of those are acceptable, but there should be clarity about which is likely to happen and what they are going to do with the dynamic that is created. The key here is having the church understand its own mission culture and how this service project fits into it.

That said, this is a good section with one glaring phrase: “…we must know that a worthy poor family will permanently benefit from out efforts.” (p. 185) In context – differentiating a house that will be built for a family vs. one that will be used by drug dealers – this makes sense, but it also plays into Lupton’s repeated references to the idea that those we serve must be worthy of that service. I know I’ve written this several times before, but it strikes me as uncharitable to expect those in need to prove not only their need but, in some sense, their value. We would never do this with someone with whom we were in relationship. We would never demand of a friend who asks a favor that they demonstrate their worth. Likewise, the only ‘worth’ we demand of someone in a customer-like relationship is that they have enough money. It is, oddly, almost exclusively when dealing with someone in need that we demand that they demonstrate that they are morally worthy of what they need.

I have written enough about that over the course of this series, however, and I will return to it again. For now, however, let me say that the advice that Lupton gives in this section is good even if the values that are peaking their heads out from behind the curtain are not.

Wars Don’t End When American Troops Leave

I seem to remember that early in President Obama’s first term there were many calls to simply pull the American military out of Iraq. It’s possible that I’m wrong about the timeline on that, but I can recall the suggestions that American troops should be brought home happening whether they were at that time or not. At the time, I was concerned that the demand was to abandon the Iraqis to a situation that we had, in part, caused. After all, it was the United States that had invaded, deposed the government, attempted to privatize public resources, etc. To simply leave without engaging with the circumstance that we had created and that the people of Iraq now had to live with seemed like a way of relieving Americans of our collective responsibility for the fate of people in another country.

It looks like I was right to be concerned:

But unless you’ve been paying attention to the stories on the inside pages, you may not have noticed that Iraq is not exactly the thriving, peaceful democracy we hoped we would leave behind. The country is beset by factional violence; according to the United Nations, 7,818 Iraqi civilians were killed in attacks in 2013. No country in the world saw more terrorism. (source)

This should be a reminder that the stories of other people don’t end when Americans leave the stage, and that we continue to bear responsibility for the consequences of events that we set in motion.

Toxic Charity: So What Do We Do Next?

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.

Robert Lupton wants churches and other organizations to move from ‘betterment programs’ or ‘giveaway programs’ – a term used by a church in his anecdote for this section – to ‘development’ programs. He also recognizing that making a shift like that is difficult: “Transition from betterment to development is necessary. Yet change is never easy.” (p. 180) This section concerns how churches can go about making the transition from betterment to development, and his suggestions on how to go about this are excellent: discuss how to support and strengthen ministry to the poor, engage in an evaluation of current programs, research other ministries, become more involved with those you serve, etc.

Marvelous. Do it. All the time.

Research and evaluation should be part of any ministry you are running. Forming relationships with those who are being served should be part of any charitable ministry.

They should be part of the ministry if it is a ministry focused on betterment. They should be part of the ministry if it is a ministry focused on development.

They should be part of the ministry if it is new. They should be part of the ministry if it is going through a transition. They should be part of the ministry if it has been stable and ongoing for years or decades or centuries.

And that makes Lupton’s actual advice in this section good.

What makes this section horrible is two words: ‘lifestyle poverty’.

Lupton uses this phrase twice:

  • “It [an honest evaluation of each service's benefits and limitations] could help them decipher the difference between ‘lifestyle’ poverty and true emergency needs.” (p. 181)
  • “Is giving to support ‘lifestyle’ poverty really helping recipients, or is it enabling them to remain in their present condition?” (p. 182)

I don’t want to go too far into this, as it merely rehashes my major criticism of this book: that Lupton is focused on bringing capitalistic systems to the poor and seems willing to brand those who don’t fit into such a system as lacking a work ethic or over-dependent. ‘Lifestyle poverty’ strikes me as yet another term to blame people who are unable to cope with the systems Lupton prefers for their own problems. Now, none of that is to say that there aren’t people who choose to be homeless (in fact, I know more than one such person), poor, etc., or that there aren’t people whose choices have led them to poverty. However, two points must be made:

First, saying that someone has chosen to be homeless or poor may be true, but only for a given value of ‘choice’. The choices we have available to us are, after all, always limited. They are limited by externalities such as finances, education, geography and so on. They are limited by internalities such as our imaginations, our feelings of self-worth, etc. Quite simply, ‘choice’ is always limited and some of us have had better, more generous limits than others. The use of a phrase like ‘lifestyle poverty’ suggests that people have choices that are much less limited than they are; that choosing poverty is like choosing a certain color for the bathroom. Making that suggestion disguised the reality of poverty: that it is the result of complex systems in which individuals very rarely have substantial real choice.

Second, even if someone could make a free choice to be poor – and there are such people – those people still have real material and spiritual needs and we still have a moral obligation to help meet those needs. Phrases like ‘lifestyle poverty’ and the urge to “decipher the difference” between it and ‘true’ strikes me as essentially the same thing as attempting to divide the poor into the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Such a division makes sense under the unyielding and often bloody logic of global market capitalism. It does not make sense under the logic of charity: the poor are not deserving because they are adequately independent or have a suitable work ethic, they are deserving because they are people. Similarly, under the logic of Christianity, the poor are deserving because they are created in the image of God; or, more radically, the poor are deserving because they are poor.

Or, if I were to take it even further – and I may at a future time – it is not the poor who need to justify themselves, but those who have the means to help them.