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.