Toxic Charity: Parity vs. Charity

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 also use David Graber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years in this post. The link goes to the version that I am using. References to Debt are prefaced with ‘Debt’. References to Toxic Charity are unmarked.

Parity (par•i•ty) (‘paritē) noun: the state or condition of being equal, esp. regarding status or pay.

As with micro-loans, let me start by saying that I am not against thrift stores. Thrift stores do a lot of good and are a great tool in the philanthropic box. My question here is not whether thrift stores are an effective way to alleviate need, but whether they do what Lupton thinks they do. You see:

It is delicate work, I have found, establishing authentic parity between people of unequal power. But relationships built on reciprocal exchange (what I call holistic compassion) make this possible… When the customer is necessary to ensure the business’s survival, there is equity of power. And parity is the higher form of charity. (p. 37)

Lupton thinks that thrift stores foster equality; specifically because the store is dependent on the customer. He also thinks – and this is important – that they foster equality while simply giving does not. But is this the case?

In order to answer that, we need to establish the answer to another question: equality between whom?

While it’s difficult to conceive of exactly what it would mean to speak of equality between a person and a business, if what we mean is ‘equality between the customer and the store’, then I think there’s a case to be made here. In a well functioning marketplace, the customer will be able to make a choice between several stores based on criteria like quality of goods, pricing, customer service and so on.  We would have a situation where interactions would assume that the customer had at least as much status as – if not more status than – the person serving them. And I suspect that there is a greater equality here between the shopkeeper and the customer than there is between the almsgiver and the recipient of his or her largesse.

So Lupton has a point here: given the choice between the kind of almsgiving Ellul derided in the passage quoted in the previous section and the sort of ‘reciprocal exchange’ that Lupton champions here, the latter is clearly a better choice that is more respectful of the person being served.

But there is another side here: does a thrift store encourage parity between the customer and the person who donated the goods to the store? The thrift store that Lupton describes – a thrift store at his church – was not designed, after all, to create equality between customer and shopkeeper, but “the build new, healthy reciprocal relationships between the rich and poor.” (p. 38) They even went so far as to eliminate their Christmas gift giving program, encouraging “well-resourced families” to donate unwrapped gifts to the thrift store where customers could purchase them at bargain prices. Those without enough money to purchase them could work at the store to earn enough for the items.

I want to observe two delicate things here. First, that while thrift stores allow for reciprocal exchange, the set up of most such stores actually estranges the rich and poor from another. Second, charity – which is to say: gift giving – is actually more equitable than reciprocal exchange precisely because it demands a relationship.

Let me begin, naturally, with the first. I recently donated some items to a local thrift store and what I noticed – as I was also reading this section of Toxic Charity – was that the method for dropping off a donation was to drive up to a back door and be greeted by an employee. At no point was I expected to enter the store or interact with any customers or, for that matter, most of the employees. I’m sure that this method is – at least in part – designed to save customers from any potential embarrassment; perhaps many customers do not want to be seen shopping at a thrift store by friends, coworkers or others who do not know one’s financial situation. On the other hand, I’ve known many ‘well-resourced’ people who shop at thrift stores as a matter of choice rather than necessity.

Whatever the reason, it was interesting to see the segregation of donor from recipient. Two people may interact as customers, or as customer and employee, but, in a sense, no relationship – certainly no personal relationship – can develop between donor and recipient. And this is indeed true of ‘reciprocal exchange’ generally. Such exchange is alienating: it can only occur between strangers, not between friends (or neighbors). In fact, even people who are in all other circumstances friends must perform such exchange as though they were strangers.

I turn here to anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (a book that would make an excellent, but very long, slow read).

Economists, according to Graeber, often begin explorations of the origin of money with an imaginary barter economy. This is an economy where goods are traded directly for other goods so that, for example, if you have roosters and want roses you must either exchange your roosters for roses with someone in exactly the opposite situation or find some chain of exchanges that will get you there. (Debt, p. 23) The problem with this story, of course, is that there’s no evidence it ever happened: we don’t find signs pre-currency civilizations engaging in this sort of direct barter with one another.

What we do find are societies that engage in barter, but not internally. That is, people in these societies don’t barter with one another, they barter with outsiders:

What all such cases of trade through barter have in common is that they are meetings with strangers who will, likely as not, never meet again, and with whom one certainly will not enter into any ongoing relations. This is why a direct one-on-one exchange is appropriate: each side makes their trade and walks away. (Debt, p. 32)

When we enter into something like reciprocal exchange – even if such exchange is mediated by money – we are effectively entering into a sort of quasi-barter arrangement. When I pay a shopkeeper for a product I am making it so that I don’t run up a tab (or ‘owe him one’) by discharging any debt immediately through money that allows him, effectively, to claim that debt against anyone else. We are both able to walk away and never interact again if we so choose; even if I come to that shop every day, we act as though we are strangers.

This is what I mean when I say that reciprocal exchange alienates the rich from the poor or the haves from the have-lesses. It allows everyone to walk away from the situation as soon as the transaction is completed. Equality of a sort may be present in the moment of the transaction, but because that transaction is alienating it allows inequality to fester around it: the customer remains poor, the shop remains the option that the customer has, the donor remains someone with an abundance. Quite possibly the customer and the donor never encounter one another, but if they do the exchange tells them that this is business, not personal, and nothing more need be done.

The literal segregation of the drive up donation door and the alienation of a transaction that makes us act as strangers.

So what is the alternative? Charity, gift giving.

People in a relationship – particularly close ones but often others as well – operate from a kind of baseline communism:

the understanding that, unless people are enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply. (Debt, p. 98)

So, if asked by a co-worker for a pen or by a fellow smoker for a light or even by a stranger for directions, we don’t demand something in exchange (nor, of course, do we suppose that giving them this thing will make them dependent or rob them of their dignity or sap them of their work ethic). For those who are especially close we might offer them grander gifts of meals (“I’ve got this.), clothing (“You need a new coat? Here, take this one. I never wear it anymore) or even shelter (“I’m sorry to hear about your eviction, stay with us as long as you need to.”).

And this is understood not simply economically, but morally: we don’t give on the basis that it will be done for us at a later date, but on the basis that the other person would do something similar for us if the need and opportunity arose. (Debt, p. 102)

I want to take this further, however, and suggest that gift giving – when done personally – can be more than a sign that we are in a relationship. It can be a way of performing ourselves into a relationship. And this is precisely why charitable giving that includes things like short term mission trips and adopt-a-family Christmasses have power when they are done well.

Which is not to say that thrift shops are a problem. Nor is it to say that all ‘charitable’ giving is done well: people who give for the sake of being shown gratitude are not being charitable, and standing “in free-toy lines with… ‘proof of poverty’ identification” (p. 39) is indeed demeaning and only serves to create a hierarchical relationship. It is, however, to say that I don’t think that reciprocal exchange does what Lupton proposes: it does not create authentic parity between people of unequal power.

None of this, of course, is to say that thrift stores are a problem. As I already said, they can be a powerful tool in the philanthropic box, as can other systems that encourage reciprocal exchange. However, we must be careful not to imbue such systems with more power than they actually have. And we must be aware of the risks; particularly the risk that their ability to create parity in the moment of the transaction can come to mask the underlying inequality that can only be overcome by the formation of real relationships.

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