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.
Chapter three of Toxic Charity is interesting, I think, for what lurks behind it. I wrote before that chapter one provides a summary diagnosis of the problem of American charity: it harms the recipient by encouraging dependency and entitlement and discouraging a strong work ethic. Chapter two provides an expansion of that diagnosis and begins proposing a solution. The diagnosis, of course, remains unchanged. The proposed solution is creating systems that basically emulate American capitalism: micro-finance, service with strings attached, membership fees, etc. The goal here seemed to be not simply to relieve poverty, but to do so by involving the poor in particular kinds of economic relationships: make people into good American capitalists – albeit on a smaller financial scale – and they will become independent and hard working, which in turn will give them the tools to solve their own problems.
In chapter three, Lupton tells a few stories that might cause one to reconsider. For example, in the Christmas story, Lupton recognizes the shame that a father sees as being caused by the act of charity itself: the father is emasculated by this statement about his ability to provide for his family. What he does not seem to recognize is that this inability to provide has been there the entire time, the adopt-a-poor-family project simply pointed out its existence. Seeing only the symptom and paying no attention to the underlying disease, Lupton’s proposed solution only addresses the symptom: create a thrift store where it is easier for the father to participate in the economic machinery that has thus far denied him. This will allow him to have the illusion of providing for this family while leaving the underlying socio-economic structures untouched.
The same issue arises in the last section of the chapter, when Lupton is asked about a basic ethical question: how to we respond to human need when it is not abstract, but when the one in need is directly before us? It is easy, perhaps, to ignore hunger and toss the direct mail appeals in the pile of mail to be dealt with later. It is much more difficult to ignore the pleas of a hungry person who meets us on the street. While Lupton is clearly aware of this question, and even attempts to provide a confused – and somewhat confusing – answer, he seems uninterested in actually dealing with it. That is, he does not take this as a call to wrestle with the nature of human relationships in a profoundly broken world and responsibilities to one another as children of God, but simply provides this answer: “due diligence.” (p. 49)
In both of these cases, Lupton encounters interesting questions: What is the source of this father’s shame and how do we respond to it? How should we respond to the moral claims that the poor have upon our souls? And so on. But he fails to do anything really interesting with them. In both cases, he retreats into the market ideology that he has been defending: involve the father in the market apparatus, perform due diligence and give to ministries that have proven themselves. None of this is, in and of itself, necessarily bad advice. But it is advice that appears to come from a market ideology rather than from God.
That might seem an unfair division. Can’t God work through markets? Can’t God redeem markets? Perhaps. But the division is visible even in Lupton: there is parity and there is charity, but they are not the same thing; there is justice and there is mercy, but they are not the same thing. And in each case, Lupton seems to identify his favored member of the binary with a market solution: parity is based on ‘reciprocal relationships’ that are really transactional relationships; justice demands that we avoid ‘dependency and entitlement’. Lupton, of course, recognizes the need for both charity and mercy. However, these seem to be starting points for him. The goal is to move from charity to parity and from mercy to justice.
And by the standards of this fallen world, that’s quite alright. The church, however, is not called to live by the standards of this world but to overcome them and live as an example of God’s kingdom, however imperfect we may be at providing such an example. To put this another way, when we speak of ‘toxic charity’, we must ask: toxic by whose standards? Charity is not arsenic, there is not an objective measure of its toxicity. Rather, charity is only toxic in relation to an ideology. The question that we must ask – and that I’m not convinced that Lupton does ask – is what ideology is providing our measure.