The scale and profile of church-based social action projects has grown significantly over the last 20 years.
There has been a particular rise in projects which distribute practical resources, with food banks being the most high profile example.
The growth of such activity raises questions which need to be reflected on. Is this work having the desired impact? Is it empowering authentic change?
Robert Lupton has 4 decades of experiences in urban community activism. He thinks there is nowhere near enough critical thinking about the end results of such social action:
‘The compassion industry is almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise. But what is surprising is that the outcomes are almost entirely unexamined.’
Toxic Charity is a short book with a blunt message. Although published in America ten years ago, it is very relevant to the UK context today. We need to engage with the ‘unsettling reality of charity work’.
According to Lupton, what makes a charity’s work toxic is when it disempowers those in need and removes their sense of agency:
‘Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.’
Lupton gives many examples. One of the most powerful was when he was staying with an impoverished inner city family over Christmas Eve when a wealthy church visited to drop off Christmas presents for the children. Close up, he saw the damaging dynamic of rich saviours giving handouts and the sense of shame and disempowerment it caused.
Similarly to the influential book Dead Aid, he also critiques the effectiveness of much overseas aid. Juan Ulloa runs micro-enterprise in Nicaragua and says that the ill-informed generosity of US churches causes great harm:
‘People say ‘why should we borrow money when the churches give it to us?’…They destroy the initiative of my people…they are turning my people into beggars’
Lupton’s book will make people nervous but I believe he speaks many hard truths that need to be grappled with. It is like a blunter, grittier and more concise version of When Helping Hurts. His chapters The Problem with Good intentions and The Anatomy of Giving are particularly insightful:
‘I observed how quickly recipients’ response to charity devolved from gratitude, to expectation, to entitlement…where there was a sustained one-way giving, unwholesome dynamics and pathologies festered under the cover of kind-heartedness’
Mercy and justice
His exegesis of the famous injunction from Micah 6:8 to ‘love mercy, act justly and walk humbly with your God’ is the best I have read:
‘Justice and mercy twinned together, these commands lead us to holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned with rights than relationship.’
Lupton is especially critical of the US multi-million dollar industry of short term mission trips which take young people out to developing countries. He says this is ‘poverty tourism’ does little to help anyone and wastes resources on an industrial scale:
‘The money spent by one campus ministry to cover the costs of their Central American mission trip to repaint an orphanage would have been sufficient to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school.’
Whilst reading this book, I met with my cousin who told me of her experiences with a Christian NGO when a teenager. She cringed as she recalled her ineffectual efforts to help with a building project whilst lots of skilled adult men sat around unemployed.
‘Oath for Compassionate Service’
The strength of Toxic Charity is its sharp critique. But Lupton also gives clear direction and examples of more positive forms of social engagement.
He also helpfully condenses his core thinking into this Oath for Compassionate Service:
- Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
- Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
- Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
- Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
- Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
- Above all, do no harm.
I would recommend that any team engaged in social action discusses these 6 points as a way of reviewing how they could make their work more empowering.
As Jesus warns in Luke 22:25, we should be wary of the alluring sense of superiority created by seeing ourselves as a benefactor. Rather, we need a personal and organisational humility about the genuine impact and effectiveness of our work.
More than ever, I believe the best social engagement has a mutuality which empowers people and increases their agency. It is their faith that will heal them, not ours. And as Lao Tzu said
When the best leaders work is done, the people say ‘we have done it ourselves’.
I would strongly recommend Toxic Charity. It made me reflect: Christian social activism may have grown, but perhaps it needs to mature?
Buy Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help by Robert D. Lupton