Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

A few years ago, a book group at my parents’ church read Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). My parents were interested in my opinion, so they sent me a copy. I was surprised at what I read. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was my introduction to a genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming charity, the nonprofit sector, and a culture of poverty. This movement has no leadership, no centralization, no comprehensive line of argument. It’s a set of authors, speakers, and consultants who tell similar stories, refer to one another’s work, and suggest complementary reforms to how we address poverty.

Lupton’s book is one of the better known examples of the genre. In it, Lupton argues that charity should be limited to emergency situations because otherwise it hurts the person who receives it. Traditional charity fosters dependency, erodes the work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement among recipients. Instead of giving charity, we should help people in poverty through jobs programs, asset based community development, microcredit, and so on. Traditional charity cannot solve the problem of poverty. We need a different strategy.

Assertions and Anecdotes

It’s completely reasonable to question whether any given charitable organization – or even the charitable sector as a whole – is effective. That’s exactly the kind of question that any donor or volunteer should be asking about the organizations to which they give.

While there are resources for donors who want information on specific organizations – GuideStar and Charity Navigator are probably the best known – there’s very little information that help us answer bigger questions about which ways of helping people are more effective or whether the sector as a whole is doing what we’d like. This is in part because of ethical concerns. It would be terribly immoral, of example, to find comparable individuals or communities, offer assistance to one, and deny that assistance to the other. Similarly, it would be immoral to offer comparable individuals or communities different kinds of assistance for the purpose of figuring out which method is more effective.

So it’s not necessarily surprising that despite his assurance that he “examined broader aspects of charity” with the same intensity as “Louis Pasteur searching for a causal relationship between germs and disease,”1Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 Lupton doesn’t offer data on the effectiveness of charity. He offers assertions and anecdotes. Nearly every section of every chapter contains a story, and many of these stories make for compelling reading: we can sympathize with the father who is embarrassed by the fact that his children must rely on the generosity of strangers for their Christmas presents2Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 31-35, or with the woman whose giving spirit is taken advantage of by a woman who she met at a soup kitchen.3Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 58-61

But the plural of anecdote is not data, and we should be careful about evaluating the entire charitable sector based on Lupton’s stories and the lessons he draws from them.

There are three major reasons that we should be cautious.

First, Lupton writes that when he began his Pasteuresque research into “broader aspects of charity,” he did so “under the microscope of [his] new awareness.”4Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 That awareness, though, was an awareness of the very thing he is investigating: it is awareness of “an unhealthy culture of dependency”5Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 35 and a broader toxicity of charity. His ‘research’ confirms what he already knew!

Second, and probably because of the first point, Lupton’s stories seem noticeably ‘thin’. For example, when he describes the Georgia Avenue Urban Ministry (now Urban Recipe) – which he calls “Georgia Avenue Food Co-op”6Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 53 – he ignores the complex model of service and community building in which they engage in favor of comparing its food co-op to the food pantry at Old First Church (which I suspect is also far more complex than Lupton’s few paragraphs suggest).

The description that he gives of the experience that led him to see ‘traditional models’ of charity as toxic is similarly thin. During the Christmas season of 1981, he was living in a community he was serving. He was having coffee with one of his neighbors when a group of guests arrived bearing Christmas gifts for the family. The mother answered the door and “a nervous smile concealed her embarrassment as she graciously accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts.”7Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 32 During the visit, “no one noticed that the children’s father had quietly slipped out of the room.” 8Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity,32

From this experience, which Lupton described in two short paragraphs, he draws this conclusion:

[A] father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family… a wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment… children get the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people out there and is free.9Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 33

Obviously, Lupton knows more about this experience than he reveals. But he doesn’t suggest that he spoke to the family about this experience or their perceptions of it. Instead, he presents the event as though he was able to intuitively grasp how the father felt and why, what the mother was forced to do, and what message the children got. He simply knows that the father is emasculated by the charity and not by the economic system that works so well for this benefactors and so poorly for him. He simply knows that the children get a message of dependency and entitlement rather than a lesson in the value of sharing from our abundance that they will reenact if they’re more fortunate than their parents.

Likewise, returning to his stories of Urban Recipe and Old First Church, he is able to draw an amazing assessment: that the cost of the efficiency of Old First Church’s food pantry is human dignity and that by engaging in these “traditional models” of ministry we “develop toxic relationships.”10Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 54

From this descriptions, Lupton is able to draw large lessons that fit the needs of his argument. As with all of his illustrations, however, Lupton’s interpretation is possible, but not necessary. While it’s conceivable that his interpretations are right, he doesn’t do the work of showing us that they are.

Third, even when Lupton draws on other research, he does so uncritically. The biggest single example of this is his use of Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa.11Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 3, 94-97. In the latter section, Lupton quotes Moyo three times and paraphrases her at least twice. There are no citations, footnotes, or end notes. While this is admittedly a personal pet peeve of mine, it’s worth noting that failing to cite sources does not contribute to trustworthiness. Dead Aid may provide some insights into the situation of international assistance for Africa, and rethinking international efforts in the development of Africa may be a good idea. But Dead Aid has been roundly criticized, not least for ignoring the broader colonial, post-colonial, and cold war contexts in which much of that aid took place. Lupton uncritically accepts Moyo’s conclusions without seriously engaging any literature that challenges his own arguments.

None of this is to say that Lupton’s stories or opinions don’t have value. These are good stories and Lupton has years of experience in urban ministry. His opinions are informed opinions. But Toxic Charity is not a memoir. Lupton is not simply sharing his experiences or giving fatherly advice. He is leveling serious charges against traditional models of charity; he is suggesting that those models actively harm the people that they were meant to help; he is recommending a substantial overhaul of the charitable sector (an overhaul, as we will see, that aligns with a particular ideology). Taking these charges and recommendations seriously requires more than anecdotes and gut feelings. It requires data and rigorous analysis.

Christ and Capitalism

Like several of the books that make the case against charity, Toxic Charity is aimed squarely at Christians. The subtitle of Toxic Charity is How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book isn’t just about how churches are failing the poor and how the church ought to help them. It is about how the church is failing the poor and how the church ought to help them. Given that, we might expect Lupton to spend some time considering what theologically and pastorally responsible charity might look like. But that thread is absent from the book.

That doesn’t mean that these concerns never appear in Toxic Charity. Lupton does write about the church. He writes about the ‘scandal’ of “religious mission trips”.12Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 5. There are further references on pp. 14-18 and 65-60 He refers to his own Presbyterian church.13Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 11, 65-66 He writes a section on “ministry entrepreneurs” and another on how “bad business equals bad ministry”14Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 18-26. He writes the already mentioned Christmas story.15Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 31-39 He shares anecdotes about and examples of church-based programs for the poor.16Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 51-61, especially. He looks briefly at the relationship between faith and trust.17Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 61-63 He laments the loss of a relationship with a church over poorly organized volunteering.18Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 70-75 He writes about what churches’ ‘mission portfolios’ should look like.19Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 75-78 And so on.

Lupton also refers to scripture and to Christian thinkers and leaders. Micah 6:8 receives the attention of almost an entire section of a chapter.20Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 39-42 The Parable of the Judging of the Nations is name checked.21Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 40 He mentions and quotes Jacques Ellul,22Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 34 Gary Hoag,23Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45 Andy Bales,24Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45-46 and Ron Sider.25Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 46 Other, more subtle references lurk in the background.

So it isn’t the case that Lupton ignores the role of the church or Christian thought in charity. He approaches these things through the lenses of scripture and his personal experiences and he offers both compliments and criticisms of the church for its approach to serving the poor. But, like his anecdotes, his examination of charity from a theological or pastoral perspective is thin. Neither his criticisms of nor his vision for charitable activity are not rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, they are rooted in the ideology of capitalism.

Remember the core problem that Lupton has with traditional models of charity:

Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem… [G]iving our resources hurts the poor as often as (or even more often than) it helps.26Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37. The first portion of this quote is in related to international attempts to provide aid to Haiti, but Lupton applies the concept to all charity.

Lupton believes that the act of simply giving to someone as they have need creates toxic relationships and that healthy relationships are created when we “redirect traditional methods of charity into systems of genuine exchange.”27Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 38 Better to open a store where people who are poor can search for bargains or work in exchange for what they need than simply being given things from the abundance others enjoy.28Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 38-39

And that’s not necessarily wrong. there’s much to be said for developing opportunities for people to participate in their economies. But Lupton places an enormous amount of faith in the power of “reciprocal exchange” or “holistic compassion.”29Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 37 He seems to believe that directly including people in American-style economies is the key to helping them escape poverty.

Take, for example, his faith in the power of work. In a section that compares clothes closets and thrift stores,30Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 37-39 Lupton makes much of the dignity of work: “our low-income neighbors would much rather work to purchase gifts for their children than stand in free-toy lines with their ‘proof of poverty’ identification.”31Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 39 No doubt. But it never seems to occur to Lupton that the problem might be the line, the proof, of poverty, and the rules and regulations. Lupton places the blame clearly on the fact that the people in that line are receiving toys for free. Ironically, he seems to believe that the problem with gifts is that they are gifts.

His belief in the power of work is more problematic when he writes about hiring day laborers.32Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152-154 In an effort to clear a vacant lot of grass, weeds, and debris, he decided “to take on the project”33Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152 himself, with the help of some other labor. He went to Home Depot and randomly selected “two young Hispanic men.”34Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 153 He agrees to pay them $10 for the day.35Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 153. Assuming that they worked for a mere seven hours, that’s $1.43 per hour, a feloniously low wage since 1968.

Lupton uses this tory to illustrate two points. First, “Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility.”36Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 152

Second,

Life offers no fulfillment without work. Our earliest glimpse of the cosmos is a creative God at work. And the original design of paradise pictures humanity at work… Clearing debris from a lot or running a corporation, mopping the kitchen floor or selling a piece of real estate. Work, all work, is an invitation from God for us to take an active role as coparticipants in an ever-unfolding creation.37Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 154

Lupton’s right that work is an invitation to participate in an unfolding creation, but he’s not telling the whole story. He’s right that the book of Genesis begins with God creating the cosmos and that the second chapter of that book tells us that “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”38Genesis 2:15, NRSV But Genesis also tells us that our work is cursed because of Adam’s sin:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.39Genesis 3:17-19, NRSV

The Bible – and Christianity as a whole – balances two views of work: work can certainly be a blessing and provide meaning, but it can also be meaningless toil we must engage in merely to get the basic necessities of life. We probably cannot put all work on a single spectrum from paradise to curse, but my guess is that running a corporation or nonprofit is a lot closer to the former than doing manual labor for $1.43 an hour.

Lupton doesn’t spend any time looking at the larger socio-economic structures that let some people have fulfilling careers as participants in God’s creative work and leaves other people with drudgery. Just as he doesn’t ask why some people are in a position to give out gifts to the less fortunate at Christmas and others are in a position to receive them, he doesn’t ask why some people are in a position to randomly select people in a Home Depot parking lot for a day of landscaping and others are in that parking lot hoping and praying for a day’s work at scandalously low wages. Lupton, quite simply, doesn’t question the socio-economic systems that allow some people to live in abundance and forces others to live in poverty.

The gospel, however, does question those systems. And it suggests that those of us who are fortunate enough to have more than we need should overcome those systems by sharing with those who do not have enough. Scriptural examples of this are easy enough to find: Matthew 5:38-42, Luke 16:1-13Acts 4:32-37, James 2:14-26, and so on. Despite Lupton’s apparent desire to help Christians respond to poverty in a more responsible way, a Christian response to poverty probably won’t be responsible to existing social and economic systems.

Conclusion

Like many of the books making the case against charity, Toxic Charity is aimed squarely at Christians. But it is not a Christian argument. Lupton’s argument is firmly embedded in an American version of capitalism: provide microloans, give people work, teach people that nothing is free. It’s not surprising that this book seems to be popular among American middle-class churches. It’s based in the idea that, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be relatively privileged by American systems of race and class, nothing needs to change. We can continue to benefit from systems that exploit the poor and assuage our guilt – if we have any – by providing some means for the poor to live better lives within that system.

And, of course, we can villainize practices that don’t play within the boundaries set by American capitalism. It isn’t that poor people are dependent because they are forced to depend on others. It’s not that they lack work ethic because most of their effort goes towards survival, which tends not to pay. It’s not that their ‘entitlement’ is merely the reasonable demand to things to which they are in fact entitled. No. Poor people are dependent, lack a work ethic, and have a sense of entitlement because of charity.

The deep problem with Toxic Charity is that this doesn’t have to be an either-or problem. Or, to put it another way, the either-or problem is on a different level. We don’t have to abandon food pantries and housing rehab programs and mission trips and clothes closets in order to have effective food co-ops and job training programs and local businesses and microloans. We don’t even have to have the former restricted to ‘real’ emergencies while only the latter are available for the chronically poor. Someone can receive some things as gifts while working for others. Most poor people do. Most people (period) do.

But at another level, there is a choice. Christians, at least, do have to choose whether we will live by the standards set by Christ or those set by the world. The systems that leave people poor – that, at times, make people poor – can be redeemed, but in order to be redeemed they must be reformed. And this brings me to my final criticism: Lupton has chosen the wrong target. It isn’t charity – and idea with its theological roots in the love of God for the world – that stands in need of reform; it is the global systems of domination. That includes capitalism.

So if you want to make microloans, by all means do so. If you want to start a co-op, do so. If you want to start a job training program or financial management classes or any of the rest of Lupton’s final suggestions, do so. But also expand your food pantry and your clothes closet and your toys for children at Christmas. Being generous in one way doesn’t mean we can’t be generous in many others.

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