As I’ve been working in the field, and working specifically with communities of color, I’ve been seeing more and more signs of diverse communities being treated like children who don’t know what’s good for them. I don’t think it is conscious or intentional. But it is still frustrating, like watching the first half of the Seahawks/Panthers game.
A few years ago, I was given a copy of Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I was surprised at what I read. The core argument of the book is that charity – except in cases of real crisis – is harmful to both donors and recipients. It fosters dependency, erodes work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of giving charity, he argues, we should help people in poverty by creating jobs programs, using asset based community development, providing loans, and helping people participate in systems of reciprocal exchange. Traditional charity, according to Lupton, cannot hope to lift people out of poverty. We need a different strategy.
What I didn’t know when I first read Toxic Charity was that it was my introduction to an entire genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming traditional charity. Lupton’s book is one of the more famous in the genre, but there are plenty of others: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, Steve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success, Ruby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, and more. There are TED talks, articles, seminars, workshops, and lots of other channels for this movement. All of them telling churches and other nonprofits that we need to rethink how we serve the poor.
The case against charity tends to come in three forms.
The case against giving. This case is based on the idea that traditional charitable giving – usually described as ‘doing for others what they can or should be able to do for themselves’ – hurts the people who receive it and keeps them trapped in poverty. Traditional forms of charity like food pantries, clothes closets, Christmas toy drives, and so on encourage dependency and entitlements while destroying the work ethic of the poor. In order to avoid hurting the poor in these ways, we need to avoid using charity except in real cases of emergency. Instead of using traditional charity, we should help the poor enter into systems of reciprocal exchange where they can earn their way out of poverty: microcredit, co-ops, small businesses, and so on. The path out of poverty runs through the marketplace.
The case against the nonprofit sector. This case states that the nonprofit sector is unable to attain the scale and influence necessary to solve massive social problems like poverty. Nonprofit organizations a tiny compared to the challenges that they want to conquer. And they are kept that way because they are unable or unwilling to adopt the best practices of successful for-profit businesses. In order for the nonprofit sector to increase its scale and influence, it needs to invest in talent, improve its marketing, and attract investors. The best way to do this is to attract large investors with the promise of financial returns. The path out of inadequacy runs through the marketplace.
The case against poverty culture. The proponents of this case argue that people living in poverty have a distinct culture: they use casual language, rely on verbal and physical violence to settle conflicts, live in the present, see money as something to be spent, and so on. This culture works when a person is living in poverty, but doesn’t include good strategies for escaping poverty or fitting into the middle class. When a poor person receives a financial windfall, for example, she is more likely to spend it on immediate gratification than invest it in a future return. In order to make the transition out of poverty, people in poverty need to adjust more than their financial situation or their behaviors. They need to adjust to a new culture: the culture of the middle class. The path out of poverty runs through American middle class values.
Over the last decade, this movement’s influence has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard its ideas discussed in nonprofit board meetings. I’ve had its books and other media recommended to me by employers. I’ve been asked to comment on it during talks at churches. I’ve seen the principles of Lupton’s ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ listed as criteria on grant applications. I’ve seen individuals change how they give, and churches and nonprofits change how they operate, based on the advice coming from this reform movement. But this movement is changing more than the strategies and tactics that we use to address poverty; it’s doing more than recommending microcredit over cash transfers. It’s asking us to change the way we think about the effectiveness of charitable giving, the way we imagine the church and nonprofit sector, and the way that we think about the poor.
I don’t buy it. I believe that charitable giving really can change lives, that the nonprofit sector can be a powerful alternative to a for-profit sector that too often exacerbates poverty, and that poor people can generally be trusted to make good decisions when given the opportunity to do so. And I created this blog, in part, to make that case. The case for charity.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
The idea of charity is baked into our culture. We give charitable gifts. We support charitable organizations. We attend charitable events. We celebrate charity in others. We allow people to take tax deductions for their charitable donations. Charity is part of who we are. It’s part of who we imagine ourselves to be.
But what is charity? What makes a few dollars stuffed in a birthday card to a grandchild different from a few dollars given to a panhandler when we pass him on the street? What makes a check sent to a food pantry in a poor neighborhood different than a check given to an elite university in exchange for a building being named after the donor? We can all intuit a difference between these gifts. Few of us could articulate and defend that difference.
Not every gift is charitable. Not every kind of giving is charitable. Charity is a distinct kind of giving. Charity has a specific history. Charity is deeply rooted in Judaism and spread through the world as the heart of Christianity. When we understand that history – and here I’m indebted to Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition – we can approach a definition of charity.
Charity is benevolent giving that has three characteristics.
First, it originates in the divine. Sometimes this might be understood as a divine mandate: God commands us to be charitable and we must obey that command. Sometimes this might be understood as a connection to the divine: being generous helps us ride along the natural currents of the cosmos. Sometimes this might be understood as both of these at once or based in some other metaphor or analogy. The point is that charity is connected to a divine something larger than and distinct from us.
Second, it is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized. This probably seems obvious, but it makes charity distinct from other forms of giving. A birthday gift to a friend or relative may be nice, but it probably isn’t charity. A gift that helps create a new business school at an elite university may do a lot of good, but it isn’t charity. Charity has a single focus: providing for the needs of those who don’t have access to the resources necessary to participate fully in society.
Third, it doesn’t discriminate based on the worthiness of the recipient. This has become a controversial characteristic of charity. There are those who advocate creating systems of ‘reciprocal exchange’ for the poor, or making sure the recipient of charity has demonstrated a willingness to escape poverty, or creating some other set of requirements that show the the recipient is worthy of charity. These kinds of requirements diminish charity, which considers the poor and marginalized deserving simply because they are poor and marginalized.
So here is what I mean when I use the word ‘charity’: benevolent giving that originates in the divine, is specifically directed towards the poor and marginalized, and that does not discriminate based on the perceived worthiness of the recipient. Not everyone would agree with this definition. But I believe it captures the historical and theological origins of charity as a Jewish and Christian practice.
There are Christian congregations across the country who pride themselves on their charity work. They run food pantries and clothes closets and soup kitchens. They take up collections for Church World Service or Heifer International or Operation Smile. They hose English as a Second Language classes and blood drive. in the appropriate seasons they collect food for community Thanksgiving meals or Christmas presents for low-income children or coats for the homeless. They send volunteers to other organizations. They are the hands and feet and words of Jesus. They are doing the work of the body of Christ.
They are doing charity. And that matters.
Charity matters because charity – God’s charity towards us and our charity towards one another – has been the heart of Christianity for almost 2,000 years. Traditionally, Christians have encountered the literal presence of Christ in two deeply intertwined ways: communion and almsgiving. In communion, we come before the altar to receive Christ’s presence. In almsgiving, we go to the poor and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.
Charity matters because it presents an alternative to an uncaring world. Poverty and marginalization usually go hand in hand: the poor are pushed to the ragged edges of society, and those on the edges of society are denied access to the things they need to improve their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charity presents a vision of the cosmos that competes with the vision of our dominant political and social structures. It suggests that we do not live in a world of limited resources that must be carefully distributed, but in a world where generosity is not only possible but natural.
Charity matters because it works. Personal experience and professional research both show that giving to the poor really does help lift people out of poverty. People who are poor tend to know what they need to improve their lives. When they are given the means to meet those needs, they tend to do so. Charity really does change the lives of recipients and donors. And the fact that it works is evidence in favor of the vision that charity proposes. And that is evidence in favor of the idea that I believe is at the heart of Christianity: that the cosmos is generous and that this generous cosmos reflects a generous God.
Charity is, perhaps, the greatest gift that Christianity – and here Christianity owes a lot to its Jewish roots – gave to the world. Charity matters.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares, and best time to post.
That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.
Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.