Self-Sustainability Isn’t a Thing

There’s a buzzword that I keep hearing from colleagues in the social services sector: self-sustainability. If you gathered a bunch of professionals in one room and asked them what their primary mission is – not as individuals or organizations, but as social services agencies – my guess is that a lot of them would say, “To help the people we serve become self-sustaining (or self-sufficient or independent or whatever).”

And that’s strange to me. Because no one is self-sustainable.

Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate that point. Imagine, for a moment, that you are lost in the desert. How long would you survive? Probably not long. You aren’t self-sustaining. You need things like food, shelter, and water.

But let’s say that you had the skills to survive in the desert. You know how to get water from cacti (and which cacti it’s okay to get water from), how know which plants are edible and which ones aren’t, and you can use what’s around you to make a crude shelter. You still aren’t self-sustaining. You are dependent on the environment around you, as well as the people who taught you how to survive.

I am not lost in the desert right now (and, hopefully, neither are you). But I am dependent on a wide array of people and institutions. I’m dependent on by family, my employer, my landlord, the various companies from which I buy the things I need, the government services that make it possible for all of these things to operate, and so on. I am enmeshed in a complex web web of relationships. I am interdependent with others.

I am not self-sustainable. You are not self-sustainable. No one is self-sustainable.

Self-sustainability isn’t a thing.

We are all interdependent.

When people in social services sector say ‘self-sustainability’, what they mean is ‘interdependent in a way that I approve of’. That tends to mean, ‘interdependent in a more-or-less middle class way’: depending on their employer, on their landlord (or mortgage holder), on the companies from which they buy the things they need, and so on. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (well, there are many things wrong with that, but that’s for another post, maybe). But when we call that form of interdependence ‘self-sustainability’, we hide the fact that it is interdependence. We make it look like it’s something else, like it’s independence. And, in turn, we make other ways of being interdependent look bad, like they’re being dependent.

And that helps us disguise the fact that we’re all relying on each other; that we’re all interdependent; that none of us is self-sustaining. It helps us, in other words, lie to ourselves about the nature of the world.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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