Jesus advised his followers to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” The commandment to love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, reminds us that the head, as well as the heart, is engaged when it comes to faithfulness. So how do we keep head and heart together as we try to serve the poor faithfully? How do we hold wisdom and compassion together? What kinds of responses truly manifest justice, kindness, and humility?
I recently read Toxic Charity, a challenging and controversial book by Robert D. Lupton. (Click the title to go to an excerpt.) The subtitle is How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).
For over 40 years Lupton has been living among and working with poor people in the city of Atlanta. He is a Christian, a Presbyterian, and the founder of a Christian community development organization called FCS Urban Ministries. FCS stands for “focused community strategies.” He maintains that some common charitable practices have unintended consequences that diminish people’s lives instead of increasing their experience of the abundant life. People’s lives are diminished when their own strengths and assets aren’t recognized and called forth; when their viewpoints are not sought, respected and included in the process; when the giving is only one-way; when they are pitied and treated as children and not expected to be responsible; and when there is no authentic relationship or community between the helper and the person being helped.
Lupton agrees that emergency relief certainly is critical, but he maintains that the work should soon transition to long-term development and transformation. He proposes the following “Oath for Compassionate Service”:
(1) Never do for the poor what they can (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves; (2) Limit one-way giving to emergencies; (3) Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements; (4) Subordinate the giver’s self-interest to the needs of those being served; (5) Listen closely to those you seek to help; (6) Above all, do no harm.
The author stresses a philosophy of “asset-based community development” (ABCD) that takes seriously what poor people themselves have to offer and emphasizes working with people rather than doing things for people.
This book has generated a lot of controversy. That he calls into question many of the aid programs and mission trips that people in the church cherish is one point of contention, for example. Moreover, advocates for the poor worry that Lupton’s book and its principles will reinforce negative stereotypes of the poor, giving ammunition to people who are looking for resons not to engage in this ministry. Here is a link to a letter from the director of a community kitchen who maintains that all Christian aid should be given without expectation. Some worry that Lupton wants to ask too much of people who truly are helpless.
I found good food for thought and prayer in this book as I wrestle with these issues. I appreciated Lupton’s respect for the poor as thinking, feeling, capable human beings. Moreover, I have long thought that we cannot hope to make a difference in people’s lives if we are not willing to have a genuine relationship with them. I also appreciated the author’s stress on doing things on a small scale in a limited area. This means that individuals and small groups–including small churches–can truly make a difference. His own organization works in and with one neighborhood at a time. He maintains that many small, focused efforts will ultimately work better than a few huge programs that cover huge areas and large numbers of people with problems.
I found some correlations between Lupton’s call for authentic relationships and mutual service and a Presbyterian Church (USA) Policy Paper entitled Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership. Click the title to read it online. The session (church governing body) of Second Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, used this paper and the Lupton book for a session retreat. You can read about their experience here.
May the Holy Spirit teach us how to love faithfully, justly, kindly, and humbly.