book cover featuring many outstretched hands and the title Toxic Charity How Churches and Charities Hurt those They Help (And How to Reverse It)
Real help would be better

Notes on: Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

I don’t remember how this book got on the “read me” shelf. Presumably because it seemed relevant to church issues.

Lupton’s main point is that a lot of charity, both church-based and agency-based, does the opposite of help people. It makes givers feel good about themselves, like we’re doing something Jesus told us to do, and because of the underlying model of “giving” it makes the recipients feel lousy about themselves, and also doesn’t do anything to change things.

I was afraid Lupton would be a conservative ideologue, touting the “giving people stuff makes them lazy and entitled” line. He does say that, but he doesn’t come off as an ideologue, perhaps because it’s clear he cares about people and wants to help them. And because he has seen that “parity” works better than “charity” (37-39) and that “development” works better over the long term to accomplish that than “betterment” (166-8), and shares those experiences. The obstacles to pursuing parity and development, however, are that those goals and projects demand a profound shift in focus from the givers of charity: away from the kind of “us-based” projects that begin with “our” desire to help and the current configuration of resources we have available for that purpose, and towards the kinds of long-term investment in relationships, listening, trusting, and taking a back seat to the people we say we intend to help to support transformative change.

The “us-based” perspective is the fuel for the kind of religious tourism that sets out every year to “find a good youth mission trip possibility,” that starts out with “we want to do something ‘hands on’” and ends up with someone having to re-hang the drywall the volunteers put up. Reading Lupton’s book, especially his examples of talking with church mission committees, made me think that a big part of the dilemma he identifies is that the kind of community development efforts he advocates are (a) more resource intensive and (b) less a source of immediate emotional gratification than the average church mission project. The very things that seem to make his approach better for the beneficiaries are the things that make givers [some, anyway] shy away – which unfortunately, no doubt, says something about “us” as givers.

Lupton’s approach is more resource intensive in the sense that it requires more than money; it calls for time and interpersonal relationship, and in particular, interpersonal relationship that works against the powerful helper-powerless victim dynamic that besets the “toxic charity” he challenges. It is a lot easier and cheaper, in money and time and emotional investment, to for instance take a turn shelving canned goods at the local food pantry than it is to for instance commit to supporting an asset-based community development project. The food pantry will be, what, an hour or two a week? And I’ll be working with my friends from church. The asset-based community development project will demand God knows what, but almost for sure nights and weekends and putting in an appearance at a zoning commission meeting here or a school board meeting there, and not as a speaker but as a supporter. And there is less immediate emotional gratification, too, because this commitment will almost certainly include inconvenient and challenging and infuriating and disorienting conversations with other people who are not my current neighbors and friends, and will involve situations in which I will have to experience myself as ignorant and less than the moral paragon I think I am. It offers me far fewer of the warm fuzzies that come from seeing people’s grateful smiles and hearing their heartfelt thank-yous and seeing the difference I made in their dismal lives. All these differences, Lupton points out, are what makes the asset-based community development approach potentially so much more productive for the members of the developing community, so much more subversive of the unequal power inherent in the charity problem in the first place; they’re what gives it so much more … potential. Transformative community development is not snack-size consumable mission activity primarily for our benefit.

Reading this book made me wonder whether snack-size consumable mission activity primarily for my own benefit is often precisely what I want.

Reading this book made me think that I should want something better than that.

Lupton has mostly persuaded me that what I want is not always what I, and definitely not “our neighbors,” really need. So, yes, this book was definitely worth reading. And Lupton includes helpful advice about how to get started doing non-toxic charity for those who are persuaded by his testimonial and his analysis. So, while I like to think our percentage of really toxic charity is low, yes, I’ll pass it on to my pastor and to the moderator of the mission committee. Because if we can do better, … well, I’m sure we’ll want to, whether or not we know it yet.


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