When secular friends confront us with the more shameful figures of the faith—the pedophile priests, arrogant television personalities, and complacent suburbanites—Christians often find ourselves invoking the charitable giver. She is selfless. She travels to forsaken nations and forgotten neighborhoods to give with no expectation of reward. Now that’s Christian.
But the giver, it turns out, may be doing as much harm as good. Unaccountable charity can undermine local business—some African nations’ textile industries were walloped by foreign donations of clothes—and foster dependency. Even a “successful” food pantry that gives away tons of food doesn’t do much to develop the infrastructure of community and jobs necessary to lift a community into prosperity.
So argues Robert D. Lupton, a veteran of ministries in impoverished communities in Atlanta and Nicaragua, in Charity Detox: “We cannot serve people out of poverty.” (This is a follow-up to his 2011 book Toxic Charity—if that was a diagnosis, this new book offers prescriptions.)
Stories of Christ feeding the masses may make us think that every giveaway is productive, Lupton writes, but, in this book’s only patch of exegesis, he reminds us that Christ was a transformer, not a feeder, who refused to work miracles to win people’s faith: “[T]he kingdom that this radical young rabbi was introducing was about far more than heart-responses. It was about heart-changes. And feeding the multitudes was clearly not the most effective way to achieve heart-changes.”
Even education, vital as it is, cannot lift up a community by itself. A child in a low-income community who received a good education is more likely to leave than to stay and improve the community if there’s nothing to keep her.
So what does Lupton propose instead? Stateside, mixed-income communities can bring the resources of higher-income neighborhoods to once-blighted neighborhoods. He calls this “gentrification with justice,” a process in which higher-income immigrants will join with, rather than displace, their new neighbors.
In such a community, redistribution of wealth is a fact of life, not because it’s imposed from above but because “we live in close proximity to each other—and because we choose to depend on one another.” Thus, “the opportunities for exchange (redistribution) become a normal part of community living.” His ministry in Atlanta has formed such communities, and he briefly overviews their setbacks and successes.
Abroad, he proposes for-profit missions, such a one a friend started that increased the scales—and profits—of farmers in Nicaragua, connecting them with multinational corporations while ensuring they got a good deal.
Lupton’s praise of free-market economics and emphasis on the necessity of personal transformation may unnerve liberal Christians, but he makes clear that, just as charity requires “banker-like accountability,” business requires ethics: “Business without a moral, ethical foundation isn’t liberating; it enslaves people in the perpetual cycle of poverty.”
Throughout its 196 pages, Toxic Charity offers few details. Lupton’s material may have been better served by a tighter focus on one ministry, with specifics giving births to general prescriptions, rather than the other way around. But that may be an unfair expectation, as he’s a minister, not a journalist—or gifted writer. (In one particularly terrible sentence, he compares people moving to a low-income neighborhood to Marines establishing a beachhead.)
Oh, well. Toxic Charity never claims to be anything more than the beginning of a conversation that all Christians should participate in—including the givers, whose good intentions, however laudable, are hardly sufficient.
Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like if We Cared About Results. By Robert D. Lupton. Published by HarperOne on July 7th. 196 pages. $24.99