After reading philosophies like that of Robert Lupton in Toxic Charity and Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts, I too joined the bandwagon: “Yes! We need to focus on assets! Yes! Some of the charitable work we do is actually enabling people rather than empowering them.” I resonate and even wrote my own blog post about folks who are calling for a new perspective on mission; one that involves transformation and relationship rather than a trip and projects. I get it. I, too, want to participate in missional friendships that are mutual, engaging, and transforming.
There’s something, though, about the Toxic Charity that has rubbed me the wrong way. For a while, I haven’t been able to put words to my discomfort. Recently, at the NC Regional Gathering of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I finally was able to find the words. Folks like Lupton are trying to reign in well-meaning Christians from hurting the people they are actually trying to help. In his reflections about dis-empowering and hurtful one-way relationships, Lupton talks a lot about dignity. The definition of this so-called “dignity” is what rubs me the wrong way.
It seems Lupton’s definition of dignity hinges on capitalist, consumerist, materialist society: In order to have dignity, one must be able to do things for oneself; especially buy things for oneself. You can read an article in Christianity Today in which Lupton explains how to avoid destroying dignity. In summary, it goes something like this: Don’t just give things to people. That destroys their dignity. Instead, define the parameters in which a person must engage in order to have dignity. Then, provide to them the means and resources so that they might be able to engage in your pre-prescribed “dignified” parameters. In this specific case, find a way for them to buy their own Christmas gifts so that they feel dignified when celebrating the birth of baby Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong. I think books like Toxic Charity are very helpful Christians in America and they give great attempt at scratching the surface of the effect of power dynamics on acts of charity. Add some studies with Ruby Payne’s What Every Church Needs To Know About Poverty and you’re on your way to becoming a mindful and more sensitive servant to others. In my opinion, though, something is missing.
Jon Barnes, of Global Ministries, introduced me to a book that I think may be a good addition, or perhaps alternative, to the notion of Toxic Charity. Solidarity Ethics, written by Rebecca Todd Peters of Elon University, will provide, I hope, a global perspective that will allow for a more holistic notion of dignity and empowerment. I’ve purchased Solidarity Ethics and have high hopes of digging into it over the summer. Would you like to read along? If you’re interested in joining a Solidarity Ethics book club via facebook, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) . I’ll create the group and we can begin the conversations in June. Happy Reading, yall!