(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)
It is important that giving be truly free. It must never degenerate into charity, in the pejorative sense. Alms-giving is Mammon’s perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before.
- Jacques Ellul, Money and Power.
In this chapter Lupton tells about his first Christmas living in one of the neighborhoods he was helping to develop. After years of commuting, he had finally become a neighbor. He was sitting with a family on Christmas Eve, when a knock came on the door. A family was there delivering gifts for the inner city family. The mother’s nervous smile concealed her embarrassment. The giving family came in and presented, the kids unwrapped. No one noticed that the father quietly slipped away. This was the first time that Lupton realized how all this generous giving emasculated a father in his own home. How children learned that the “good stuff” comes from rich people and is free. How not all charity is good charity.
The holiday season is full of giving. While giving is supposed to be a joyous process, Lupton was now seeing a darker side. When this giving is a charitable event, there is an emotional price tag attached.
“Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and charity becomes toxic,” Lupton says.
The solution to this is the idea of parity vs. charity. It is a delicate process to establish real parity between individuals and groups of unequal power. Lupton calls this holistic compassion – relationships built on reciprocal exchange.
When Justice Meets Mercy
I had asked a question about justice and mercy in a previous post. I think Lupton gives some answers to my questions in this chapter.
Compassion is a powerful force. It compels us to do amazing things for people in need. “Mercy is a force that compels us to acts of compassion.” It collides with Injustice. What power does mercy have against injustice? This explains why the Bible places even emphasis on both mercy and justice.
Act Justly. Justice is “fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.”
Love Mercy. Mercy is “compassion, kindness, or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.”
Twinned together, these commands lead us to holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships…
Mercy combined with justice, however, creates:
- Immediate care with a future plan
- Emergency relief and responsible development
- Short-term intervention and long-term involvement
- Heart responses and engaged minds
But does this give us a definitive answer about giving to the homeless person on the corner? Lupton asked three different people. Gary Hoag — “generosity monk” — says yes – freely received freely give. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, LA – says sometimes, but money is least helpful thing we can do, a last resort. Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, said “Absolutely Not”
Always. Sometimes. Never. Sound like it still requires us to be personally engaged in listening to the Spirit for what we should do.