One of the most compelling books on charity in recent memory is Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity, which makes the case that the most common forms of charity aren’t effective or harm intended recipients. In a 2011 interview with HuffPost, Lupton claimed, “Typically, the giving is one-way: those of us with the resources give to those with a lack of resources. One-way giving tends to make the poor objects of pity, which harms their dignity. It also erodes their work ethic and produces a dependency that is unhealthy both for the giver and the recipient.”
Here’s where I’m with Lupton. I 100% agree that one-way charity isn’t actually helpful, precisely because it challenges human dignity. Charity without relationship is, at best, patronizing, which degrades recipients on behalf of the giver’s feelings or moral framework. Anytime giving doesn’t honor the humanity of the recipient and how the recipient too has gifts to offer, it is toxic indeed.
However, Lupton’s claims around work ethics and dependency depend entirely upon an 21st century American ideal. There’s still some wisdom in this, for we’re creatures bound not only our bodily experience but our social location. In other words, charity that helps disadvantaged people claim space and operate within the social norms provides the significant benefit of self stabilization. This typically comes by teaching people the habits, rituals, expectations, and norms of the dominant culture. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Well, it’s complicated. Such education in this American life centers particularly Western ideals like capitalism and individualism. If you don’t see any tension between those ideals and the teachings of Jesus, then we shouldn’t worry about Lupton’s definition of concepts like “work ethic” or “dependence.”
I, however, just can’t forget how awful Jesus was at this, not to mention the early church. Jesus says “give to those who ask,” fully aware of problems like greed, deception, and addiction at work in the world. Acts 2 reports that early Christians held everything in common and distributed to any who had a need. Such reckless giving and communal living certainly defy our contemporary political expectations. However, these aren’t presented as social norms in Jesus’s time to be equivocated with our own social setting. Instead, they are the countercultural action of Jesus followers convinced that eternally and temporally we cannot be self sufficient, that our work ethic will always fail us, that we are entirely dependent upon God and the images of God (read: other people) active in our lives. Jesus wasn’t concerned about making good Roman citizens. He was intent on supporting abundant life. He knew that the Roman way and the American dream are not synonymous with divine life. Ultimately, Jesus’s way was true charity, giving good gifts out of love to those who ask and honoring their personal integrity to decide what they would do with such gifts. It wasn’t an investment that would ever bring Jesus returns, except that it always entailed the possibility of furthering the physical life of another and inspiring abundant life within them.
Here’s a radical idea: dependence isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s healthy and holy, and the idol of self sufficiency is the sin.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Personal agency matters. When Jesus says, “give to those who ask,” we must recognize the agency that begins with the request. The internal contribution it takes to admit a need and seek assistance from the outside oozes integrity. Responding to that need does not eradicate dignity. Ignoring the request altogether or stereotyping what a person might do with the gift? That’s where integrity is attacked.
Yet, there’s also healthy caution here. We ought not assume everyone needs or wants charity. In fact, part of the Lupton’s wisdom from the same interview is that we’re called to “responsible charity, examined charity, rather than mindless charity.” Surely, that’s the case, and it begins with recognizing we are limited givers. Not only do we have limited resources. We’re limited in our understanding of others and their needs. We need to hear from others about what ways we may be able to help and in way ways we’re hurting, about how we’re not welcome to contribute and about where they have something to contribute to our relationship.
May we too be terrible investors, at least by today's standards, not focused on fostering a stable way of life in the American status quo, but instead living the kind of charity that honors the requests of others, that invites relationship in which we too are transformed, that creates a healthy interdependency upon God and one another. Our job is not to create more cogs in the machine of Western capitalism, nor socialism, nor anarchism. Our call is to foster Christ-like formation where dependance upon God is celebrated, where dependance on one another is encouraged, and where our work ethic is defined by the ultimate selflessness rather than any kind of return on our charitable investment.