By: Stephen Williams, Contributor
To call Robert Lupton’s 2011 book Toxic Charity a paradigm-shifting little work would be an understatement. Recently named by WORLD Magazine’s Marvin Olasky as a runner up Book of the Year, it pulls no punches in challenging the existing norms surrounding Christians and our charitable ventures, whether they be foreign mission trips or “mercy ministries” here in the States. Toxic Charity is characterized by a refreshing honesty that is at once both hard to swallow and edifying, and I believe the book deserves a spot on the shelf of any Christian wishing to thoughtfully engage in sustainable, effective compassion ministry.
At the core of Lupton’s arguments are calls to due diligence and a more thoughtful stewardship than that which currently characterizes the large majority of Christian charitable work. He targets both the mentalities surrounding the giving of resources to charitable organizations and the approaches taken by those organizations in deploying those resources:
“We mean well, our motives are good, but we have neglected to conduct careful due diligence to determine emotional, economic, and cultural outcomes on the receiving end of our charity. Why do we miss this crucial aspect in evaluating our charitable work? Because, as compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served. We have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.”
Lupton cites a prevailing, if often unintended arrogance on the part of the “giver” in charitable ventures, and he advocates a collaborative approach between “giver” and “receiver” in addressing poverty and other physical needs. Drawing from multiple real-life examples, he demonstrates how “top-down, one-way” charity communicates a damaging attitude of condescension and superiority. For Lupton, charity that does not empower or require accountability is a gross affront to the basic human dignity of those in need: “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.”
Moreover, he believes that “one-way” charity sets the table for an unhealthy, counterproductive relationship of dependence between the “giver” and those on the receiving end. “The negative outcomes of welfare are no different when religious or charitable organizations provide it.” For politically conservative Christians, this is an especially damaging indictment. If many of the underlying principles behind our opposition to government welfare programs are to hold true, they must find application in our own private charitable ventures, both within and without the Church.
In the end, Lupton’s arguments are made persuasive by his four decades of experience in transforming poverty-stricken communities. Toxic Charity is no armchair rant against Christian charitable ventures by a disinterested, detached, or heartless party. Rather, it is both a direct, honest assessment of the state of Christian charity and a clarion call for wise, prudent compassion made by someone who has spent his entire life in the trenches of ministry. For all of his bluntness, Lupton throughout the book maintains a compelling belief in the fundamental human dignity that finds its origins in the imago Dei, and it is this dignity that should inspire the Church to greater wisdom, prudence, and patience in stewarding our resources while addressing the needs of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.
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