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Toxic Charity

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There is some of the missionary in every Christian. As the Lord extends to us the ability to trust in him and as he begins that work of transforming us from the inside out, he gives us the desire to share our faith with others and to extend his love to them. Since the church’s earliest day this desire has motivated Christians to leave behind all they know and to travel to the earth’s farthest reaches. A relative newcomer on the scene is the short-term missions trip and other similar means through which Christians can participate on a part-time basis as “vacationaries.” Such ministry is the subject of Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity.

Toxic Charity is a book about doing missions right. The subtitle pretty much lays it out: “How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).” Lupton honors the mindset that compels Christians toward foreign short-term missions and inner-city projects at home, but believes that the church has failed to ask simple questions like these: Who is really benefiting? Who are we really seeking to serve? Is it the poor and those in need, or are we primarily serving ourselves? He contends that “what Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help. …The compassion industry is almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise. But what is so surprising is that its outcomes are almost entirely unexamined.”

It is not the Christian’s motivation he questions as much as the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts. “For all our efforts to eliminate poverty—our entitlements, our programs, our charities—we have succeeded only in creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work. And our poor continue to become poorer. … Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.” In Toxic Charity he offers “basic operating principles that distinguish wise and prudent charitable efforts from the destructive do-gooder practices currently dominating the compassion industry. After describing the problem and hearing stories of people who are modeling solutions, my goal is to provide for caring people a checklist of criteria they can use to determine which actions they should undertake when they want to help others.” The simple fact is that we like to give–to give money, to give food, to give help, to give whatever most immediately meets a need–and then to walk away. But this kind of giving is harming rather than helping.

Drawing upon four decades of urban ministry, primarily in poverty-stricken areas of Atlanta, Lupton offers a better way forward, and does so in the form of an “Oath for Compassionate Service,” a missions equivalent to the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath.

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served. • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

These are good guidelines, but something crucial is missing, which brings me to my one significant critique of the book

Toxic Charity’s great weakness is that Lupton appears to hold to an incomplete gospel–a social gospel. His is a gospel of love and service and charity, but not a gospel of Christ’s atoning death satisfying the just wrath of God and saving people from the eternal consequences of their rejection of God. He believes “compassionate people desire to see wholeness restored to struggling communities and to the people who reside there.” I agree entirely. However, compassionate people will differ significantly on what they understand by “wholeness.” Lupton’s version may include some vague kind of spirituality, and Christian spirituality even, but he never makes clear how the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection makes us spiritually whole. In fact, he never makes the gospel clear at all. He mentions in an off-hand way that he is a Presbyterian married to a Roman Catholic and that they alternate churches week-by-week, one Sunday in her Roman Catholic mass and the next in his Presbyterian service. This does not sound like a sign of spiritual strength or health, and may go a long way to explaining the weakened gospel.

This incomplete gospel leads him to propose incomplete solutions–solutions that may save people from hunger and poverty, but still leave them facing an eternity in hell. I do not counter-propose that we offer help to the poor only to create opportunities to preach the gospel to them; however, to help people economically and to offer them no gospel at all is a badly missed opportunity and a woefully incomplete understanding of our calling in this world.

Is Toxic Charity worth reading? I believe it is. Much of Lupton’s diagnosis of the issue is both helpful and convicting. The book is quite helpful as far as it goes. However, the reader will still have work to do as he applies these principles to a more complete gospel. My recommendation would be to read one other book first: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. This book has a a holistic understanding of poverty that includes a relationship with God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Once you have read that, you may wish to follow it up with Toxic Charity.

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