When Charity is Dangerous

According to Robert Lupton who was interviewed with the Huffington Post, charity is often not doing as much good as we think it does. That sounds depressing, but I wasn’t terribly surprised by what he had to say and I imagine most people when they stop to think about it aren’t either. Unfortunately what the Western world has come to consider good ethical acts of charity usually means handing over money from a position of power to those without. Money can be quite helpful and as I regularly say, Christians should be investing their money in others. But the problem is the way that we’ve come to define charity on two fronts: it isn’t just about money and it isn’t about the powerful helping the weak.

The money aspect is an interesting one. There are some very interesting stats which essentially say that the more money you have to spare, the less you give away (as a percentage). We hoard once we have it. That’s obviously problematic for those who don’t have it, and is also spiritually and psychologically problematic for those of us hoarding it. But what we often substitute is not really that much better. We just throw money at people instead. When I think about the word charity I always think about the King James Version of the Bible. In that translation, the word charity is used where we often translate love now. This isn’t a mistranslation but just an indication of how our definition of charity has changed – since it is now primarily an issue of tossing money then that isn’t really love. In the biblical language we are called to love – to care for the best interests of another – and not just toss money at people, although of course sometimes sending money is part of that.

Another part of why this is problematic is also because it doesn’t actually change anything a lot of the time. A lot of the programs deal with short-term problems: feeding that hungry woman so she doesn’t die tomorrow. That’s obviously important, but pair it with the rich (basically all of North America) generally still hoarding more and more and there are only going to be more people needing that short-term fix. Long-term, there has to be some radical change, which requires not just throwing money at people but actually working to change the system. The issue of power is big here. I go back to one of my all-time favourite quotes I heard from an African pastor named Oscar Muriu a few years ago:

The purpose of maturity is not independence, but interdependence.

When we view charity as pity, from the powerful to the weak, we are fostering independence of the rich and dependence of the poor. This is the main point of the article. Short term mission trips are usually a waste of money from an actual change viewpoint, and are usually said to be more for the people going than for the people they’re theoretically helping. I think there’s some value to that, but even then I think it fosters the concept of the rich young people going around the world to help out those poor helpless ones. There is never any time to actually get to know the people being helped, or most importantly to actually help them help themselves. They get used to relying on this revolving door of rich people (dependence) but never actually get to work with the rich people (interdependence), and the rich people visiting still think that they are the powerful independents looking down on them.

So, all this to say, it is great that you’re giving charity. And I’d even still rather have you providing some short-term bandaids than just doing nothing. But even better: try to not just pity the poor but try to actually love them. View them as your equals who have more dignity than just some lesser being to be temporarily helped out with a wad of cash. If we do that, questions like whether we should spend $40 a month on coffee or on feeding and educating a child become ridiculous. If we put in that bit of extra effort to seek love instead of settling for pity, we can change the world.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.