Anyone who reads this blog (okay, let’s be honest…), I mean both of you (okay, maybe there is a few more than just two), know that I write here because I think a lot about homelessness. I have a lot of thoughts to share. They are not the usual kind. I buck a few trends and yet hold very close to the Jesus we find in the Bible (as I understand him – of course).
And I have a LOT of these thoughts. I think they are worthy of consideration. But in addition to bucking trends, they often require a complex analysis too. This means a bit of “unlearning” before the new stuff makes sense. My thoughts are often challenging in various ways. Thus, I frequently don’t get much of a hearing. I mostly get ignored when and where possible.
I want to lay a bit of groundwork for some of my thoughts. I need to expand a couple of categories of thought in your mind. In this post, I will limit myself to the When-Helping-Hurts program. If you will accept this foundational stuff, then I am much more likely to make sense, get a hearing, and not offend when I offer my more pointed thoughts that so often challenge the prevailing trends.
I find that my most forceful challenge in any of my usual discourse falls along political lines and comes to a head with the whole When-Helping-Hurts program. In case you are unfamiliar, When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor… and Yourself is a book for people in Christian ministry who find that their efforts to change people’s misfortunate lives often does not actually bring about the desired change and sometimes seems to lead to worse conditions. That is all I will say about the book by way of introduction.
(You can look into it for yourself, if you so desire, but really this book makes the top of my very short book-burning list.)
There are other similar books in the marketplace of ideas. It is not a one-of-a-kind. But it was the prime shaping force for two programs at two different ministries I attempted to serve with in this town, and in both instances spawned conflict between them and me. So, as far as I am concerned, When Helping Hurts (WHH hereafter) is its own source of hurt.
In my view, this book and subsequent programs offer themselves as the wise alternative philosophy and method for helping the poor over against a naïve bleeding heart. And since Protestant Christians and West Texans tend to be politically conservative, this philosophy and method seems to hold Jesus’s care for the poor in one hand and staunch ideals of self-discipline and personal responsibility in the other. It also makes you feel smarter than some liberal, bleeding-heart types too. Basically, the book sells well in my part of the world, and any minister/ministry that champions its ideals stands to raise a lot of money from amid this culture.
I have lots of problems with the book, the philosophy it spawns, and the methods it promotes. And they all conflict with Jesus – well most of them do. Some go back to the Old Testament too, which does not directly feature Jesus per se. The WHH program tells us that giving money to the poor is a disastrous thing to do. Jesus says, “Give to all who ask…” (Luke 6:30), and he told at least one rich man to sell all he owned, give it to the poor, obtain his riches in heaven, and come follow… (Mark 10:21). This is exactly what the WHH program opposes.
In the wisdom of the WHH philosophy giving your money to the poor “enables” bad behavior. “Enabling” is a real enough phenomenon, but you won’t find it to be a concern for the Bible. No. The whole “enabling” teaching comes from the field of Psychology – especially as it relates to addiction treatment. I do not deny that your “help” might “enable” someone to make bad choices. But even God, The Almighty, seems to honor “Free Will” as St. Augustine teaches (also not in the Bible, btw). Certainly Americans honor it (except when it comes to the way their money is spent – apparently.)
So my first contention here is not that “enabling” is good so why worry about it? Rather it is that the WHH program has gone to the psychologists for a teaching to “help” with our Jesus-mission rather than just trusting Jesus with it. “Enabling” might really just hurt after all. It might hurt the poor. It might hurt yourself. These are the concerns of the title of the book. But if Jesus came and paid the price for your soul, took the pain of your punishment on your behalf, and calls you to take up a cross and follow (Luke 9:23), then he is expecting your mission to definitely hurt you. SO… I am saying WHH is a cross-less Christianity – which amounts to idolatry.
No. We don’t need the WHH program at all.
The book that spawned it is full of Bible verses, I know, but they are misused all over the place. (Actually, there is a lot of it that is good but blended in with all this bad stuff – kinda like all the devil’s best lies.)
So what if a homeless man uses your $5 to get himself a bottle of booze to wash away his pain? Why do you think that is your problem? Why do you think you are responsible? Just look at Proverbs 31:6-7! Perhaps you should actually go buy the booze for that man! And anyway, if you think you are responsible for how he spends the money after you gave it to him, then why not go all the way and just take the man into your home, feed and clothe him, give him a place to belong? (Think Matt. 25:35!)
As you can see, my thoughts totally challenge the WHH program – a program that sits very nicely with the prevailing culture here in Lubbock. This is largely why, I think, that my thoughts are not more welcome. Lubbock, like that rich man in Mark 10, meets Jesus with anticipation of life in the Age to Come, but when he tells the rich man to sell all and give to the poor, Lubbock turns away with that rich man. When I take that stance, Lubbock ignores me too. (With exceptions to be sure.)
I remember a few years ago reading in the paper about an anonymous man giving away $100 bills to poor people he met downtown in areas where homeless people tend to congregate. That was just the first part of the story. The larger part was where a handful of pastors spoke out against it. They called the act “enabling” and foolish. At least one of them even said that if you want to help the homeless, you need to send your money to him rather than giving it to the poor. I was stunned. What if that anonymous man was following the words of Jesus in Mark 10? What if he actually gave away all his wealth? (We cannot know for sure, but it is possible.) If he did, then this man following the very words of Jesus suddenly reads in the paper where pastors of Lubbock come out to decry his obedience to the Master! How does that play in heaven???
What’s more? The whole WHH program has led one premier homeless ministry in Lubbock to stop taking people in during cold weather. This is a case where the same ministry for years had a track record of taking care of these people – especially sheltering them from the cold – and now kicking them all out on the streets to fend for themselves. This is absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly the behavior that comes under Judgment in Matthew 25:41-46. (In case you missed it Jesus says, “…I was a stranger… and you did not invite me in….” I can’t figure how Bible-believing pastors and parishioners read that and accept this behavior from their own ranks! The only thing I can figure is that we want to be politically correct – especially according to conservative ideals – more than we want to be religiously correct! (Yes, I said religious. That too gets a bad name, unfortunately, but if you read James 1:27, you find that pure religion is all about taking care of the poor. And if you read the next chapter, you find that showing partiality to the rich is a sin!)
Look, I could literally go on and on with this stuff. The fact is, though, that no one ever argues these points with me. If I am misusing Scripture, I invite you to demonstrate that to me. I do not want to be among the goats on Judgment Day; I want to join the sheep. So I take this stuff deadly serious, and I ask you to as well. But in nearly 5 years of resisting WHH, I find myself marginalized on other grounds and mostly ignored. In none of that time has anyone ever said, [Agent X], you are mistaken about Luke 6:30 and Mark 10:21.
That’s 5 years of me not being challenged on the merits one bit.
So, I figure my challenging thoughts here are for those with ears to hear… But hopefully they will expand this category of thought for future posts.
Thank you for reading.