In case you are an interested newcomer to this blog or to this series, please be aware that I recently posted a seven part series devoted to When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert also. I am now sharing a shorter series addressing Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton.
These series of posts are copied from my hand notes – “chicken-scratch” – that I wrote in composition notebooks as I was reading these books. I spent last year researching for a forthcoming project on Heaven’s Hospitality and considering the impact books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity have had on the church of Lubbock, Texas, books which get in the way of Jesus’s message and mission to the poor and homeless of our streets. I felt it pertinent to read and devote some reaction to these books as part of that overall project.
There is no way I am going to use all the observations I have made in reading Toxic Charity in the forthcoming project, and it seems a waste to just let this critique languish in the back of my closet. Thus, I have decided to share them in their raw – only slightly edited – form here on the blog.
Notes on Toxic Charity
DEPENDENCY (Good or Bad???)
By my count, Lupton addresses the idea of “DEPENDENCY” at least 21 different times in Toxic Charity scattered all through 191 pages. Ironically, one of the relatively few places I find inconsistency in Lupton is one instance (page 114) where he considers dependence to be a GOOD thing as it relates to securing loans! Ha! More on that later (if I still find it necessary).
The other 20 times Lupton (by my count) refers to “DEPENDENCY,” he keeps considering it to be a BAD THING. I will let this quote near the start of the book represent the idea that reappears in practically all the others all through the book.
“The food we ship to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit – all seem like such worthy efforts. Yet those closest to the ground – on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity – quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping. How? Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When you do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.”
This is one of those points that resurfaces over and over again, employed to justify Lupton’s case that our almsgiving is toxic and actually harms people. Every time Lupton refers to DEPENDENCY in this way, it just looks and feels and sounds so self-evidently justifying. And while that is a powerful rhetorical force, it is, in the final analysis, rather empty and devoid of reason. According to Lupton, anytime you GIVE alms to someone you are creating DEPENDENCE and that is a bad thing – an evil scourge.
Lupton has paid respect to the notion that when we give to the needy, our hearts are motivated by GOOD, but he then blames the act of giving and/or the gift itself as the source of dependency AND then labels that harmful. AND it’s amazing to me how rhetorically powerful this observation is for his case!
Yes, part (not all, but a big part) of what makes Lupton’s book so compelling is his rhetorical wit! It’s got punch! As Lupton himself says, “This book has taken the gloves off and hit straight on” (page 189). And sure enough, he does not come to the table looking to dither or talk about the weather, but rather to get straight to work calling the bluff on traditional charity models.
No doubt his style would be considered hard hitting in Christian literature genres. But it’s not simply the edgy style and rhetoric that makes his book tick. It also taps into a sense of common sense. I can easily imagine the average reader taking conviction from Lupton’s book with a “Well… duh!” attitude. It’s not so much an “‘a-ha’ moment” as a “Well… duh!” moment. I sense that Lupton has tapped into a vein in such a way to expose what you always really thought, but were maybe afraid to actually say.
I mean, even my grandma used to say, “Don’t feed that stray dog… that stray cat…. You’ll never get rid of it if you do.” Yeah, this kind of wisdom has been around for a long time, and we don’t NEED Lupton’s expertise and 30+ years of experience to alert us to the wisdom Gram-Gram gave us 40+ years ago.
I mean, surely you have heard it said: FEED A MAN A FISH, AND YOU FEED HIM FOR A DAY. TEACH A MAN TO FISH, AND YOU FEED HIM FOR LIFE. (Not in the Bible, btw)
Oh yeah, Lupton quotes it too (page 108), though of course he expands on the idea and calls it “conventional wisdom.” Hey, he’s not trying to take credit for it! But even he basically calls it “common sense” when he says it’s “conventional wisdom.”
Yeah, it’s been around. It’s not new, though back in 2011, Lupton’s book was new. And it was all avant garde insofar as it criticized the church’s giving in the process. But still, there is a kind of crowd among whom all this sense is “common” and all the “wisdom” is “conventional.” There is a choir Lupton preaches to here!
Who might that be???
The Evangelical Church of North America of course. Evangelicals are known as a voting bloc – and this happens to be the target audience for books like Toxic Charity. Historically, Evangelicals have a sensitivity for being BIBLICALLY CONSERVATIVE, but at least by the 1980s that began to evermore vocally involve being POLITICALLY CONSERVATIVE as well.
What once upon a time was known as “the silent majority” enjoyed a lot of power and prestige and has now, it seems, hitched its wagon to the very vocal Tea Party and louder conservative movements and seems to be morphing into ever more radical, vocal, and even hostile conservativism and away from meek, humble, and patient discipleship. It looks, sounds, and feels less biblical all the time as it definitely becomes more political and financial in nature – more common, conventional, and… well… worldly.
I mean, Evangelicals played a very important role in supporting Donald Trump’s bid to be president despite his self-professed bragging about “grabbing pussy” and his open use of words like “shit” even though when he attempted to cite Scripture at a campaign rally at Liberty University (just the name of that “Christian” institution makes my point almost) he called the citation “Two Corinthians” rather than the far more traditional “Second Corinthians.” It was a signal to everyone of either his lack of familiarity with Scriptures or with the lack of it with Evangelicals (who in the last generation read their Bibles far less than previous generations). Yes, the Evangelicals made him their champion and gave up God’s wisdom!
This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, and neither is it your grandfather’s Republican Party.
My point in chasing that bunny trail is that now I can highlight the way I perceive a book like Lupton’s gains the kind of influence it has. He is barely referring to his Bible at all, yet he is influencing the church with what we used to call “worldly wisdom” but more recently call “common sense”, but which Lupton terms “conventional wisdom.”
With reality TV stars like “The Duck Commander” and Donald Trump taking leadership in the religion/political atmosphere (and by default the church too), Lupton’s message will easily pass for God’s will – even God’s Word (though you can’t find a verse for it). All this even if God’s Word specifically opposes Lupton’s agendas!
Yet I will say this much in the way of irony: Lupton’s book, for all its lack of Bible while promoting “business principles” and bashing the giving of alms to the poor still ironically makes numerous (at least 2-3 times) comments that favor government programs. Thus, I am not claiming Lupton manipulates his message with all this in mind, because I think he would temper that rhetoric if he thought about it. However, the book When Helping Hurts does, in generic terms, takes shots at government programs, and it advances the same general thesis.
Getting Back to “DEPENDENCY”
But let’s keep in mind here that we are looking at Lupton’s concern about DEPENDENCY in particular. He can merely highlight the correlation between giving alms to the needy and the “dependence” that creates (or seems to create), and that is enough to make his point. Lupton sees this phenom as a bad outcome – a sign of ineffective charity. He need only point it out, and his readers fully concur.
Here’s the thing though: I don’t argue against the phenom – at least not against it’s existence. I agree that if/when you give alms to the poor, it can (and perhaps normally does) create DEPENDENCE! But I come to this with a biblical worldview, and thus I see it as a good thing, not bad. I am not beholding to some very modern, American fiscally and politically conservative ideals or reality TV star hype.
Perhaps this would be a good place to tell Lupton to consider Proverbs 3:5-6, and to TRUST GOD with all of his ways and not lean on his conventional wisdom!
I want to look at DEPENDENCE as we find it in God’s hands all through the Bible. However, I figure I need to be selective rather than exhaustive just because this project is already challengingly cumbersome AND not actually intended to be any more scholarly in nature than Toxic Charity in the final analysis. Also, this is the chicken-scratch initial thoughts and reactions notebook, not the final product AT ALL. Thus, everything is subject to change and almost all of it is destined to be enhanced with time.
That said, I am thinking of “DEPENDENCE” as a theme in the Bible and esp the way it is featured IN THE BEGINNING, certainly in Genesis 1-3, also in the Exodus and certainly as we find it with Jesus – perhaps most importantly as it is seen in the FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND.
Perhaps other texts should be added – and very likely will – at least in conjunction with these. However, my approach to Scripture always yields such deep and profound insights when I can establish links between any given topic or passage and Jesus on the one hand, and Genesis 1-11 on the other. When set against the backdrop of the Eschaton still more… and it gets enhanced even more when I find it in Psalms or Prophets too. But somehow those Alpha-Omega links with Jesus in the middle seem to always, always, always yield depth beyond compare.
At present, I think mostly and right off of the manna God feeds Israel in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus.
Are there other passages more pertinent when talking about DEPENDENCE in the Bible?
Possibly, but I have read the Bible a few times, and this is one leaping off the page of my sheer memory. I expect that makes it a good start. We find that story, I believe, in Exodus 16. And one of, if not the main, features of that story is how God instructs these grumbling, needy people to eat this manna – not to take more than you need for one day (except in prep for Sabbath). Of course, the people test God on this, and the food turns foul and wormy, as I recall.
So what’s the point of that?
God is purposely creating DEPENDENCE!
Yes, He is!
It becomes quite clear that YHWH saves his people and sustains them. In fact, the whole story of the EXODUS, not merely the FOOD part, demonstrates this. The children of Israel suffer under tyranny for 400 years! In all that time, they never manage to make their lot in life any better. But then YHWH comes swooping in (via Moses) and begins laying waste to the Egyptians on behalf of his children.
But isn’t it odd that the Hebrews suffer the plagues at first right along with the Egyptians? What’s up with that?
And what does Moses say to Pharaoh?
Does he say, “Get My people a job!”???
Does he say,” Make My people a loan!”???
No. He says, “Let My people go.”
Does this sound like a saving act Lupton would endorse? These people have a job, but YHWH, their Savior, wants them to leave it. And how “effective” is YHWH at saving them when they reach Sinai and build a Golden Calf??? Would we say that God has done more harm than good? Or will we look deeper into our faith for answers to such questions?
But meanwhile, YHWH tells Pharaoh, “Let My people go.” And where does he want them to go???
Oh yeah! A 3-day journey into the desert!
A 3-day journey into the desert???
Talk about doing more harm than good! That sounds like a death-wish or a death sentence! In fact, if Pharaoh banished you to the desert, you likely would die in about 3 days, if not sooner. Only the most well-prepared caravans survive more than three days in the desert. I’m betting the children of Israel know this, maybe they have seen it!
And what does YHWH say will happen at the other end of this 3-day journey into the desert?
Hmmm… That’s strange.
Is God sure? Is that how you help needy people? Does that really SAVE them? Does it look ANYTHING like Lupton’s thesis???
What other 3-day journeys do we know about in the Bible?
Well, very quickly, Jonah comes to mind. No doubt we should, if we want to be thorough, follow up on that lead. But already my mind is registering Jesus’s 3-day death and burial – a journey THROUGH DEATH.
Hmmm… there are some interesting connections starting to surface there. And certainly Jesus told some of his critics that the only sign they would get is the “sign of Jonah.” Jesus foretells of a time when he will eat his covenant meal anew in his Kingdom Come sometime after his 3-day journey through the grave.
At the risk of jumping around too quickly, I am recalling that Jesus also fed 5000 men in the desert. The menu for that occasion? A fish for a day! with some miracle bread! AND THAT scene very prophetically recalls the moment the Hebrews in the desert with Moses eat manna! Oh yeah! Jesus just played the Moses-card, and did so on more than one occasion.
And here’s the thing: That 3-day journey into the desert and the manna-meal all had the GOAL OF CREATING DEPENDENCY on God. It turns out YHWH wants to impress us, and for us to honor HIS NAME. If Israel had thrown a rebellion and whipped Pharaoh, YHWH would not get the credit for saving them. If Israel had grown and harvested their own food, then YHWH would not get the credit for it. But if YHWH miraculously saved them and fed them AND wanted his name honored, then it would be appropriate that the Hebrews become DEPENDENT on God for their life and well-being. It is important that Israel NOT somehow steal this glory from God by doing it for themselves!
And the extra manna collected began to spoil and rot. The Hebrews would NOT be permitted to store it up for themselves or to sell it for a profit, but only enough for each day. God is NOT teaching sound “business principles” here! You would have to TRUST that God would come through for you again tomorrow too.
Yes, this is all about DEPENDENCY.
It’s worth noting at this point that when Elisha needs to eat, in II Kings 4, the widow woman and her son offer him their last meal. God honors this widow’s sacrifice for his prophet, not by getting her a job and not by writing her a check for a million dollars either. Rather, her jar continues to produce oil miraculously, calling her to TRUST/DEPEND on God’s goodness and to honor him for his sustaining, gracious gift.
Toxic Charity shows NO SIGN Lupton has any familiarity with this DEPENDENCY and NO VALUE for it. On the contrary, Lupton holds DEPENDENCY in contempt and calls God’s people to as well.
But wait! There’s more…
I can’t help but note how much of this DEPENDENCY involves food – meals eaten together specifically in celebration. I can’t help but notice how the saving acts of God involve AND ARE CELEBRATED BY eating! In fact, celebrating (partying) as some how commemorating the salvation seems to be the point. We see it with Passover and with Eucharist, and certainly Eucharist opens doors for chasing leads into the Eschaton.
But these observations also point to and remind us of THE BEGINNING.
Was there WORK to be done in the Garden of Eden?
Yes. Yes there was, but if you look CAREFULLY you will find that work in the garden before sin and “the Fall” did not involve “sweat of the brow” or battling thorns, weeds, and thistles. In fact, it involved ruling over creation by virtue of bearing God’s image.
What did that involve?
Nakedness – shameless, humility and nakedness.
This is the domain of the poor!
Think about that. They were naked and unashamed. They were male and female and bearing the image of God and thereby ruling the world which responded favorably BECAUSE SUCH IMAGE AS THEY BORE WAS THAT OF GOD! Every particle of creation harmonized with every other particle of creation as the male and the female go to WORK bearing God’s image!
WAIT! ARE YOU SAYING THE “WORK” THERE IS SEX???
Actually, I’m not sure we creatures who have only lived in a “fallen” world really know just what true, mountain-moving, image-bearing sex is!
But this much I know: Naked humans running around the garden oblivious to any danger in the world are utterly vulnerable before God. They have no idea what danger even is or a whole race of people banished to a 3-day journey in the desert to PARTY WITH GOD. Lupton’s book shows no indication he has any idea of this either.
And you know what?
There is a party for these naked image bearers who honor God’s name simply by breathing in his Spirit through their nostrils! And that party involves a meal in which they eat fruit from THE TREE of LIFE.
In fact, every single problem in the whole of God’s creation (according to those who read and believe the Bible) can be traced back to the moment these naked image-bearers listened to the serpent who convinced these people who were made in God’s image that they could be like God when they ate from the other tree, the forbidden tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (where “common sense” was born) and convinced them they can do for themselves what God was doing for them.
Yes, when these people took the initiative to do for themselves what God had been doing FOR THEM, ironically the image of God suffered, and now we and all of creation too suffer because of it.
I know there is a lot of mystery wrapped up in all that – mystery I don’t have all ironed out for myself. But every bit of it is biblical, and as such… important for the church to consider. It all points to the centrality of DEPENDENCY. All of this biblical observation involves the care of vulnerable and/or needy people. So, when Lupton writes a whole book addressing THE CHURCH about how it gives alms for the poor, criticizes the church for doing this, barely acknowledges any Scriptures at all and certainly none of the Scriptures I have offered here which prove so relevant, AND THEN uses worldly wisdom to say DEPENDENCY is somehow a bad thing, I’m thinking this book should be rejected by the church rather than accepted.
I think, by all rights, I could just stop right there with that remark. The fatal blow has now been dealt. But there’s more… much more.
What about Jesus’s teaching about anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount? Doesn’t he say, “Why worry about food and clothing? Doesn’t the Father clothe the flowers and feed the sparrows? Are we not worth more than sparrows? Are not the flowers that get burned up tomorrow better clothed than Solomon?”
Yes! Where does ANY of THIS fit in Lupton’s worldview as presented in Toxic Charity?
And Jesus then tells his disciples, “Seek first the Kingdom of God… and THEN ALL THESE THINGS WILL BE ADDED to you.”
It sounds to me like Lupton needs to go to Sunday school. It seems like he is worrying about HOW we will feed and clothe the poor while NOT seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.
He wants the church to stop giving alms to the poor even though in Luke 6 Jesus says, “Give to all who ask.” No mention of discriminating and discerning whether the giving fills a “relief” need for a “crisis” situation or whether we should offer rehab or development. Nope. Jesus says, GIVE to ALL who ASK.
Is Jesus in charge here? Or Lupton???
As for LENDING, in that same passage from Luke, Jesus says, “Lend expecting nothing in return.”
Wow! That’s not really even a loan then, is it?
And Lupton speaks of the importance of making LOANS and claims that salvation is found in their repayment while giving instead is doing harm to those we give to.
The problem is that despite Lupton’s awesome “conventional [worldly] wisdom,” he is directly opposing the words and commands of LORD JESUS!
He is selling this book to the church like hotcakes, having tremendous influence on the church all while undermining the Word of God!
And I get that posing the issues the way Lupton has raises some legitimate questions, but it is quite clear to me that this utter betrayal of Jesus CANNOT BE THE ANSWER THE CHURCH SETTLES FOR! He has promoted Worldly Wisdom and “business principles” (worship of Mammon) in place of FAITH/DEPENDENCY on God and sold it to the church. That is just disastrous.
Call me crazy.