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Why Charity Sometimes Starts to Go Sour

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Meet Dr. Bob Lupton. Bob and his wife, Peggy, have devoted their lives to the rebuilding of urban neighborhoods where families can flourish and children and youth can grow into healthy adults. He is the author of several books, including Toxic Charity and Charity Detox.

Bob asks some hard questions about whether the way churches are approaching charity is ultimately the best way to help people. In Toxic Charityhe writes, “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them. … Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.” As a proponent of asset-based community development, Bob suggests, “The poor, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity; find it, be inspired by it, and build upon it.”

Bob recently presented workshops on these ideas at Compassion Conference, where we had an opportunity to chat more about what compassion and justice can look like in everyday life.

What does the daily action of living compassion look like, and how does someone who is new to that idea practice it?

Redemptive charity is ideally based in relationships, where people learn to trust and to care for each other and [understand]that everyone has something of value to contribute. Where a relationship tends to become toxic is when one keeps contributing more, and the recipient contributes less. And that tends to go badly, actually for both folks.

If people are just starting to reorient their thinking about compassion and charity, how might they start to change that mindset?

Well, a relationship that is built upon helping someone else is probably unhealthy in its foundation. That may not be true when it’s tutoring a kid, but in tutoring a kid you’re helping that kid to develop, so that’s an investment. It’s not producing dependencies; it’s moving them toward independency. But a relationship that’s built on one person as the helper and the other as the recipient … it doesn’t take very long for that kind of relationship to go sour. And that’s when toxicity enters into it. … Parity is the higher form of charity. Parity means both parties have something that the other needs or desires, so the exchange is authentic. So for example, a young lady in our community that is always trying to get a ride to here and there and everywhere, that’s fine, if she babysits for our kids. Now that’s a good trade-off. So if there are ways we can enter into exchange, then it can be healthy.

You’ve mentioned before that it is important to consider whose agenda you’re acting on. How can people begin to reorient their thinking to recognize when they’re starting to pull back to their own agenda?

There’s something in the heart — I think it’s the stamp of the divine — that makes us want to help relieve suffering, see people in pain, come to their aid. I think there’s something, that’s compassion. And most of us are drawn into service because of those compassionate feelings. And those are good and worthy motivations. It’s just that when we get into those kinds of relationships, the most typical response is to do something for someone who could be doing it for themselves and should be doing it for themselves. And so that’s where it tends to go sour: when you end up picking up responsibility for someone that was never designed for you to carry. Then you can end up feeling used, or trapped, and that’s not the basis of a healthy relationship. A healthy relationship’s reciprocal. We both need each other.

Bob Lupton

You addressed another observation, which is that often people respond to needs by wanting to give something, whether that be charity or service.

And I call that a divine response.

Can you elaborate on that?

Well, it’s a part of being created in the image of God. A caring, compassionate, loving God. And a part of being created in God’s image is that we are caring, loving, compassionate as well. But we’re also flawed. Therefore, without good coaching, without good examples, our compassion can turn into a … co-dependent relationship.

I was going to ask why that’s a chronic response, but you just answered that question.

Yeah, and I think it comes from a good place within us. It’s just that the working out of it, it’s in the process of working out those relationships that we start to get in touch with that we’ve gone a little too far. And then it’s time to take corrective action. Very often we end up not taking corrective action, or withdrawing from the person, or saying, “I’m feeling used, I’m not going back.” Or the recipient of our charity begins to pull away because they feel insulted by our gift, belittled, and demeaned by our giving. The message that can come through is “You really need help,” which is not a very pleasant message.

I think a lot of people consider justice somebody else’s problem, whether intentionally or — more often — unintentional. Do you have an opinion on why justice and compassion are everyone’s issues?

Again, I think it comes back to our being created in the image of God — a just God, a compassionate God. There’s something — even in a little child — when they see something unfair it registers. That’s something that goes very deep in the human psyche and spirit. And so when we see injustice, we react to that. … I think fundamentally it’s a desire of the heart to see justice prevail.

Let’s continue the conversation. Watch the Compassion Conference plenary sessions and download workshop resources at compassionconference.com

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