Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 6, no. 2 (August 2015)

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Robert D. Lupton. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. 191 pp. Hardcover. $7.90.

This book has grown out of the author’s forty-plus years of experience in Christian-based community development in inner-city Atlanta. In response to a call that he first felt while serving in Vietnam, he left a budding business career to work with delinquent urban youth. Robert (Bob), his wife, and their two sons sold their suburban home and moved into the inner city where they have lived and served as neighbors among those in need. Their life’s work has been the rebuilding of urban neighborhoods where families can flourish and children can grow into healthy adults.

In the author’s words, the “book explores . . . principles [for compassionate service] and practical case studies to examine how we practice charity. It takes a candid and sometimes critical look behind the scenes at the unintended harm inflicted by our kindness” (9).

Lupton spends the first two chapters of the book explaining the problems created by unwise and undisciplined charity: unsolved problems, wasted resources, dependency, and disempowerment. These are illustrated by stories of his experiences working in inner-city Atlanta, along with statistics provided by experts, and the testimonies of others who have experienced the negative effect of “unexamined generosity.” For me, toxic charity was poignantly illustrated by the story of Juan, a microloan director-minister in Nicaragua, whose greatest challenge lay with native churches who had US partners providing money and free resources. Juan says, “They destroy the initiative of my people. . . . They are making my people into beggars” (20–21).

In the next four chapters, Lupton dissects charity and explores what healthy generosity involves. In chapter three, Lupton examines giving, illustrating again how it can be destructive if it is “doing for” rather than “doing with” (35). He examines biblical giving through the lens of Micah 6:8 (“to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”):

Justice is “fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.” Mercy is “compassion, kindness, or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.” Twinned together, these commands lead us to holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationship. (41)

In chapter four, Lupton begins to lay down his case that effective charity can only be done in relationship. “Relationships built on need are seldom healthy” (60) and “do not reduce the need” (61). In this chapter he hints that these relationships take place within community, a theme that he carries throughout the book. “Learning to trust one another, to be trustworthy in our relationships, is the foundation upon which such community flourishes” (61).

In chapter five, Lupton asks the question and examines who is really benefitting from giving—the receiver or the giver. In chapter six, he gives us the realities: top-down charity seldom works, and effective charity takes time. Lots of time!

Having built the case that charity can be toxic, the rest of the book deals with the second part of the book’s subtitle, And How to Reverse It. These chapters are full of practical lists and helpful illustrations. But rather than being a list of to-dos, Lupton focuses on foundational principles. In chapter seven, he addresses the need to apply wise business practices, explains the importance of engaging the entire community, and touches on the application of micro-lending, community development, and economic development. In chapter eight, he unwraps his “Oath for Compassionate Service” and then shows how these six elements can be applied in community development. Lupton’s “Oath” is the boiled-down essence of the book:

  • 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 of effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm. (8–9, 128–32)

Chapter nine explores how “attentive listening,” “legitimate employment,” and life in “community” enhance human dignity and are essential for non-toxic service. The final chapter gives some practical lists for how to move from “betterment” to “development.” Finding where God is already working is a starting point. A clear vision and a visionary are essentials. Both geographic focus and activity focus, clearly defined, are also key.

Toxic Charity is an easy read and entertaining. Yet, it is frank in its exposure of the problem and practical in its recommendations. The volume is neither a book on charity theology nor community development theory. It focuses on principles. Nor is it a how-to manual on community development, but it is full of illustrations of case studies. Finally, though it is not merely a book of wisdom, its chapters are rich in what I call “Bob-isms”: pithy statements that get at the heart of the matter, rooted in forty-plus years of listening, learning, and living responsible charity. If Lupton intends to challenge faulty assumptions that are doing more harm than good, to inspire those who seek a better charity paradigm, and to provide enough principles, practices, and illustrations to help them get started, then he has met his goals.

Greg Williams

Facilitator for Sustainable Missions

Missions Resource Network

Bedford, Texas, USA