Toxic charity is a common term used in neighborhood justice work, especially in community development circles. Progressive Christians are increasingly using it, and I welcome it, hesitantly. The concept helps name problematic paradigms and practices in traditional charity models. The term is nevertheless messy. On the one hand, it can be insulting and divisive. On the other hand, the negative connotation overshadows the inspirational search for Beloved Community from which it emerged. Its popularity is due to its namesake, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. I suggest reading it in the context of our justice commitments—and not without them.
Toxic charity can be used as a term of scorn directed at ministries, organizations, and individuals. There are times when this may seem justified, but it becomes a problem when it is used to demean and devalue the work and service of those who work hard to meet the urgent, daily needs of their neighbors. If a hungry child is a community disaster, then soup kitchens and food pantries are disaster response ministries. When we talk about moving beyond toxic charity, it must be clarified that it is not to defame direct community service but to revitalize it. To re-humanize it. I can tell many personal stories of times when direct service has saved lives. I can tell too many stories of lives that have been lost without it. The stories I want to tell are those of building relationships of proximity, mutuality, understanding, and collaboration—stories of Beloved Community.
When Bob Lupton’s Toxic Charity came out in 2011 it challenged many preconceived notions about charity and how it often leads to unintended negative consequences. It was quickly included on the reading lists of many universities, large foundations, and public charities. It underscored the importance of moving beyond conventional outreach efforts towards a more transformative approach based on proximity and authentic relationships. It challenged us to move beyond focusing solely on resource transfer and one-way giving to advocating for place-based resources and inspiring a commitment to a place-based life.
Lupton’s book is based on extensive experience, but his proposals are less defended and explained than a thoroughgoing argument would be. Even for its strengths, many of the assumptions about poverty portrayed in Toxic Charity might be read in ways that undermine its message. Lupton says that our attempts to eradicate poverty have had the unintended consequence of “creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work” (3). Had Lupton added research to his 40 years of ministry, he could have addressed how many of the programs he names have suffered from chronic underfunding since the time of Nixon’s bemoaning of the “welfare trap.” Toxic Charity also fails to grapple with the structural and systemic factors that have historically and continually contributed to the persistence of poverty. Blaming the work of direct service for the “breakdown” of families needs to be justified and substantiated. I find it sobering how such a rich conversation about neighborhood economics can simultaneously contain faint echos of dogwhistles and racist theories about poverty from the 1960s that have influenced policy since the ’70s.
In a PBS Interview, Bob Lupton spoke with compassionate understanding about the roles shame and dignity play in charity work. “One thing we learned was parents would a whole lot rather work to earn to purchase the toys they knew would delight their kids at Christmas than they would stand in the free toy lines with their ‘proof of poverty’ and take gifts that someone else had purchased for them.” Bob Lupton’s spiritually rich neighborhood approach to ministry (holistic neighborhood development) has inspired community changing work around the world. The goal is not judgement but discernment that moves beyond toxic charity to a vision of Beloved Community.