Sunday, November 27, 2011

When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... And Yourself

"Why did Jesus come to earth? Most Christians have a ready answer to this question. However, there are actually nuanced differences in how Christians think about this most basic issue, and those small differences can have dramatic consequences for all endeavors, including how the church responds to the plight of the poor. Let's examine how Jesus Himself understood His mission."

"Jesus' earthly ministry began one Sabbath day in a synagogue in Nazareth. Week in and week out, Jews gathered in this synagogue to worship under the chafing yoke of the Roman Empire. Aware of Old Testament prophecy, these worshippers were longing for God to send the promised Messiah who would restore the kingdom to Israel, reigning on David's throne forever. But centuries had gone by with no Messiah, and the Romans were running the show. Hope was probably in short supply."

"It is in this context that the son of a carpenter from that very town stood up and was handed a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."…The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:17-21). 

"A shiver must have gone down the spine of the worshippers that day. Isaiah had prophesied that a King was coming who would usher in a kingdom unlike anything the world had ever seen. Could it be that Isaiah's prophecies were really about to come true? Could it really be that a kingdom whose domain would increase without end was about to begin (Isa. 9:7)? Was it really possible that justice, peace, and righteousness were about to be established forever? Would this King really bring healing to the parched soil, the feeble hands, the shaky knees, the fearful hearts, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mute, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the sinful souls, and would proclaim the year of jubilee for the poor (Isa. 35:1-6; 53:5; 61:1-2)? Jesus' answer to all these questions was a resounding "yes," declaring, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

"In the same chapter Jesus summarized His ministry as follows, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent" (Luke 4:43). The mission of Jesus was and is to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, to say to one and all, "I am the King of kings and Lord of lords, and I am using My power to fix everything that sin has ruined."

"As pastor and theologian Tim Keller states, "The kingdom is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ's rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom." Of course there is both a "now" and a "not yet" to the kingdom. The full manifestation of the kingdom will not occur until there is a new heaven and a new earth. Only then will every tear be wiped from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). But two thousand years ago, Jesus clearly stated that there is a "now" to the kingdom, saying, " Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). 

"We have asked thousands of evangelical Christians in numerous contexts this most basic question—why did Jesus come to earth?—and fewer than 1 percent of respondents say anything even remotely close to the answer that Jesus Himself gave. Instead, the vast majority of people say something like "Jesus came to die on the cross to save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven." While this answer is true, saving souls is only a subset of the comprehensive healing of the entire cosmos that Jesus' kingdom brings and that was the centerpiece of His message."

"One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good."

"Research from around the world has found that shame—a "poverty of being"—is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative and from seizing opportunities to improve their situation, thereby locking them into material poverty."

"At the same time, the economically rich—including most of the readers of this book—also suffer from a poverty of being. In particular, development practitioner Jayakumar Christian argues that the economically rich often have "god-complexes," a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe that they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves. Few of us are conscious of having a god-complex, which is part of the problem. We are often deceived."

"For example, consider this: why do you want to help the poor? Really think about it. What truly motivates you? Do you really love poor people and want to serve them? Or do you have other motives? I confess to you that part of what motivates me (Brian Fikkert) to help the poor is my felt need to accomplish something worthwhile with my life, to be a person of significance, to feel like I have pursued a noble cause…to be a bit like God. It makes me feel good to use my training in economics to "save" poor people. And in the process, I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. It is a very ugly truth, and it pains me to admit it, but "when I want to do good, evil is right there with me" (Rom. 7:21).

"And now we have come to a very central point: one of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich—their god-complexes—and the poverty of being of the economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame."

"The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates—albeit unintentionally—that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves. And here is the clincher: this dynamic is likely to be particularly strong whenever middle-to-upper-class, North American Christians try to help the poor, given these Christians' tendency toward a Western, materialistic perspective of the nature of poverty. This point can be illustrated with the story of Creekside Community Church, a predominantly Caucasian congregation made up of young urban professionals in the downtown area of an American city."

"Being in the Christmas spirit, Creekside Community Church decided to reach out to the African-American residents of a nearby housing project, which was characterized by high rates of unemployment, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and teenage pregnancy. A number of the members of Creekside expressed some disdain for the project residents, and all of the members were fearful of venturing inside. But Pastor Johnson insisted that Jesus cared for the residents of this housing project and that Christmas was the perfect time to show His compassion. But what could they do to help?"

"Believing that poverty is primarily a lack of material resources—the members of Creekside Community Church decided to address this poverty by buying Christmas presents for the children in the housing project. Church members went door to door, singing Christmas carols and delivering wrapped toys to the children in each apartment. Although it was awkward at first, the members of Creekside were moved by the big smiles on the children's faces and were encouraged by the warm reception of the mothers. In fact, the congregation felt so good about the joy they had brought that they decided to expand this ministry, delivering baskets of candy at Easter and turkeys at Thanksgiving."

"Unfortunately, after several years, Pastor Johnson noticed that he was struggling to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts to the housing project. At the congregational meeting, he asked the members why their enthusiasm was waning, but it was difficult to get a clear answer. Finally, one member spoke up: "Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out. We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves. They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out. Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys? The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks. They don't deserve our help."

"In reality, there was a different reason that there were few men in the apartments when the toys were delivered. Oftentimes, when the fathers of the children heard the Christmas carols outside their front doors and saw the presents for their kids through the peepholes, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their apartments. For a host of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs. This often contributes to a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, both of which make it even more difficult to apply for jobs. The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy. In trying to alleviate material poverty through the giving of these presents, Creekside Community Church increased these fathers' poverty of being."

"Ironically, this likely made the fathers even less able to apply for a job, thereby exacerbating the very material poverty that Creekside was trying to solve! In addition to hurting the residents of the housing project, the members of Creekside Community Church hurt themselves. At first the members developed a subtle sense of pride that they were helping the project residents through their acts of kindness. Later, when they observed the residents' failure to improve their situations, the members' disdain for them increased."

"What is often called "compassion fatigue" then set in as the members became less willing to help the low-income residents. As a result, the poverty of being increased for the church members. Furthermore, the poverty of community increased for everyone involved, as the gulf between the church members and the housing project residents actually increased as a result of this project. Our efforts to help the poor can hurt both them and ourselves."

"In fact, as this story illustrates, very often the North American church finds itself locked into the following equation:"


"What can be done to break out of this equation? Changing the first term in this equation requires a revised understanding of the nature of poverty. North American Christians need to overcome the materialism of Western culture and see poverty in more relational terms. Changing the second term in this equation requires ongoing repentance. It requires North American Christians to understand our brokenness and to embrace the message of the cross in deep and profound ways, saying to ourselves every day: "I am not OK; and you are not OK; but Jesus can fix us both." And as we do this, God can use us to change the third term in this equation. By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride."

--Fikkert, Brian (2009). When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Kindle Locations 974-1002). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.