More Thoughts on Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life

June 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

This is a continuation of yesterday's post reviewing the book, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life by Robert Lupton.


I am intrigued by Lupton’s comparison between work and free programs when he writes, “There is another means [other than providing free goods and services] of assisting, of course, that hardly requires any verification. Work. If you hire a person to do legitimate work for reasonable pay, the exchange is honorable and dignifying regardless of how the person chooses to spend the money.”[1]

I am not one of those people who say, “The poor must work for everything they receive.” But I do believe in some type of exchange in the process of people receiving services. There will always be people who are too ill or disabled to perform meaningful “work,” and I am more than glad to provide those people with free services. They need the services and I believe it is an obligation we have as social service providers to make sure those people are housed, fed, and served.

(For five years I led a program that served families in need a free Thanksgiving dinner. So I am well aware of the need to serve others for free and am glad to do so.[2])

The people who are able to perform some type of work in exchange for the services they need should be invited to participate in a system of “exchange” with the social service agency. This helps the person encounter some form of normal life where they are not totally dependent on others for their survival, and it gives them some dignity feel that they are working to earn what they receive.

Reading Lupton’s description between betterment and development has been helpful when seeking to understand how to best help others and community. Lupton describes betterment and development as, “Betterment does for others; development enables to do for themselves. . . . Most of the programs we create to help people in need begin as betterment projects.”[3] This shows that we as Christians have a sincere heart. We want to be “Christ-like” and provide for the least of those who live among us. Jesus emphasized serving the poor and widows living among us.[4]

However, if we truly want to create lasting changes in both the people we serve and the communities we live and work in, we need to make the shift to development programs. Development programs allow the people being served to participate in the services being provided. They work for what they receive, make decisions about how those services are done, and have a vested interest in the success of their neighborhood.

One question I have for Lupton is, how do we live out Jesus’ commands to take care of the poor while also telling people in need that they must “work for” and/or “earn” what is provided to them? This question stems from Lupton’s statement that “to do for others what they can do for themselves is to make recipients the objects of our pity and deprive them of human dignity.”[5] But what about the compassion we are supposed to show for others by doing for them and showing them kindness that tells them they are valuable and worth our time and energy?

Another question I have for Lupton, is how do we create an environment of development programs that are conducive to success? This question stems from his statement that “people, like butterflies, cannot be empowered. They will emerge toward their uniquely created potential, given an environment conducive to success.”[6] How do we know what the balance should be between services provided and the amount of work, time, or money people should provide in order to receive the services? How much should a community be invested into its own success versus how much should outsiders should be invested?

[1]  Robert D. Lipton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007), 37.

[3] Robert D. Lipton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007), 39.

[4] Luke 20:47 and Matthew 6:1-4

[5] Robert D. Lipton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007), 53.

[6] Robert D. Lipton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007), 73.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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