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Book Review: Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life by Robert Lupton

One insight I find very practical from Robert Lupton’s book, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life is when he explains the deepest poverty by writing, “Perhaps the deepest poverty of all is to have nothing of value to offer in exchange [for the service being received]. Charity that fosters such poverty must be challenged.

CompassionI. FAILED SOCIAL POLICY

We know from 40 years of failed social policy that welfare depletes self-esteem while honorable work produces dignity” (p. 26-27). I have personally seen Lupton’s words lived out first hand in my work at United Way of Stanislaus County (UWSC). At UWSC we are fortunate to receive “welfare-to-work” individuals who are able to work at our office at no cost to UWSC. Often these are young women who have a child and little support from family members in the area. While working with them at our office we have seen them encounter great change in their lives as they learn and become accustomed to working in an office, maintaining regular office hours, getting along with coworkers, and accomplishing work. Before working with us they were perceived as women on welfare who had nothing to offer, but after working with us you can tell they have a sense of pride and dignity for being able to contribute and serve others.

II. FREE IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD

A. According to Lupton

Lupton touches on a feeling that people often have when working in nonprofit work when he explains, “Anyone who has been given the unfortunate task of dispensing free (or nearly free) commodities will soon have familiar war stories to tell. Something seems to go wrong when one with valued resources attempts to distribute them to others in need. The transactions, no matter how compassionate, seem to go sour in the mouth of both giver and recipient” (p. 26). This happens far too often in both church work and nonprofit organizations. I think the root cause of this “sour in the mouth of both giver and recipient” is the lack of balance and rest for the giver. Often people who give away these free items are so passionate to give and serve that they do it often, too often in fact. When you give to others, you need time to replenish yourself, rest, and gain perspective on what you are doing. As Christians we might call this our Sabbath or daily prayer time. If you put too much effort in serving others, you begin to feel resentful when they let you down.

B. My Questions for Lupton

1. How do we help?

A question I would like to pose to Lupton is, “How do I help someone without implying that they are broken and need to be fixed?” Lupton tells us that, “When my motivation is to change people, I inadvertently communicate: Something is wrong with you, but (quiet subtly) I am okay” (p. 22). I believe this is a relevant scenario that we must deal with delicately because it deals with all of our interactions when we attempt to serve others. If we are able to answer this question correctly it will allow us to impact more people.

2. Do nonprofits do more harm than good?

Another question I would like to pose to Lupton is, “Do you believe the ‘non-community friendly churches’ you define in chapter five do more good than bad?” In chapter five Lupton describes the unfriendly tension many large churches have created in their cities and neighborhoods and how that has negatively affected the neighborhoods they operate in. I have heard it argued that these large churches attract different groups of people who normally are not going to church and who might not ever attend a church. Thus, new people are being reached for Christ and because some large churches are trying to reach people who are not normally attending church (which is a bigger population that people who do attend church) they normally grow faster and larger than established churches. In addition I have heard it argued that larger churches have the ability (because of their large numbers of people) to deploy many people to other countries for mission trips and are able to impact local communities in a positive way at a high level. My question for Lipton is if he thinks the so called “good” that these churches do because of their large numbers outweighs the so called “bad” neighbors they are to the immediate local community.

III. WORK PROGRAMS VERSUS FREE PROGRAMS

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” (p. 37).

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.)

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.

IV. BETTERMENT VERSUS DEVELOPMENT

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” (p. 39). 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 (Luke 20:47 and Matthew 6:1-4).

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.

V. CONCLUDING QUESTIONS FOR LUPTON

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” (p. 53). 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” (p. 73). 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 be invested?

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at ChristopherLynnScott.com.