When Helping Hurts: A Book Review

The following is a book review of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Conservative Christians are often (and perhaps rightly) accused of being hypocritical when it comes to their attitudes toward the poor. After all, the scriptures are not silent  about how God’s people treat the poor:

Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God…

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high… “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? …

if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

-Isaiah 58:2-4, 6-7, 10

Or as Jesus says:

And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

-Matthew 5:40-42

So, many conservative Christians in the United States claim to embrace the Scriptures which say things like this, while often embracing an attitude toward the poor that sees poor people as necessarily lazy, immoral, and entirely at fault for being in and staying in their situation. And while there are larger questions to ask about how the church should engage with the political sphere (which I’ve written about briefly here), I bring this up because I believe that the authors of this book have done an excellent job of making the case for why caring for the poor is indeed to work of the church as well as explaining how this work can be done properly in a variety of contexts.

Summary

Why is this important?

The first and most obvious question the authors deal with is why this stuff matters and why Christians in particular should be doing it. They point out that when Jesus and the apostles did ministry it was a ministry of both word and deed. Jesus didn’t just announce that the kingdom was coming, but he actually manifested a foretaste of the kingdom to come in the now by forgiving sins and by healing. However, many Christians erroneously think that churches exist to care only for people’s souls.

Yet, as St. James says,

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

-James 2:15-16

Living faith cares not just for the other person’s soul, but also for their body. After all, we are not merely souls, but God made us with bodies and he will one day raise us in our bodies.

The authors call this common view among evangelicals that pays far more attention to the soul than the body “evangelical Gnosticism.” They write:

At its core, evangelical gnosticism fails to understand who Jesus Christ really is, replacing the biblical Jesus with “Star Trek Jesus,” who beams our souls up out of this world, a world in which He is fundamentally disinterested, a world from which He is fundamentally disconnected. “Star Trek Jesus” has nothing to do with our daily human existence, promising one day to transport only our souls out of here into some disembodied, new, nonhuman existence called heaven; an existence that, quite frankly, doesn’t sound very appealing to most of us, because we are humans and can only imagine what its like to be, well, human!
(248)

There are a lot more ways that this semi-gnosticism shows up, but for our purposes it shows up whenever people think that Christians can be faithful while only caring for people’s souls to the exclusion of care for people’s bodies.

Interestingly, Christians in America did not always have this view of poverty alleviation. Prior to the early part of the twentieth century, Christians, even conservative Christians, were heavily involved in care for the poor. Yet, mainline liberal Christians began to latch onto the idea of the “social gospel,” the idea that the gospel is essentially about caring for the poor and not about any kind of proclamation of personal repentance and forgiveness of sins. When this happened, many conservative Christians ran away from poverty alleviation:

Evangelicals interpreted the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900–1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.
(44)

Jettisoning the importance of care for the poor from the overall mission of the church is clearly an example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While we can see how the social gospel of twentieth century liberals is toxic and dangerous, caring for the poor is not the same thing as the social gospel.

What is Poverty?

Too often we define poverty merely as insufficient resources. At a certain level this makes sense. After all, people who are poor struggle to provide for their basic needs. They don’t have enough money to pay for all that they need. However, it’s not as if all that the poor need is just more money. Sure, not having enough money is what’s easy to see, but the reason that poor people don’t have enough money is that they have dysfunctional or broken relationships at several levels, both personal and societal.

The authors point out that the poor are often hurt by broken systems that they did not create and do not have the power to change on their own. However:

Caucasian evangelicals in the United States, for whom the systems have worked well, are particularly blind to the systemic causes of poverty and are quick to blame the poor for their plight. (87)

Now, the fact that the poor are victims of systemic problems does not mean that the poor have done nothing to cause their situation. Often they have, but the relationship between systemic problems and individual problems is not always so easy to divide. A person in poverty might find it difficult to get a job or manage their money well, but they also are in a system which never gave them the opportunity to learn these things. Or they might be dependent on government aid that actually discourages them from working.

Furthermore, the poor are also victims of broken relationships. This can mean broken economic relations, broken family/social relations, even broken spiritual relations. Strong and supportive relationships are essential for success and wellness of any kind in the world. And those in poverty, especially extreme poverty, are the victims of broken relationships on multiple fronts.

Therefore, helping the poor is not about getting individuals enough resources or capital so that they can stop being in need, but is about helping the poor to heal their relationships and their ability to help themselves:

Material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be. (74)

How Do We Help?

Yet when Christians try to help, they often end up hurting those they want to help because they forget or don’t realize the real cause of poverty. This can manifest itself in a white savior complex, or perhaps the non-poor savior complex. The authors caution that any kind of poverty alleviation must be done with poor people and not to them. That is, the poor need to participate as much as they are able in their own rehabilitation. Too often doing things for or to the poor entrenches the poor’s own mentality that they are powerless and incapable of doing anything to bring themselves out of their own situation.

The authors give the example of a soup kitchen. In a standard soup kitchen the poor or homeless are served a meal. They come and they are served. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this is far different from working with the homeless and helping them to plan and provide themselves a meal. The latter is a much more empowering experience that encourages people to build relationships and rethink their assumptions about their own ability to accomplish things. Of course, the latter is also a lot slower and harder. But that is also another emphasis of the authors, that real poverty alleviation takes time. It has to be focused on people not on immediate tangible results. As Americans we really like quick impressive results, but that’s just not how these sorts of things work. Progress is often difficult and slow.

The authors also helpfully draw a distinction between three different kinds of assistance: relief, rehabilitation, and development.

Relief is assistance given when someone is in desperate immediate need. They are incapable of assisting themselves and if aid is not given there will be serious consequences. These kinds of needs are usually very rare. However, it’s easy to give relief assistance when rehabilitation or development is actually more appropriate.

Rehabilitation “seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions” (100).

Development then works with people in improving and “developing” broken relationships so that people and communities can experience greater flourishing.

For example, if a natural disaster strikes in an area, relief is the immediate aid needed to prevent people from dying from the disaster or immediately in the wake of the disaster. Once the bleeding has stopped, so to speak, then it’s time for rehabilitation. This seeks to restore what was lost. Development would then be further working with the people to make things better than they were before.

They argue that “one of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make—by far—is in applying relief in situation in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention” (100).

Again, these more substantial kinds of assistance, rehabilitation and development, are going to take longer and not produce as much immediate results, but that’s something that we as Americans especially have to realize and be okay with. We cannot rush these sorts of things.

Pros

I could go on a lot more about really good insights from this book. It’s really filled to the brim with all sorts of good perspective and insights and concrete examples. They touch on a lot of specific contexts such as urban development, majority world development, Short Term Mission Trips, suburban poor assistance, benevolence policies etc.

This book is both full of theoretical, paradigm shifting content as well as eminently practical application of these theoretical issues.

For me, I can’t look at this issue the same anymore. It has had me reevaluating a lot of my assumptions about how the church and individuals can best serve the poor and those in need. In some ways it’s depressing because I see how much we do not do the sorts of development and rehabilitation that they’re talking about, but it’s also encouraging because I can begin to see how churches might begin to shift how they help so that it’s actually doing what it’s intended to do.

Cons

While I’m totally on board with the central claim that doing poverty assistance is good in its own right and is most definitely the business of the church, I felt that aside from the opening and closing of the book, theology and the ministry of Word and Sacrament took a definite back seat. The authors point out a lot about how these sorts of things can be done in a way that gives churches a chance to reach out to people and build relationships that can give opportunities to bring the gospel into people’s lives. However, as a Lutheran I still want there to be a more explicit or perhaps clear connection to how this fits into the Word and Sacrament ministry of a local parish or how that might be different if one is working with or as a mercy organization. Of course, I think it can work in concert with Word and Sacrament focused ministry. And I also think this kind of work is important to be doing for its own sake and not just as an excuse to evangelize more people. I guess I’m saying that I think the relationship between the proclamation of the kingdom in word and the proclamation of the kingdom in deed (to borrow the language of the book’s opening) is harder to work out in practice, as evidenced by all the people who get it wrong. It’s one thing to say that we need both and another to say how we do both.

That all being said, this book is still more than worth the time just because of how insightful their approach to poverty alleviation is.

When Helping Hurts

Image: Homeless by Pedro Ribeiro Simões CC BY 2.0

3 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts: A Book Review

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