Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When Helping Hurts

The deacons' Sunday school class at my church has been studying Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert's When Helping Hurts: How to Help People without Hurting Them and Yourself. This is an important issue for me because I'm convinced that just as biblical faith is more than intellectual assent to a body of doctrines—"faith without deeds is dead"—true Christian witness goes beyond the verbal presentation of the gospel: Christians are "created in Christ Jesus for good works."

Yet as the phenomenon of "rice Christians" evidentiates, the "help" well-intentioned Christians give their neighbors often actually harms them. So how can we really help people the way we're convinced God wants us to? While this book is aimed at white, middle-class, North American Christians who would work with the starving poor, the principles Corbett and Fikkert proposes are equally appropriate for working with a millionaire estranged from his spouse.

The authors attribute the failure of antipoverty programs to three things: a "material definition of poverty," god-complexes among those who would help, and feelings of inferiority experienced by the materially poor, and they place the blame in precisely the right place: the fall of Adam.

God created people to be in relationship four ways: with God, with themselves, with other people, and with the rest of creation. When Adam went his own way, he broke his relationship with God. Because of that, he was ashamed of who he was, so he tried to hide from God and, it would seem, from his wife, as evidenced by his blame-casting when he was confronted by God. And God has stated that the adversarial relationship we have with the nonhuman creation is a direct result of the fall (Gn 3:18-19; Ro 8:21-22).

While the scarcity of material goods is the first thing fallen humans think of as the result of the fall, the most important result is separation from God and consequently from ourselves, our human neighbors, and the rest of creation. In turn, we tend to think of poverty as the lack of material resources instead of the rupture of the relationships that God originally intended for us to have; this misconception is what Corbett and Fikkert call the "material definition of poverty," the first ingredient in failed efforts to alleviate poverty.

Yet when poor people themselves are asked what they suffer from, the lack of money per se is not at the top of the list; instead, "poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness." So "helping" someone who suffers from humiliation by giving them money is going to compound their suffering, probably without dealing with the real problem, what made him needy in the first place.

The second ingredient in failed pverty-alleviation programs is god-complexes among those who would help. As Adam wanted to "be like God," those who are materially well off have a hard time avoiding the tendency to consider their wealth the product of their own merit and to view the materially poor as somehow inferior; even those who don't want to play "blame the victim" can still view themselves as messiahs helping the helpless when in fact they are trampling on people who could solve the problems themselves if they could see how to make the best use of their present resources.

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.

If poverty is the result of broken relationships, what should poverty alleviation aim for? The answer the book presents is that true poverty alleviation is

working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.

This is accomplished through different strategies that depend on the situation of the one being helped. Relief is for those who need immediate help because they have no other way to forestall serious consequences: for example, someone whose house has just been flooded needs shelter and dry clothes, and for a while will need food. Rehabilitation helps those whose bad decisions have brought them to their situations to make better decisions in the future: one should not build houses in flood plains. Development helps people to use the resources they already have more effectively: the flood victim will need help rearranging his life if he is to buy a new home.

It follows from this that treating someone who needs rehabilitation as though he needs relief harms both giver and receiver. As a sign outside a local convenience store used to say, "The more you give change [to the panhandlers they were trying to get rid of], the more things stay the same."

The solutions proposed in the book aren't a few quick 'n easy steps. One small group that sought to improve housing in a poor section of Baltimore did literally nothing but live in the neighborhood and meet their neighbors for years before beginning actual work on houses. During this get-acquainted time, their approach to their neighbors was not the messianic "How can we help you?" of the relief worker. Rather, they could see that what was needed was rehabilitation and development, so they (presumably—the authors don't say so) modeled responsible living and looked for resources within the community that could be channeled into improved housing.

Indeed, a theme that ran through the book was that those who really want to help need to realize that God has been working with those he wants us to help both directly and through other people. Before we do anything to help the poor (except, obviously, those in dire need of immediate relief), we need to be in relationship with them so we can hear what they think their problems are, what their strengths are, and what goals they have set. We also need to listen to those God has placed in the local context, private and (yes, I am holding my nose) "public." It's a win-win situation: if those already there are our friends, they're our friends; if they're our enemies, we have a chance to make them our friends (Pr 16:7). Anyone who has actually been somewhere we're new to knows something about that situation that we don't, and we can make friends with them as well as increase the effectiveness of our help for the poor by honoring them for the time they have spent there.

(Speaking of those we're not sure we'd like to work with, I've always wondered what Jesus talked about at those meals with tax collectors and prostitutes. Could it be that he was nonjudgmentally letting them describe experiences he had never had? "I've never done what you do. Tell me what it's like to be you.")

This "What can you do?" rather than "How can we help you?" mentality is completely antithetical to the way I've always looked at loving my less-fortunate neighbors. Yet it fits with my experience: when I was between jobs and really had no idea what to do next, a couple from church offered to counsel me. They wanted me to get the full benefit of the sessions, so I had to pay for it—it is more blessed to give than to receive—but I was glad to part with my money after the first session because my first homework was to answer exactly the right question, though in different forms: What jobs have you done that you enjoyed? What jobs have you felt you did well? We eventually got around to the usual battery of tests that I had taken to no benefit a few years before, but I had a much better attitude about them than I would have had otherwise because I was taking them in a context of a conversation that was based on my strengths, not on my weaknesses.

The deacons' class decided that this book was well worth reading. But during our final session, we found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering how to put all this into practice. We couldn't imagine going around the church's solidly working-class neighborhood asking people what their strengths are. We all live in pretty comfortable neighborhoods. Does God want us to "go about looking for monsters to destroy"?

We eventually stumbled upon an idea that we would have thought of right away if we had asked ourselves what our own successes looked like. Someone remembered that we had helped a man who had been referred to us by his landlord, who happened to own the bar the man frequented. The deacons had asked some questions around and had eventually given him an airplane ticket to Florida so he could work for his brother, who had promised over the phone to give him a job.

We decided to check to make sure the man was still working, then thank the bar owner for the referral, tell him he is welcome to refer such people to us in the future, and ask him if he would be willing to spread the word to other bar owners he knows. (Being Presbyterians, we thought the best way to celebrate the success of the program was with a sizable tab and tip at his establishment.) We'll see how that goes, but at least we had planned a first step by the end of the class.

Corbett and Fikkert are somewhat sympathetic to tax-funded "help" for the poor, so I would be remiss if I didn't point out how "public compassion" goes against the main tenets of this otherwise excellent book.

If the primary form of poverty is a broken relationship with God, for that reason government help is useless because governments cannot evangelize. Hezekiah tried it and it didn't work (2Ch 30:1-11). While much is made of Paul's appeal to Caesar for justice (Ac 25:11), that sword had two edges: "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar" (Ac 26:32); and, of course, it was government that killed John the Baptist, Jesus himself, James, Stephen, Peter, and eventually Paul. I know of no state church that exists today that really preaches the gospel. Some Christians defend "public" schools because they had this or that teacher or administrator who led them to Christ, but I would argue that the gospel was communicated despite the system, not because of it. In Papua New Guinea the government schools have a specifically Christian "religious instruction" component, but no one would accuse the average graduate of having a meaningful understanding, let alone reverence for, the Bible. My experience is the same with the handful of Kenyans I have met who have gone through that government's religious instruction programs. I don't see how government poverty-alleviation programs could ever include a gospel component that really restored people's relationships to God.

If god-complexes plague erstwhile helpers and keep them from truly helping, and if power and privilege are the essence of godhood, for that reason governments, which embody power and privilege, cannot help anyone. The essence of government is the idea that some people are more equal than others and therefore have rights and privileges that others don't have, so they can therefore justly use their powers to deprive people of the fruits of their labors (taxation) and go on to deprive them of privacy and freedom (substance prohibition, conscription, hiring quotas, permit systems, etc.). Success at alleviating poverty would provide incentive to increase the god-complex inherent in government, and government agencies would more likely blame failure on those less-than-gods they were trying to help than take the blame themselves.

If what affects the poor more than material lack is feelings of inferiority, for that reason government cannot alleviate poverty. The more inferior the populace feels, the more power accrues to the government: if the taxpayer cannot resist, taxes rise, which enables the system to grow; similarly, the more helpless the recipients feel, the more justified the government is perceived in raising taxes and expanding its "helping" functions. The incentives inherent to a system of government "compassion" are totally perverse: as the problem to be solved becomes worse, the tax-paid "helpers" gain power and prestige (and remuneration and job security) and more "aid" becomes available to those who "need" it.

If the primary means of poverty alleviation is the restoration of relationships with creation, for that reason government cannot alleviate poverty. Not only is the primary incentive to continue the program and pay those who run it, but the underlying assumption is that the "helpers" who run it are by virtue of being government employees superior to the "helpees" whom they "help." The "helpees" therefore are cast as inferior from the get-go, which prevents them from ever entering into relationship with their "helpers" as equals.

If we really want to help our neighbors—all together now—we need to get government out of the business and use our own resources for the glory of God. When Helping Hurts argues this point better than the authors knew.


  1. I read this book. My first thought was, "oh, goody, another book about how not to help the poor." I was right. It's a book about how not to help anyone. It's a book about how wonderful you can feel for helping people by not offering them a shred of assistance. It's a book about how awesome you can feel for cutting millions of people off of any assistance whatsoever.

    Have you lived on the streets? Have you been homeless, without work, without place to stay, without the prospect of either? Have you been denied food by others you've asked for help?

    Have you been kicked out of the place you live and had the landlord (or mortgage company) seize all of your possessions because they want to move their brother-in-law into that home? Relationships as the cause? Certainly, but it's often not the poor or the homeless or the needy who is at fault!

    "When helping hurts" is, in a word, sophistry. It is a reasonable-sounding explanation of why God will let you get away with not helping those brothers and sisters who you know are in need.

    That's not to say the authors are all wrong. They're not. Christians SHOULD involve those they help in helping themselves. Yet, often, there is a distinct lack of resources. That family that lost everything when kicked out of their home, for example (real world example, happened to several folks I know): what's the solution? Better relationships? With whom? The landlord needs to be sued, but they can't afford a lawyer. They've got ID, but that's about it. They work, but that goes to feed themselves. And they're homeless.

    What do you do?


    So inasmuch as you've not helped the least of these my brethren, you've not helped me? Depart into hell, you wicked?

    Corbett tries to make these words of no effect, but it's sophistry.

    Do something. A hug, a smile, a job offer. Something.

    Many homeless would love job offers in their fields of expertise.

    1. Funny that it would be today that you comment. I just got off a phone exchange, first with a young woman who has slept the last two nights (it's been below freezing) in her car who was looking for a bed, then with her father to find out his side of the story. She has been in drug rehab a bunch of times and has a couple of kids by different men who are not in her life. Her parents are taking care of the kids. Her father told me that she has stolen well into four digits of money from their bank accounts, and they have spent well into five digits on rehab and other expenses for her. This couple teaches at a private school in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, and they have adopted a handful of special-needs kids (most of whom have become reasonably adjusted adults), so we're talking people of very modest means.

      But it's freezing cold out! How can he not allow her, his (adopted, true) daughter, into his house? He was struggling to find a word for her response to all he'd tried to for her, and I said, "Contempt." Later on he texted me and said that hit the nail on the head.

      My wife and I had decided that if the family that had earlier offered to take the young woman in was unable to, we would. The other family volunteered to take her. But within an hour, the young woman had gotten an offer from someone none of us knew about to stay there, so off she went.

      Our church has been helping a family for years whose man simply left and didn't pay any child support or anything. We have helped two single moms pay for moving and initial rent in the last couple of months. We have helped another man find housing and transportation and another with moving (i.e., men and trucks lifting things) and other expenses. Only that first family and the first man have shown that our helping inspired them to become better people and avoid the decisions that got them in trouble to begin with.

      So no, I haven't lived on the street, though in the summer of 2001 I returned from twenty years as a missionary overseas with three school-age children, no job, and no salable skills I could think of. I was literally afraid we would be sleeping under overpasses in a few months. Had it not been for God's providence through family, friends, and Christians we'd never met, that could well have happened.

      The strongest part of your comment was "Have you been kicked out of the place you live and had the landlord (or mortgage company) seize all of your possessions because they want to move their brother-in-law into that home?" If you look at any three of my posts at random, you'll see that I'm big on property rights and contracts. If the person (you, perchance?) had a contract but the landlord was able to get the government to let him break it, then the evictee's problem is lack of justice, is it not?

      The compassion I think you're calling for has to be built on justice, but I also think you'd agree that we need to be compassionate whether justice has been done or not. The greatest example of that I can think of offhand is those Amish a few years ago whose children had been shot by a deranged killer going to his funeral and giving gifts to his family. My church supports ministries to people who have no place to stay.

      You're also right that "many homeless would love job offers." Again, we have to be compassionate whether justice is done or not, but we also live in a society that hates entrepreneurs (big business, which is usually some sort of tax-subsidized "public-private partnership," excepted). (We have Labor Day, but no Entrepreneur Day.) And *pace* Hillary Clinton, it *is* entrepreneurs who give these people the jobs they need.

      Thank you for writing. Please feel free to comment on other posts. That's why I write.

      God bless you.