The point of Robert Lupton and Steve Corbett’s critiques of direct service charity is to encourage Christians to move away from direct service charity work and to engage in community development work. Corbett is clearer than Lupton that there are situations where short-term relief is needed and he recognizes the paternalism that prompts many direct service ministries. Lupton is especially concerned with the way that direct service charity can create dependence in the people that receive it and seems to believe that dependence on direct services causes poverty. Lupton claims “the welfare system has fostered generations of dependency and has severely eroded the work ethic” (Lupton 121). Kevin Blue is similarly concerned with the work ethic of people with material poverty. Together these critiques suggest that creating an environment where people with material poverty can work will reduce their dependence on direct service charities, and therefore improve their lives. They all suggest that churches and Christian organizations engage in more community development as a strategy to get away from dependence. Both Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell are similarly concerned with the disabling consequences of dependence. Yet their arguments are dramatically different, largely because they start from the presumption that it is oppression that causes dependence, not charity, and thus they call for including more voices in leadership, and limiting the power of those who oppress others, rather than suggesting that we don’t provide for people’s material needs. Interestingly, Gutierrez reaches his critique of dependence by starting with the problems with community development.
Gutierrez disputes the value of community development in particular, noting that the term almost always means only economic development—as is neatly demonstrated in Lupton’s story of Ann’s economic support of Janice that we saw in chapter two. Seeing primarily an economic problem, Lupton asks why Janice won’t work. Gutierrez argues that economic, social, political, and cultural development cannot be separated from each other (Gutierrez 1988 15). I imagine Gutierrez asking Lupton why it is that our culture expects mothers to be separated from their children in order to do paid work? Why are we lacking social support systems to care for our children? What are the political systems we have created that make it so hard to find work and to find child-care and to find affordable housing? And especially, why is Ann, who says she wants to help, so frustrated to find that Janice is not reacting the way that Ann would? Why isn’t she just like her?
Indeed, Gutierrez believes community development theories pre-suppose that the solution to poverty is that those who are poor should take on the cultural practices of those that have more; essentially that people who have plenty are more culturally advanced than people who have little (Gutierrez 1988 50). Gutierrez describes the hope that came from a community development project intended to take “dependent” South American countries and make them “independent” by helping them to be more modern (Gutierrez 1988 50). Because the community development plans were only economic plans, and did not grow out of the culture and experiences of the people, these plans failed (Gutierrez 1988 51). Gutierrez notes that one of the important things these plans missed is the way that wealthy nations actually created the poverty in the majority world (Gutierrez 1988 51). The wealth of nations that were engaging in community development required the dependence of these nations, and therefore dominated the politics of these nations. They were an external force, but they became internal forces as well (Gutierrez 1988 52). Community development was not effective at reducing these countries dependence because that would have limited the wealth of those who already have enough.
Gutierrez argues “only a class analysis will allow us to see what is really involved in the opposition between oppressed countries and dominant peoples” (Gutierrez 1988 54). Dependence, for Gutierrez, is caused by domination, and by oppression, and cannot be ended simply by plans to change the economy without ending the oppression. On a much smaller scale, community development programs designed to encourage oppressed people to develop new job skills cannot end dependence. People with plenty will not eradicate poverty by encouraging people with little to act more like us. Any program to end poverty, and oppression, must be lead by the people who have little, and who are oppressed (Gutierrez 1988 57). Because of this, Gutierrez argues against community development, and in favor of liberation. He says we do not need reforms, or development, that help people live in the present structures, but rather liberation from the present structures (Gutierrez 1988 17).
Gutierrez suggests that we start not with an outsider’s perspective of the development needed, but instead with the person in need, and we trust that they have within them the next steps for their challenges, we are engaging in more than economic development—we are engaging in human development, we are making room for individuals to control their own future (Gutierrez 1988 16). For him development theory only succeeds when it takes “into account the situation of dependence and the possibility of becoming free from it” (Gutierrez 1988 54). Freedom from dependence is liberation; the ability to be in full control of our own lives. Liberation begins with economic, social, and political independence, but is much more, it is a process self-growth, it grows out of an individual’s own values, out of their own life story, out of their own work. With Lupton and Blue, Gutierrez does argue that people should work. His argument however is not that people should be made to work, but that they want work. “To work, to transform this world, is to become a man and to build the human community; it is also to save” (Gutierrez 1988 91). We are saved; we are liberated by our opportunity to do our own work, to be engaged with others in the work of our community. That is, liberation is something that people with less do for themselves, from their own growing awareness of themselves and of the culture they are enmeshed in (Gutierrez 1988 57). The goal is liberation from dependence, not by removing the support of needed material resources, but by removing the structural barriers that keep people down. Outsiders do not develop people to this potential, but rather may choose to be in solidarity as the community breaks from the status quo that is holding them back (Gutierrez 1988 59). Together we create partnerships that change the systems and change our relationships to each other.
Russell gets to the question of liberation from dependence in her discussion of our relationships with authority in our congregations. While at first glance this might seem like a quite different sort of dependence the parallels of paternalistic clergy and lay leaders leading to congregational dependence is quite similar to Gutierrez’ description of majority world dependence on community development programs developed by who already dominate them. “Paternalism can be an authority of false love that uses people’s need for strength and assurance to dominate them through a relationship of dependence” (Russell 1987 90). In congregations we long for leadership that will tell us how to engage our faith, in South America communities longed for advice to build a new economy, in meals programs people in need long for a reliable food source. In each case paternalistic leadership can use that longing to dominate people in need and create a dependent relationships. As Russell points out, the fact that we are caring and nurturing within that dependent system does not reduce the domination of the leadership (Russell 1987 90). The argument is not that people don’t need support, but that people need support that does not produce dependence (Russell 1987 91). Her example is of a pastor preaching in a way that implies that the bible is not accessible to everyone’s own interpretation, or a lay leader who insists on deciding every small group curriculum (Russell 1987 91), people are encouraged to receive, but not to give. People can care for one another, but cannot speak with authority. In a food ministry, people can eat but not cook. They are dependent on the resources but not allowed to be responsible for providing resources. It is important to note that here again it is not that dependent people cause poverty or lack of voice, but that an oppressive forces shut down voices and create dependence.
A logical response to paternalism may be to pull away from the oppressive force, to resort to individualism, isolation, or to resign to the sense of dependence. Russell suggests however that autonomy and individualism are not the answer; we should seek instead interdependence (Russell 1987 91). This is similar to Lupton’s example of working and paying for food from the Georgia Avenue Food Co-op mentioned in chapter two, but does not fit with Corbett’s insistence that people a person in need should be denied short-term food in order to encourage developing a long term plan. Russell, along with Bouman in chapter 2, is calling for authority to be a “partnership”—a shared relationship of giving and receiving (Russell 1987 92). Partnerships involve interdependence—connections with each other, but with each other we also connect to God, and to the world (Russell 1987 92). Partnerships are not simple, they can result in confusion and chaos and disagreement, as more and more voices are included. The authority is shared by many, and we become dependent on each other rather than the many dependent on a few. “Because partnerships are living relationships that share the ‘already/not yet’ character of God’s new household, they are always in process and never finished…” (Russell 1987 92); authority by partnership is messy and incomplete.
Lupton and Corbett argued in chapter two that we stop doing direct service work that meets short-term needs because it creates dependence. They are presuming that charity creates dependence. Gutierrez suggests instead that we stop creating systems that oppress people in order to provide for our material needs, because oppression creates dependence. Gutierrez and Russell agree with Blue about the importance of work as an antidote to dependence but suggest that people want to do the work of leadership, want to take on the authority to change the systems that make them dependent on outside forces, rather than that poverty has taught them to prefer dependence. Russell suggests that by moving from a paternalistic, dominating, authority to partnerships we will reduce dependence. From this we see that direct service charity, more important than being short-term, must be created in such a way that the work is shared, and the authority is developed in partnership with those in need. At the same time we must recognize that the systemic barriers do more than limit the food people can get, they limit the liberation of people’s hearts and souls and minds, making it hard for people who need food to see how important they are to changing the systems that limit food access. We must be part of ending dependence, not by taking away food resources that people need, but by including people in need in the development of our ministries.
Blue, Kevin. Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World. Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2013. Kindle.
Bouman, Stephen P. The Mission Table: Renewing Congregation and Community. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2013.
Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012. Kindle.
Gutierrez, Gustavo We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; (June 24, 2003)
Gutierrez, Gustavo, Robert R. Barr Trans., Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; (May 1993)
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.
Russell, Letty, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press; 1st edition (January 1, 1993)
Russell, Letty, Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987.