Alinksy would argue that failing to use the strengths and resources of people in need is an ineffective strategy for creating change. There are already leaders, and people with skills, in the community, in any community. Community organizing requires indigenous leadership, the people who are know to the local community and are already identified by the community as leaders (Alinsky 1989 64). As we get to know the community and the people in it, they will let us know who the leaders are, and it is our responsibility to meet them those leaders and to understand their skills. Natural leaders (Alinsky 1989 65) are the people that the community already looks to for guidance. Even when looking for natural leaders outsiders tend to look for leaders like themselves (Alinsky 1989 66), thereby missing that leadership is culturally defined, and specific to each local community. When we attempt to create charity without knowing and respecting the community leaders we may find begrudging acceptance of what we offer.
Organizers (and church leadership) trying to come from the outside and simply give things away will not be respected. Alinsky has found that “generally their method of doing things for rather than with the people was resented” (Alinsky 1989 68, italics original). Charity that does not give people a role for using their skills, their strengths, their leadership, is, in Lupton’s language, toxic. “To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking—taking their dignity” (Alinsky 1971 123). People both know what they need, and deserve the opportunity to create what they need. Alinsky’s argument against charity is that it focuses mostly on the fact that people in need know better than outsiders what the need is, and he is right about this; however he does not focus as strongly on the fact that people how have needs also have skills.
Kevin Blue presumes the skills of people in need and so is concerned with the way direct service charity takes away the potential for work and for personal growth. He notes that problem solving itself can help a person’s skills develop (Blue loc 671). He argues that spending time without work or other responsibilities can wear down those problem solving skills, wear out a person’s confidence in themselves. “Some have not worked for so long that evil spiritual habits become the norm, and then, as sin deceives them, they are convinced that working is actually worse for them than receiving a hand-out” (Blue loc 635). Unlike Lupton, Blue notes that there are people who cannot get paid work, due to illness or disability, but his concern remains that direct service charity replaces the need to work.
Lupton is also arguing that people should work, or pay, for the services and things they receive. His concern is that people have personal power and that we take away that power when we do tasks what people can do themselves (Lupton 3). Their power rests in the skills and strategies they bring to living in poverty, in the relationships and connections they make with other people, and in the Christian context, in their identity as Children of God and as neighbors of us and of each other. If our charitable giving fails to acknowledge this power then it is not kindness. Lupton suggests “[g]iving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people” (Lupton 3).
Using an example of a foreign mission trip Lupton describes a village leader’s lament that the local people’s dignity erodes as they see themselves as needing charity from wealthy missioners (Lupton 21). We who have enough are living out our Christian mission of giving things to people in need, caring for people, people who we presume cannot care for themselves, which leads us see the people who need things as people who cannot do things, people who cannot engage in mission, people who cannot help one other, and eventually, people who are less then us, we the people who have things to give.
We who have enough use charitable giving to become superior with God because of our ability to do what God wants—to serve others. The “others” are only receivers, and thus cannot be true disciples, acting on God’s call to service. Lupton insists that chronic almsgiving “affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before” (Lupton 34). It is an accidental superiority to be sure, we do not set out to do any more than share our excess, and to share it in love, but it is this superiority that Lupton argues makes direct service charity not loving, but patronizing, and indeed toxic (Lupton 35).
Alinsky, Saul D. Reveille for Radicals, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989.)
Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, (New York: Random House, 1971.)
Blue, Kevin. Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World. Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2013. Kindle.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.