As we have seen above, Stivers analyzes the ways public discourse identifies poverty with lack of responsibility. She notes that even in programs where we build some relationships with people in poverty, the surrounding society encourages us to see them as “diseased other” which creates “a moral boundary between who is respectable/clean… or diseased/dirty” (Stivers 51). While the focus above is on how that is toxic to the people receiving the direct services, I would argue that it is also toxic to those of us with enough. In her interviews Stivers found that the diseased “worldview is so insidious that even when most staff members hear stories of structural obstacles from guests, they still interpret the choices as freely made apart from the constraints and environmental pressures of poverty” (Stivers 109). That is, it is difficult for us to hear about the underlying structural causes of homelessness and food insecurity because the language of otherness is so ingrained. Indeed even those telling stories of life in poverty can buy into the language that marks them as less-than those of us with enough.
We all, those of us with more power, and those of us with less, are influenced by the dominant social discourse that privileges white and middle class values (Stivers 13). It is our very effort to claim neutrality and deny the significance of race and class that reinforces the superiority of white and middle class culture (Stivers 13). Direct service charity that doesn’t acknowledge and affirm differences in language, culture, and values based on race and class aren’t really getting to know the depth of people’s lives. When we who have enough are the only people authorized to give, and we attempt to listen to people’s life stories, we are further building up the power differential between us. It is easiest to see individuals as making bad life choices when our only standard is whether we think we would have made the same choices.
Kevin Blue notes that overcoming this presumed standard of white and middle class culture requires reconciliation around oppression along with fixing US structural obstacles (Blue loc 961). Structural change is necessary but not enough; to be reconciled with one another we must create relationships across race and class divisions (Blue loc 964). We must figure out how to deal with our fear, or, as Pathak notes, our awkwardness, that keeps us from creating relationships with people who are different from us. If we do not do this we continue with direct service charities that further enforce our segregation from one another. I hope, and Blue presumes, that in church based charities our goal is more than simply providing food; our goal is to welcome one another into the family of Christ (Blue loc 969). In my experience with progressive congregations we are quick to point out that we are not trying to make people into Christians, but the reality is we also are not inviting the Christians who come to our ministry to be part of our congregation. Inviting people who need food to be part of our church, part of our ministry, even leaders of our program; that is the relational work to of church. It is in large part racism and classism that keeps us from loving our neighbor.
Love of our neighbor is shown with actual action, not simply by reporting that we love. Blue notes that “Jesus’ love—by which the world is to know we are believers—was costly and sacrificial. It meant the relinquishing of power; it meant humility, it meant a coming and dwelling among people” (Blue loc 981). We are called to follow Jesus with this sacrificial love as part of our actions to feed people. Ministries that serve food without the underpinning of sacrificial love for our neighbor are not meeting Jesus’ command to share food, drink, clothing. Blue argues that racial and class divides are ultimately broken down when God’s people choose to be a bridge across those divides, when we bring the gospel not only in the food but in the words we share with one another (Blue loc 990).
Stephen G. Ray Jr is also concerned with oppression, but goes further in this discussion to suggest that it is sin, and particularly sin-talk, that perpetrates the divide between us. His book Do No Harm investigates sin as a social, rather than individual, construct, and shows how sin-talk maintains cultural oppression. Ray identifies two types of sin-talk that hurt our communities. The first connects the “social margin” with irresponsibility—that is it identifies people on the margin as people who created their own difficulties (Ray 34). The second type of sin-talk essentializes communities on the margin by suggesting that their very identity is defiled (Ray 34). In this case it is not inappropriate action, or bad choices, that put people in the category of sinfulness, but their very existence. While we generally don’t use the word sin for this (Ray 10), we do group individuals into a class of their own and then using language that presumes a singular, sinful, identity of that class.
Ray uses the examples of the welfare queen as the model of irresponsibility who signifies all people who receive welfare, and LGBTQ folk who are defiled not by their actions but simply by their identity. The trap of sin-talk, according to Ray, is that while fighting against unjust systems, we engage in public discourse in a way that perpetuates the marginality of the people in question. Ray demonstrates how Reinhold Niebuhr argues against discrimination, and yet identifies the irresponsibility of “the negro and his culture” (Ray 62). Similarly Bonheoffer argues against anti-Jewish laws while perpetrating the idea that Jews are essentially a defiled people. While it can be argued that they each were doing the best they could in the language of the time good intentions do not redeem the impact of their language. “Far from being an inoculation against the peculiar madness, sin-talk can be a power tool for its perpetuation” (Ray 96).
This sin-talk perpetuates the toxicity of direct service charity and blocks us from changing it. Those in the center of the social construct, that is people with “ordinary”, middle class lives, are pressured by the language to rescue those on the margins. It presumes those on the margins do not have the agency to rescue themselves because they don’t exist as individuals but only as the defined group. In fact, when one or two people start to be known as individuals their story stops being the story of those on the margins and becomes instead an exception to the stereotype. Ray sees Niebuhr identifying, the rare, responsible, Negro as a sign of how it is worth it to help the other (irresponsible) Negros (Ray x) and Bonheoffer identifying the baptized Jew as cleaned of defilement (Rax x). Both Niebuhr and Bonheoffer were trying to speak out against the oppression of their time, and yet their language becomes “sin-talk” that perpetuates the othering of the people they intend to defend. Welfare recipients, people who use food stamps, people who need food pantries and soup kitchens, they all become a group of people with a particular identity—irresponsible, addicted, lazy, dirty, and more—rather than individuals. When we get to know one or two, they have particular stories that refute the stereotype but these are seen as exceptions. (As we noted above Stivers found service workers who had heard, and believed, stories of structural obstacles, and yet continued to see individuals as needing to change. Ray would argue that is part of how social-sin and sin-talk works.)
The connection of the church to the center of society makes it hard for us to see and critique our role in using sin-talk to perpetuate social sin. And yet we have theological language that can help us overcome the sin-talk that we miss. Augustine’s theology of original sin suggests that our sin precedes any actions we take (Ray 103), Luther emphasizes that we cannot choose, or not choose, to engage in sin (Ray 105), Calvin describes sin as more of a status than a behavior (Ray 106). What is critical to our discussion is that both Calvin and Luther, based on Augustine, reject any voluntarism in sin (Ray 107). We cannot simply decide to not be sinners. Whatever efforts we make “the taint of sin affects all humanity” (Ray 108 italics original).
Because we believe that sin is part of the human condition, there is no place for relative judgments based on different social conditions (Ray 109). We cannot rank my sin or yours; we cannot evaluate my sinfulness as different from your sinfulness, or even more dangerously those people’s sinfulness. There aren’t some people who have a different relationship with God than any other person (Ray 110). All of humanity is in relationship with God, both through Adam as sinners, and through Christ as redeemed (Ray 111). This corrective is needed because we tend to put the sins of those on margins through a different scrutiny than we put the sins of those with power and within our social norms (Ray 111).
Ray notes how social norms are deciding sinfulness when we compare the way gangs are seen as evidence of the sinful condition of the community where they rise up, while corporate greed, when noticed, is seen as the exceptional identity of an individual (Ray 114). We can see the apparent sinfulness of that “other” community but not the sinfulness of our own (Ray 115). As seen in the examples of Niebuhr and Bonheoffer, but also in the toxicity of direct service charity and its stereotypical descriptions of people who need resources, we cannot objectively analyze our own social sin (Ray 117). And yet our theology insists that we recognize the mutuality of our sinfulness.
It is, in the end, our human sinfulness that keeps us from engaging in direct service charity in ways that know and honor the people in need, and in ways that share the gift of giving. To get beyond toxic direct service charity we must face the difficulty that our own sinfulness is the same—unchosen, unseen, and yet forgiven—as the sinfulness of the people with whom we engage. We must be aware that it is hard to see our own sinfulness, and that society encourages us to see the sinfulness of those at the margins. We must attend to the language we use, whether or not it includes the word sin, for ways that it perpetuates the idea that there is something “more wrong” with the person who needs food than is wrong with the person who is giving food. To do that we have to get to know the people who need food, and open up to be known by the people who have food, to see each other as fully gifted, able, and fully sinful, unable people. We have to know each other well enough to build trust between us.
Blue, Kevin. Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World. Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2013. Kindle.
Ray Jr., Stephen G. Do No Harm: social Sin and Christian Responsibility. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Stivers, Laura. Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. Kindle.