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When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Published by Moody Publishers in 2009

God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty

Susan R. Holman
Published by Oxford University Press in 2009

These two works, When Helping Hurts and God Knows There’s Need, both address the salient and timely concern of how Christians should address poverty. With these commonalities in mind, important differences inform each argument and approach.

The foreword of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself begins with the simple question, “have you ever done anything to help poor people?” (11). More provocatively, however, John Perkins asks, “have you ever done anything to hurt poor people?” (12). These pointed questions serve as a fitting introduction to a book that challenges North American Christians to think more critically about their understanding of, and approach to, poverty alleviation.

Corbett and Fikkert’s text is organized into three main portions. First, the authors outline the foundations of their argument, beginning with an answer to the question of why Jesus came to earth. Although many evangelical Christians might argue that saving souls was the main purpose, it was also, and no less importantly, to commit good deeds. Thus, the task of the North American church should be to place the poor at the center of its concerns. With this goal in mind, the authors describe a biblical framework for understanding the cause of poverty. Poverty results when individuals experience broken relationships: with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. While we are all “broken” to some degree, for the poor, this results in material deprivation as well. In order for these foundational relationships to be functional, one must adopt the proper worldview. This section ends with a discussion of these distorted worldviews, their relationship to poverty, and a treatment of the systemic causes of poverty.

The next section might be viewed as a “guidebook” of sorts, for how to help without hurting self and others. Throughout the text, the authors argue that if Christians are not careful and conscientious in their efforts, they might harm the poor by fostering dependency. In this light, those who aim to help must as certain whether relief, rehabilitation, or development will be the most appropriate response. By emphasizing empowerment and economic development, the “poison of paternalism” might be avoided successfully. Corbett and Fikkert advocate for asset mapping, or assessing the preexisting strengths within a community, as an approach that avoids undermining local capacity and potential. This section concludes with a typology of participation that suggests there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

The final section offers practical strategies for helping without hurting. They begin with an evaluation of the usefulness of short-term missions (STMs) in light of the relief-rehabilitation-development continuum discussed in the preceding segment. STMs might improve their effectiveness by emphasizing the assets of the community they enter, and thus, a focus on rehabilitation and development, rather than relief. This should ensure that communities develop the tools to become self-sufficient when these teams inevitably leave. The authors suggest careful planning of the field experience coupled with prudent recruitment and training of team members. The final thoughts in this chapter provide pragmatic suggestions for helping the poor who have been disadvantaged by broken systems. The authors cite racial discrimination, globalization, and disinvestment in public school systems as some of those systemic sources of poverty. Thus, they suggest ministries that offer job-preparedness training, financial education, and wealth accumulation.

This book is suited best for a specific audience, generally evangelicals who are engaged directly in work with the poor. Each chapter begins and ends with questions designed for individual reflection and group discussion. This format should serve as an effective training manual for mission groups and similar organizations who are interested in poverty alleviation within a particular Christian framework. In addition, the pragmatic suggestions such as asset mapping and engaging community members in their own development should be valuable lessons for those committed to making a difference in a way that aspires to empowerment and egalitarianism. However, the framework of this work also produces two important shortcomings.

First, despite the authors’ emphasis on avoiding paternalism and ethnocentrism, challenges in any context of power differentials, in fact these outlooks may get reinforced. Avoiding paternalism should, as the authors argue, involve including the experiences and perspectives of the poor. However, it should also include challenges to one’s own dominant position of power and privilege. Within the framework provided, this can go unquestioned. If the emphasis is on correcting dysfunctional relationships and changing worldviews, the assumption must be that the dominant group holds the key to proper relationship structures and correct worldviews. The risk is a top-down approach to poverty alleviation. Ethnocentrism may be bolstered when important cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions are dismissed as superstition and fallacy. Sociologists since Emile Durkheim have pointed out the comforting and unifying functions of belief systems. The recent events in Haiti have highlighted these important processes as earthquake victims have found strength, solidarity, andcrucial coping mechanisms in voodoo traditions. Serious poverty alleviation efforts might consider capitalizing on these assets, rather than subverting them.

A second concern is reinforcing a blame-the-victim approach to poverty. While the authors identify the myriad structural causes of poverty skillfully, including deindustrialization, racial discrimination, and public disinvestment, their solutions are constrained by their framework. If poverty is caused by broken foundational relationships and distorted worldviews, then by and large, solutions will target the deficient individual. Indeed, most of the solutions offered involve human capital development. Although this is a crucial step toward poverty reduction, it should only be one part of a holistic approach. For example, the authors suggest financial education ministries be developed to help the poor manage money, better understand the impact of interest rates on loans, and avoid exploitative lending institutions. This can make a tremendous difference in the lives of the poor. However, religious bodies might also encourage their members to pressure their senators and congress persons to work toward legislation that could end predatory lending practices altogether, thus having a broader impact on poverty.

In sum, despite some shortcomings, this guidebook will have important practical applications for the audience for which it was intended. Evangelical Christians will be challenged to think about the impact their poverty alleviation efforts have on themselves and those they desire to help. The practical suggestions, outlined carefully, should facilitate implementation by ministries and other groups similarly motivated to help the poor.

God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty presents a historical account of early Christian responses to poverty driven thoughtfully by author Susan Holman’s own personal reflections and experiences. While Corbett and Fikkert’s work demands that North American Christians reflect and respond to poverty within an express set of guidelines, Holman challenges anyone, Christian or otherwise, to simply respond. Through a careful and thorough review of lessons from early Christian texts, including such works as the Cappadocian writers, John Chrysostom, and Jacob of Sarug, Holman demonstrates an array of options for addressing need in modern society.

Holman begins by calling attention to the abundance of early works, often marginalized, that might speak to current poverty alleviation efforts. She invites the reader to engage in “empathic remembering” toward this end. This provocative phrase combines standing alongside the needy “other” while considering anew the voices in need from the past. This exercise should assist anyone who has an interest in poverty and social justice to find a space from which to begin working toward those goals. Holman is not naïve in her approach, acknowledging that there are salient differences between the realities of today and those of the past. Nonetheless, she argues persuasively that early patristic writers have much to offer our approach to social welfare today.

With the goal of applying early Christian narratives in a way that is cross-disciplinary and ecumenical, Holman outlines three useful paradigms, illustrated throughout the text: sensing need, sharing the world, and embodying sacred kingdom. Sensing need is the recognition of others outside of ourselves through emotional experience, empathy, or simply a new awareness of how we might use time and resources to help them. In their descriptions and accounts of poverty, the Cappadocian sermons were filled with appeals to the listener’s emotions. Indeed, quite often these were graphic descriptions of physical and emotional suffering of the poor, designed to move the audience toward a sensory connection with those in need. This is the first step toward an empathic approach to poverty alleviation.

Once we have sensed need, we must then share the world. For Holman, this involves action toward social justice. Again, one can be guided by early Christian texts that demand we recognize the poor as “human beings like ourselves.” Sharing the world emphasizes lateral action and interdependence between the poor and non-poor. Holman points out that the language and ethos of civil rights that seem second nature for us today are present in the words of early Christian writers. They demand meeting the needs of the poor as equals, being generous in giving, demonstrating hospitality in sharing, enacting legal fairness, and working for the common good.

The final theme, embodying sacred kingdom, reveals that early writers viewed both the poor and the rich as embodying the image of a “God-given cosmos.” The poor are the image of God through their basic needs and suffering; the rich can epitomize God by showing mercy, offering help and healing, and working toward justice. The notion of embodying the sacred kingdom is elucidated further in the final chapter as Holman explores the concept of the liturgy. Despite conflicting meanings of this term, for early Christian writers, this could mean either worship or service. Thus, aiding the poor is seen as an act of liturgy. In one particularly powerful passage, Holman argues that the act of service engages the individual vertically with the divine, and, like outstretched arms, engages horizontally across community, welcoming others and redefining the boundaries of the self to include all those in need. Liturgy, enacted through service with and for the poor, is fundamentally social.

Throughout God Knows There’s Need, the themes of “human rights” and “choice” are prominent. In an insightful analysis on the intersection of gender and poverty, Holman highlights how often times poverty coincides with a negation of human rights. Ancient documents illustrate how women and children were often bought and sold as property, ensuring no control or autonomy over their own lives and bodies. Those most vulnerable to poverty in today’s world are also women and children, often suffering abuse and sexual violence alongside economic hardship. Inhabiting these disadvantaged social locations, the poor are forced to use “different currencies to barter for rights.” In this light, those working in the service of the poor would benefit from earnest consideration of the intersection of gender and class. An empathic understanding of these intersecting inequalities can guide us toward goals that bring us nearer social justice through poverty alleviation.

Choice is also an important premise throughout the readings. Chapter six, “Maria’s Choice,” recounts the experiences of three women, as told by John of Ephesus, to illustrate the myriad options we have in alleviating poverty. Oftentimes, current approaches feel the need to make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, thereby building safeguards against so-called wasted efforts, misused funds, and the inconvenience of endless need. The stories of Maria, Euphemia, and Mary assert that while Christians have a responsibility in giving, the responsibility for honest use lies with the recipient. “Risky” giving can be a model for those who feel the need to share, but feel constrained by current concerns about who “deserves” assistance. These stories also suggest that giving aid does not require religious conversion. In fact, Holman argues that it is the needy poor who stand a much better chance of understanding religious truth than the rich. Thus, Christianity can be the framework that informs actions on behalf of the poor, but it need not be the outcome.

Overall, God Knows There’s Need should appeal to anyone who has an interest in serving the poor and working toward social justice. Though the lessons are informed by early Christian texts, this framework does not limit the methods by which one might address poverty. Indeed, Holman argues that an empathic sensing of the poor means one must be aware of one’s own place in the global community, able to recognize paradigms from different faiths or no faith at all. The emphasis on human rights can help individuals and organizations inhabit a space of equality with the poor, engage in charity and good works, all the while moving closer to social justice. The emphasis on choice and freedom should assist individuals and organizations to design unique and varied approaches as they create welcoming spaces for all those who wish to join in the efforts to end poverty.

Cite this article
Theresa C. Davidson, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself & God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:1 , 118-121

Theresa C. Davidson

Samford University
Theresa C. Davidson, Sociology, Samford University