Sunday, 9 July 2017

Toxic Charity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
9 July 2017, 11.00am

1 Timothy 6.6-19   
1 Corinthians 12.12-27

You can listen to this sermon here:

There is a famous scene in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,
            which has stayed with me down the decades
            since I first studied it for my A Level in English.

The Roman crowd are rioting against their rulers,
            demanding the right to set the price of grain for themselves,
            rather than having to accept the price imposed by the senate.

Menenius Agrippa, a patrician of the city, intercepts the crowd
            and offers them a poetic metaphor to justify the social hierarchy.
He compares the Roman state to the human body,
            with the members rebelling against their own body.

As is usually the case with Shakespeare’s histories,
            the play he wrote about Coriolanus was drawing on other, older, sources.
So here’s the way the first century writer Plutarch relates the story
            of Menenius’ address to the crowd:

He says:
“It once happened . . . that all the other members of a man
            mutinied against the stomach,
                        which they accused as the only idle,
                        un-contributing part of the whole body,
            while the rest were put to hardships
                        and the expense of much labour
                        to supply and minister to its appetites.
The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members,
            who appeared not to be aware
                        that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment
                        but only to return it again and redistribute it among the rest.
Such is the case . . . ye citizens, between you and the senate.
            The counsels and plans that are there duly digested,
                        convey and secure to all of you
                        your proper benefit and support.”[1]

And here, in a perfect classical metaphor,
            you have all the justification you will ever need
            for a top-down benefaction approach
                        to wealth, poverty, charity, and trickle-down economics.
The lesson is clear: the population should not begrudge
            the wealth and privilege of the elite,
because without the elite,
            there would be no money or food for the populace.

Do bankers’ bonuses offend you?
            Well, get over it, wise up, and smell the money!

And of course the metaphor of the body is a good one:
            it makes sense, and we can all relate to it.
Even Paul used it, in his own way, in his letter to the Corinthians;
            where he compared the church to a body,
                        assuring the members that each part is of equal value to each other part,
                        and that therefore the ear should not be envious of the eye, and so on.

And whilst I like Paul’s use of the body metaphor,
            and spiritually I’m right there with him
                        in his conviction that, in Christ, all are of equal value,
I think there remain some uncomfortable questions
            with regard to how equal we all are
            in other, how shall I put this, ‘less spiritual’, ways.

I think that, for me, Paul’s use of the body-metaphor
                        to assert universal spiritual equality in Christ
            is still rather too close to the Roman Patriarchal body-metaphor
                        on which it is based.

What I think Paul was trying to do, in his letter to the Corinthians,
            was to subvert the Roman concept of the empire as a body,
by taking over the image, and applying it to the body of Christ,
            which is the church.

And Paul’s image of the church as a body is his attempt
            to unpick the pervasive and seductive logic of Menenius’ argument.
Rather than inequality being an essential characteristic of humanity,
            with lesser lesser members needing the well-fed and privileged elite
                        to ensure their own survival,
Paul talks of the greater honour that God gives to the inferior member,
            elevating the poor and the weak above the powerful and the rich.

So far, so revolutionary, so good.

But my concern is that Paul’s message has not really filtered very well
            down the centuries into much of what has gone by the name of Christianity.

We have a history, as Christians, of colluding with and perpetuating
            vast socio-economic inequalities,
both within wider society, and within the structures of the church itself.

Too often, in church life, we have taken Paul’s metaphor of the body,
            and turned it back into the one on which it was based.

The radical vision for equality that Paul offers his readers
            becomes in reality just another excuse for perpetuating
                        a patriarchal trickle-down style of economic community,
            where the poor are the bottom of the pile,
                        and are dependent on the charitable giving of a wealthy elite.

And whilst we can point to the evils of Christendom,
            and five hundred years on from Martin Luther,
                        we can echo his critique of practices such as the selling of indulgences,
                        and the monetizing of spirituality,
we also have to face the uncomfortable truth
            that our own traditions are far from immune
            from an approach to wealth and charity
                        that is based more on defending entrenched inequality,
                        than it is on promoting radical equality.

Why is it, we might wonder, that most Christian churches in the western world
            are predominantly middle class?
Why is it that the even within churches
            where there is a substantial number of those
                        we might term economically disadvantaged,
            the leadership structures are dominated by those
                        with wealth, power, and privilege?

These are uncomfortable questions…
            and they are raised for us by Paul’s radical re-working of the body metaphor,
as he tried to take it away from the Roman ideal
            of a well-fed centralised belly, distributing resources to the members,
into a vision of fundamental equality between all members of the body.

What, I wonder, would it look like for us to be a community
            where the powerless, the poor, and the put-upon
            are empowered, enriched, and enabled?

Well, in many ways, as a church here in Central London,
            we’re already doing exactly this.

There are many who come into our building,
            and into our wider sphere of influence,
who find friendship, respite, care, and love,
            and who discover the possibility of genuine transformation
            through their encounter with the body of Christ.

And I don’t want to minimise the significance of this.

In her sermon last week, Ruth spoke of the importance
            of the small response of loving kindness
                        – of how sometimes giving a person a cup of water
                                    when they are thirsty and crying out for water
                        is the most significant thing you can do for them in that moment.

And there are many of us here who, over the years,
            have given that cup of water many a hundred times over.

Sometimes it literally is a cool drink
            given to a person who has wandered in on a hot day seeking refreshment,
or perhaps a cup of tea or soup in the depths of winter
            to someone who is frozen from a night on the streets.

Sometimes it’s a coach fare, or an Oyster card,
            or a top-up on the electric meter, or a voucher for the food bank,
            or a hot lunch on a Sunday, and I could go on…

We do this, and we do it well, and I don’t think we should stop.

But I have a concern that, for all the good that we do,
            such charitable giving can become a model of charity
                        that has more in common with Menenius’ metaphor than Paul’s.
It’s an approach to the inequalities of society
            where those who ‘have’ give to those who ‘have not’.
And whilst that might be OK, and sometimes it might be brilliant, is it transformatory?
            Does it genuinely raise up the person who receives the gift,
                        does it gift them the equality that Paul speaks of
                        in his image of a body where all are equal?

To answer my own question for a moment,
            sometimes I think it can be transformatory for people
                        – we should not underestimate the significance
                                    of getting to know a person’s name,
                                    of spending time with them, getting to hear their story,
                                    and valuing them as a person.

Those who volunteer for the night shelter, or the Evening Centre,
            or who sit at tables over Sunday Lunch
                        with guests who haven’t necessarily been in the morning service,
            are contributing to something profound and important.

As I was preparing this sermon on Friday,
            my thoughts were very much with Barbara Stanford,
and I was reflecting on the stories that I have heard over the last few years
            of the tremendous and selfless difference
                        that she has made over her decades at Bloomsbury
                        to the lives of so many people.
From hospital visiting to greeting the street-homeless and vulnerable,
            Barbara has consistently shown the same love and respect to each person.

It is a role model to aspire to.

And one of the things Barbara has said to me on a number of occasions,
            when I’ve been feeling a bit despondent about things,
            is that ‘you can’t win them all, you know’.

There is a powerful scene in the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
            where the crowd of needy people are surrounding Jesus,
                        calling out to him again and again for help and for healing,
                        reaching out to try to touch him.

At the end of the scene, Jesus just cries out in anguish,
            Don't push me
            There's too little of me
            Don't crowd me, please don't crowd me.
And then the devastating final line of despair:
            Oh, heal yourselves.

And it’s true – we can’t win them all – and we can’t help them all…

But I do believe we can win some!
            And I do believe that we should expect to see transformation, and progress,
                        as people encounter Christ through his body the church,
                        and are brought to a new experience of life.
            We should expect to see people released from their addictions
                        as they come to the various anonymous groups that meet here.
            We should expect to see people find healing from poor mental health
                        as they find pathways to counselling and other support.
            We should expect to see people find stability
                        where previously chaos has held their lives in a powerful grip.

These are not bad things to aspire to.
            They are, I believe, the kind of thing Paul has in mind,
            when he offers his image of the body of the church
                        as a community of equality where the poor are valued.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be looking in more detail
            at what we think we’re doing when we seek to offer charity as a church.

Next week we’ll be looking at bearing one another’s burdens,
            and the week after that we’ll be looking at the idea of restorative reciprocity.

But for this week, I would like us to spend a few moments
            raising for ourselves the question of what, exactly, we think we’re doing
            when we seek to help those who are in need.

Because sometimes, what we hope to achieve isn’t what we actually accomplish.

I’ll give you an example.

What should the appropriate Christian response be
            to the person you passed this morning as you came to church,
            sitting on the street begging for money?
I assume you saw them.

Should you have given them what they are asking for?
            After all, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel:
Luke 6:30  Give to everyone who begs from you.

And yet all the advice we receive from the agencies
            that work with those who are homeless, and those who are begging,
is that giving cash to the person
            is almost always the wrong thing to do.

It creates a culture of dependency,
            it facilitates the exploitation of the poor by gangs,
            it feeds destructive addictions,
and it does nothing to help that person escape the cycle
            of disempowerment, abuse, and homelessness.

It is much better to give your money to a homelessness charity,
            or indeed to a church like Bloomsbury! (just saying).

In fact, you may have noticed the signs we have in our foyer,
            which explain that we don’t give out cash,
            for exactly this reason.
We want to offer help and support that is accountable and measurable in its effect,
            at least at some level.

Or, think of it another way.
            A person who comes in and asks for a glass of water, will of course get one.
            But the person who comes in begging for a glass of alcoholic drink will not get one,
                        because even if they are convinced that this is the solution to their problem,
                        giving them what they are asking for is still the wrong thing to do.

And here’s the challenge for us this morning.

In our thinking about how, as a church, we are to seek to ‘do good’,
            to offer charity, love, and care to those who are in need,
how can we do our best to ensure that what we offer
            is, at the very minimum, not actually making the recipient’s life worse.

I’ve been reading a very challenging book recently, called
                        ‘Toxic Charity:
                        How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help
                        (And How to Reverse It)

The author, Robert Lupton, observes that,
            ‘while we are very generous in charitable giving,
            much of that money is either wasted or actually harms
            the people it is targeted to help’.[2]

There is a saying that I often hear
            in the work some of us do through the church’s involvement with London Citizens,
and it is this: ‘Never do for someone what they have the capacity to do for themselves’.
            Because doing so will create dependency, and destroy personal initiative.

Robert Lupton continues:
‘For all our efforts to eliminate poverty
            – our entitlements, our programs, our charities –
we have succeeded only in creating a permanent underclass,
            dismantling family structures, and eroding their ethic of work.
And our poor continue to become poorer.’[3]

He says that,
‘Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative
            may well be the kindest way to destroy people.’[4]

Which is a devastating critique of well-meaning charity,
            and a warning we all need to hear:
                        that we need to be sure
                                    that when we think we’re helping,
                                    we actually are making things better and not worse.

I was at a West London Citizens leadership team meeting this week,
            and we were talking about the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

As a church, we’re in the same Citizens UK district as Grenfell,
            and the local residents association there is one of our member institutions.
So I was sat with some of those who went down on the first day,
            to help organise the local community response.

In the midst of the stories of horror,
            there were amazing stories of love, compassion, and generosity.
But there were also stories of people turning up with unsolicited vans of perishable food,
            which could not be distributed and which was only going to go off.
And when they were thanked, but asked to please take it away again,
            some of those people then started getting abusive
                        towards those co-ordinating the response,
            because their charity wasn’t being received in the way they had anticipated.

And it made me wonder – for whose benefit do we give?
            For the benefit of the person in need,
                        or for our own benefit?

A couple of weeks ago, our Regional Team Leader Phil Barnard
            was preaching for our church anniversary Sunday.
And he quoted someone from one of the churches
            in the locality of Grenfell Tower as saying,
            ‘We believe in a gospel of transformation not benevolence’.

The gospel of transformation in Christ
            is not about doing things ‘to’ people, or even ‘for’ people.
It is about doing things ‘with’ people.
            It is about equalising power and wealth and status,
                        by raising up the poor and vulnerable,
            and enabling them to begin to do for themselves
                        what we might otherwise to do for them

Robert Lupton again:
‘We mean well, our motives are good, but we have neglected to conduct
            care-full due diligence to determine emotional, economic,
            and cultural outcomes on the receiving end of our charity.
Why do we miss this crucial aspect in evaluating our charitable work?
Because, as compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity
            by the rewards we receive through service,
            rather than the benefits received by the served.’[5]

Now please don’t hear me wrong here:
            I do not believe that charitable giving is wrong, or pointless.
And I don’t believe that having money is wrong.
            Money is not the root of all evil.
However, as Paul says in his letter to Timothy,
            ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’.

And those of us who want to hold lightly to our wealth and possessions,
            and to do good with that which we have,
will have to also hold lightly to our own emotional sense of satisfaction,
            that such good does.

It might feel better to give to the person sitting on the street and begging,
            than to gift-aid money so the church can pay its bills,
but as we have seen, not only is it true that if there is no building, and no staff,
            then the poor and vulnerable cannot come through the door to find transformation;
it is also true that our emotionally-motivated giving may do more harm than good.

Robert Lupton suggests an Oath for Compassionate Service:

·        Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
·        Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
·        Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
·        Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
·        Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
·        Above all, do no harm.[6]

And we’re back to Paul’s letter to Timothy again:

He tells the rich and the powerful to
            ‘pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness,
            and to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.’ (6.11,18)

And as a church with money, and as people with resources,
            we need to be sure that in our doing good, in our good works,
                        in our generosity and our sharing,
            we are actually bringing the gospel of Christ into being
                        in the lives of those we want to help.

We might not be able to win them all,
            but we can make sure that we win some,
            and that we do this well.

I’d like to close with an introduction to a topic
            which I hope will be something that you will be hearing more of
            over the coming months.

About twenty years ago, I came across a Christian-run charity in Bristol
            called the Bristol Debt Advice Centre.
It was set up by a man called Martin, who became a friend of mine.
            He is actually the son of Bernard Green,
                        a former General Secretary of the Baptist Union
                        and someone who would have visited this church often over the years.

Anyway, Bristol Debt Advice Centre did exactly what it said on the tin,
            it provided advice for people trapped by the spirals of debt.
And I remember thinking to myself,
            that one day I’d love to be part of a church that helped people
            escape the tyranny of financial indebtedness.

Well, twenty years on, the problem hasn’t gone away.
            and the latest figures for UK personal debt are more depressing than ever:

·        People in the UK owed £1.532 trillion at the end of April 2017. ...
·        The average total debt per household – including mortgages – was £56,750 in April.
·        According to the Office for Budget Responsibility's March 2017 forecast, household debt is predicted to reach £2.322 trillion in Q1 2022.

If we want to help the homeless,
            one of the things we can do is help people not become homeless.

The causes of homelessness are famously complex,
            and include relationship breakdown,
            poor mental health,
            and financial crisis.

So, I’m starting to wonder, what would it look like for a church to begin to address these?

We can talk about supporting relationships and mental healthcare another time,
            but what about money?

Let’s find out…

[2] p.1
[3] p.3
[4] p.4
[5] p.5
[6] pp.8-9

No comments: