[What follows is a transcript of a lecture I presented at a course a friend of mine is teaching to Christian Social Service workers in Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission (YSM) — one of the most respected and oldest Christian charities engaging homeless and street-involved folks in that city (and also a former employer of mine). It was interesting that, immediately prior to me delivering this lecture, the President of GM Canada spoke in the room next door to a group of homeless and street-involved teens. He presented a tale of how he worked his way up from nothing and spoke about North America as the land of the free. In such a free space, all that limits what a person can be (according to this fellow’s talk) is how hard a person is willing to work and what choices they make. He spoke about how he chose to be a businessman because he knew they were important people who could do a lot of good things. Basically, what he presented was the ideology of freedom, choice, and capitalism-with-a-human-face… thereby providing a perfect illustration of the sort of things I criticize in my own presentation. I would love feedback from any who take the time to read this (sadly, I didn’t find the time to make this as tight, polished and as well-argued at points, as I wanted it to be), as I will be revising this lecture for a course I’m helping to teach next summer.]
The Poverty Industry and the Early Assemblies of Jesus-Followers: Seven Provocative Contrasts
Introduction: Questioning the Relationship of “Charity” to “Justice”
In what follows, I intend to employ the New Testament and some elements of the Christian traditions in order to complicate the simple one-to-one relationship that we often assume exists between “charity” and “justice.” Although a good many Christians who work in charitable organizations are drawn to that work because they are inspired by a commitment to the biblical vision of justice, it is often the case that those charitable organizations – Christian or otherwise – are actually actively involved in further perpetuating and entrenching injustice, exploitation and oppression. Consequently, those who are committed to justice, inadvertently end up being the instruments of injustice; or, to slightly change the language: those who wish to give life, end up becoming death-dealing.
Stated more succinctly, I intend to make you question the work that you do and I want you to wonder what, exactly, that work has to do with (a) giving life to others and (b) following Jesus. In order to go about doing this, I will contrast some of the characteristics of charity, as it is practiced today, with some of the characteristics of the ministry of Jesus.
Before doing that, however, I feel that I should make one remark about the language I employ. In general, I tend to avoid using the word “justice” in conversations like these. I include it here at the outset, because I understand that it is an important theme in this course. However, I prefer not to speak in that terminology because I find that it is the sort of language that is popular amongst people who like to talk a lot and who confuse that talk for concrete action. People seem to think they are more “just” because they talk about “justice” or think about “justice” and so sometimes it is necessary to change the terms of the discussion. Similarly, many people have strange ideas about what constitutes “justice.” Some Conservative Christians, for example, think that sweat shop labour in the two-thirds world is a “just” way of developing other economies and a “just” alternative to selling one’s self into the sex trade or some such thing. Others think that we are fighting a “just” war against terror or in Afghanistan or, for that matter, against the people of Haiti, Palestine, and Libya.
Therefore, instead of speaking in these terms, I prefer to speak in terms of Life and Death. As followers of Jesus and as those who worship the God who called Jesus his Beloved I believe that we are called to bear witness to and participate in the (new) creation of a world wherein abundant life is available to all and is not simply hoarded by the few at the expense of the many. Therefore, this calls us to two related activities: we are to build and participate within that which is life-giving, and we are to resist, subvert, and destroy that which is death-dealing. This is what is required by not only the biblical vision of “justice” but by the more fundamental biblical vision of what it means to be children of God, and, at an even more basic level, of what it means to be human.
I believe that all of our actions can and should be filtered through these questions: is this action life-giving or is it death-dealing? Is it both or neither? In what ways? How do I know this? Because, after all, we often think something is life-giving when, in fact, it is death-dealing. We all have blind-spots and we all inherit ideologies and cultural or religious paradigms that make it difficult for us to evaluate our own actions. This, I think, is especially true when it comes to the ways in which we understand charity today, and so I wish to highlight some of the ways in which charity falls into the realm of that which is death-dealing, in contrast to the life-giving actions of the community that assembled around Jesus. This will be done with a series of seven contrasts.
Charity is hierarchical and flows from the top down and this structure and location ensures its impotence.
Jesus was rooted in an non-hierarchical community of poor people who pursued change from the bottom up and this structure and location ensure the possibility of creating life-giving change.
Initially this contrast seems like it may not be as significant as it is in terms of participating in that which is life-giving or contributing to that which is death-dealing. However, several important contrasts follow from it. At this point, this difference of socioeconomic locations and their concomitant trajectories for change – from the top down or from the bottom up – should be observed and questioned.
Beginning with charity – by which I mean the sort of things done by agencies like The Gateway or the Yonge Street Mission – a very clear hierarchy is in place. It is an hierarchy that both mimics and overlaps with the general hierarchical structure of our society.
The most obvious way to see this is to raise questions related to money, access to information, and power to effect changes within an agency. Who gets paid what? Who knows what? Who can do what? The answers to these questions reveal how power is distributed and where it is concentrated, regardless of the rhetoric that social services love to employ about how everybody is valued equally. If that was the case, everybody would be paid the same, would have equal access to information, and would have the same ability to effect change within the agency. The same, of course, applies to any Christian talk about “servant leadership” or “kingdom values” or whatever else. When is the last time you knew a “servant leader” who was paid less than his or her staff members and clients? When is the last time you knew a “servant leader” who scrubbed the toilets of the shelter or the drop-in or the office?
So, when we look at matters of money, access to information, and power to effect changes, what we see in charity is the same kind of hierarchy that is found in businesses or governments or other institutions. In this regard, it is instructive to compare, for example, four levels of people within an agency. How much do clients get paid to be there? How much does the janitorial staff get paid? How much do front-line workers get paid? How much does the Executive Director get paid?
You probably don’t even know the answers to those questions, because people at the bottom aren’t supposed to know what everybody else makes, which ties into my second point. How much information about the details of the internal workings of the charity can clients, janitors, front-line workers, and the Executive Director access?
Thirdly, How much power do clients, janitors, front-line workers, and the Executive Director have to change things within the charity?
All three of these areas demonstrate a clearly demarcated hierarchy operating within Christian charities and replicating the established hierarchical models of our society.
Another example of this mimicry, is that those in the higher positions tend to also come from a better socioeconomic backgrounds than those in the lower positions and they also tend to have more education. The professionalization of charitable work has spread rapidly over the last few decades. On the one hand, this ensures that front-line workers now almost all come from a different class background than the clients served – thereby further removing the charity from the actual community it claims to serve and thereby also ensuring that front-line staff are likely more deeply rooted within the dominant values of society; on the other hand, it ensures that those in management probably received most of their education in business – thereby ensuring that the values and class background of the management will be even further removed from the clients than those of the front-line staff. Essentially, management tends to be very well meaning people who are so far removed from the realities of street-life and what might be life-giving for marginalized people, that they often end up doing more harm than good (for more on this topic, I strongly recommend a collection of essays entitled, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence).
It is interesting to note that this hierarchical structure is so deeply ingrained within Christian charities. Moving within this sort of environment, one is taught to simply assume that the way things are requires that some people be paid a lot more than other people, some people be told a lot more than other people, and some people be granted the ability to effect far more changes than other people. Even though a good many Christian charities claim they want to help others and overcome certain divides, they still replicate and take for granted a good many of the core divisions of our society between, for example, a wealthy and powerful few and a poor and powerless many.
That this is simply taken for granted is well illustrated by Greg Paul’s book, The Twenty Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other. Greg, as I’m sure you all know, wrote that book as the Director of Sanctuary, and I think it functions as a bit of middle-class apologetics: it seems to be Greg’s way of making peace with his comfortable lifestyle while being surrounded by poor folks. So, Greg notes how we are all broken people and how poor people seem to be able to positively impact the brokenness of rich people and vice versa. Thus, he writes that “the poor” and “the rich” need each other. The unwritten assumption behind this is that there then actually needs to be poor and rich people. I wish Greg had written a book asking why there are poor and rich people in the first place and why couldn’t we do something about creating a space within this world where there is neither poverty nor riches but enough for everybody? That, in my mind, is more in keeping with the biblical vision of how we are to structure our lives together.
That said, despite the professionalization of social work, despite the good intentions of everybody involved, despite the establishment of hierarchies intended to empower the appropriate individuals, and despite the abundance of charities that exist today, we don’t seem to be making much of a difference. The elite few continue to become more and more rich. The poor many continue to grow and become more poor. Every year, the number of homeless people is higher than the last. More people are accessing the food bank all the time. More people are living one pay cheque away from losing their home. Charity seems to be fairly incapable of accomplishing anything significant – other then, of course, providing people like you and I with an ever growing job market and a bit more financial security. Some would say the answer to the problem of charity’s impotence is to gain more elite connections, bring in more money, and become more professional. However, I would like to suggest that charity’s impotence is, in part, actually produced because of (and not despite) the elite connections, the money made, and the professionals involved.
With that in mind, we should look at the location and structure of the movement that coalesced around Jesus. To begin with, it should be noted that there were similar hierarchical charitable structures in place in Jesus’ day. The system of patronage and benefaction – wherein the wealthy helped care for the less fortunate or gave public gifts to entire cities – was well-established throughout the first-century Mediterranean world. In return for doing this, the wealthy and powerful could expect loyalty and service from their clients, as well as reverence and honour, in both private and public affairs. Thus, those who often plundered entire cities, were publicly praised as morally superior to others. The wealthy and powerful hoarded not only goods but also goodness. That said, apart from public works like aqueducts and water fountains, this form of charity was one that was almost exclusively exercised towards the “deserving” poor and excluding those who were considered “undeserving.”
It is interesting to note that the early Jesus movement thoroughly rejects participating in this patronage system in order to create an alternative way of structuring life together. Thus, for example, Jesus urges people to give without thought of return (Lk 6.34-36) – a form of sharing that totally contradicts the workings of patronage – past or present. Furthermore, Jesus’ appeal to a Jubilee basis for ethics and economics, and especially a release from monetary debts (Lk 4.18-19; 11.4) also counters any form of charity as it was practiced then. This is not charity, it is economic redistribution on behalf of those in need (cf. Joel Green’s NICNT commentary on Luke; and also Bruce W. Longenecker’s book, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World).
Therefore, rather than participating in the accepted hierarchical practices of care that existed in his society, Jesus chose to participate in the creation of an egalitarian community that partook in lived solidarity with poor people.
First, in order to highlight this lived solidarity, we must observe that Jesus did not interact with poor and marginalized people from a distance. He, himself, was poor and marginalized. Thus, he states in Lk 9.58: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus did not work with others, he was, himself, the other with whom we work. The same goes for the community that gathered around him. In his company, we see prostitutes washing his feet with their tears and their hair. We also see terrorists like Simon alongside of rats or scabs like Matthew, alongside of poor day labourers, like Peter and John. We see the untouchables and the sick welcomed as touchable and healthy. We see the sinners and the damned welcomed as forgiven and saved. All in all, an outsider would probably describe this as a community of fuck-ups, misfits, criminals, and idiots. Not exactly the sort of company I find on staff in charities. Yet these were the friends, family, companions, and lovers of Jesus. They were not his clients.
Secondly, this was a non-hierarchical community. Although some of those in the community constantly competed to be viewed as more prestigious than others – as when James and John wanted to sit at his right and left (Mt 20.20-28) – Jesus was adamant that all members of the community were to strive to serve others as their slaves, and honour others more than themselves, even if that meant doing humiliating and shameful things like washing a person’s feet (cf. Jn 13.1-17).
By structuring life together in this way, those who had been marginalized in society received positions of prominence alongside of everybody else. For example, we see that women play a prominent role in the early Jesus movement. Not only are women leaders but often women actually are honoured more highly than men. At the cross, only the women remain close to Jesus. Not surprisingly, then, when Jesus first rises from the dead, it is women who are privileged to receive the message of this event. It is they who first act as apostles and preach the good news to what remains of the twelve and the rest of those in the movement. This is why Jesus said that a person must become a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of God (Mt 19.12) – he did not mean that men had to give up their balls; he meant that men needed to give up the authority that their culture granted them and relate to women as equals.
Of course, speaking of leaders – women or otherwise – may seem antithetical to the idea of a non-hierarchical community so it is important to emphasize that the form of leadership practiced in the early Jesus movement was not institutionalized and it was not restricted to certain people or certain classes. To borrow the language of Max Weber, it is what sociologists call “charismatic leadership.” These are people who function in leadership roles because something about what they say or do resonates powerfully with the rest of the community. Thus, their leadership is strictly dependent upon communal approval of their words and actions. This is why Paul, in his letters and despite all of his claims about himself and his role, is constantly pleading to be heard. He only has authority because the community chooses to give him authority and this authority can be revoked at any time. If leaders actually represented the community, they were accepted, if they ceased to represent the community, they lost all authority. Not surprisingly, then, the folks who tended to become approved as “leaders” within the local assemblies of Jesus-followers, tended to be those who served the assemblies the most. Were one to compose a contemporary list of “leaders” like those mentioned in Paul’s letters, we would probably be best served by listing our janitors, not our Directors or Board Members.
Furthermore, the wealthy and powerful, the moral guides of society, the well-educated, or those who orchestrated the more institutional forms of charity – the professionals – are markedly absent from the early Jesus movement. This did not mean that Jesus did not receive assistance from time to time from some wealthy donors, like the women mentioned in Lk 8.2-3, and other peasant households that hosted him (cf. Mk 3.32; Lk 9.4; 10.38). What it does mean is that any who supported the movement in this way would not receive anything in return (as in Lk 14.12-14). Given this, and given that no ancient patron supported the abjectly poor but only made “sensible investments,” providing wealth and goods to the Jesus movement would actually bring dishonour and shame upon any donor, as well as causing them a loss of some of their own wealth. Such an action would also be considered a way of shaming those higher in the hierarchy of power, who would expect wealth and goods to moved in their direction. Essentially, giving to Jesus and his group would be seen as giving the finger to the powerful, and this was bound to have negative repercussions upon any who supported Jesus. It would draw them into their own process of downward mobility. So, any outside giving was performed as a totally wasted investment, that shamed the givers, caused them to lose both money and status and jeopardized their own relationships with other folks who had power and wealth. Note how dramatically different this is from what happens to those who support our charities! We shall see why this is the cause in a moment.
For now, what we see with Jesus is a non-hierarchical movement that exists in lived solidarity with folks who are poor and uneducated. Markedly absent are any professional caregivers and any who do support the movement with wealth or goods suffer a great deal for doing so. However, perhaps this is part of the reason why the early Jesus movement succeeded in many ways where our own efforts have failed. We shall see.
Charity may be life-giving for certain “compliant” individuals, but it is often death-dealing not only to “non-compliant” individuals but at the structural level where charities become complicit with the Death-dealing Powers of our day.
Jesus was life-giving both at the individual level – regardless of issues of “compliance” – and at the structural level, where he actively resisted the Death-dealing Powers of his day.
There are two issues raised here: one at the personal level, the other at the structural level. Both impact the claims that charities make about the ways in which they do good or participate in that which is life-giving. This cuts to the core of the response that one gets whenever one criticizes something like charity or philanthropy (i.e. “the non-profit industrial complex” and “the poverty industry”).
Basically, whenever you criticize a charity you are always met with objections about all the good they do, all the success stories they have to offer, the stats that they parade before donors, and so on and so forth. Therefore, from the get-go I want to be clear: I do believe that charities make a significant and positive difference in the lives of some individuals. Some people have had their lives saved and transformed in incredible and beautiful ways due to the encounters they had in and with charitable institutions. I don’t wish to deny any of this. However, I do wish to suggest that (a) on the personal level, there are many more people who are in need of companionship and assistance who are abandoned even by charities and (b) on the structural level, charities actually participate in that which is death-dealing and thereby may actually harm more people than they help.
Beginning with the personal level, this goes back to the earlier remarks about the ways in which the wealthy and powerful create a distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. In social services this tends to be abhorred, yet people persist in talking about clients who are “compliant” or “non-compliant” and “resistant.” Lest you think that this is a point of criticism that does not apply to you because you are interacting as Christians with people “at street level” stop to consider the people who have been barred from accessing your services. For you, as far as I can tell, the deserving poor are those who are sober, those who are not violent, and those who are both willing and able to follow certain rules. Those who do not match these criteria are “undeserving” – because, as far as I can tell there is no difference between telling a person she cannot access your service and telling a person she does not deserve to access your service. After all, if she deserves access, then you are enacting an injustice if you refuse her that access!
Unfortunately, it is precisely these “non-compliant” people who are often the most vulnerable members of the street-involved population. By barring these people from our services because they refuse to comply with our standards, we are often abandoning them to Death. Some would see this as inevitable, as a part of being in the “real world,” but we should still recognize that this is what we are doing. I would like to see an agency that tracks the statistics on this: John Doe; barred Sept 1, 2009; jailed Oct 15, 2009; died July 2, 2010. How do those numbers compare with the number of people we have helped to find housing?
However, moving beyond the individual level to the structural level, I want to highlight the ways in which the networks of relationships that charities develop cause charities to become complicit with the Powers-that-be in perpetuating things like poverty, oppression and exploitation. Here, it is worth beginning by looking at the very top of the hierarchy of any charity—the Board of Directors.
Generally, the Board is composed of elite members of society who possess close connections to business, politics, and broad donor bases, like church denominations. It’s always a very educational experience to learn who is on the Board of Directors of the agency where you work. When I studied this at my last work place, I found out the Chair was a CEO of a pharmaceutical company, who had been stacking the Board with his peers. Significantly, he began right around that same time that this agency began to develop a very influential “mental health team” and since then we have seen an explosion of the prescription of pharmaceutical medications to our residents. Another member of this Board was involved at City Hall in a campaign that successfully worked to criminalize poverty and homelessness. One of the objectives of this campaign was to aggressively attack panhandlers. Not surprisingly, my work place decided to support this campaign by discharging any kids seen panhandling and by refusing them shelter for a week. This same Board member had previously been instrumental in making it more difficult for teens to access welfare and had also disbanded the BC Human Rights Commission. Another Board member was a cop who wanted harsher sentences for misdemeanors and petty crimes, and a fourth fellow was a real estate developer who was pushing hard to get homeless people out of downtown in order gentrify the neighbourhoods there. All of these people were on the Board of the largest shelter and transitional living program for homeless and street-involved youth in Vancouver. They were the ones dictating the trajectory of the agency and they determined what issues the agency would speak about and what issues they would ignore. Not surprisingly, the agency never took a stand against the gentrification of the downtown eastside. Not surprisingly, they were also vocal supporters of the Olympics because VANOC gave them money and helped us them a prestigious award, even though the Olympics were also used to steal real estate from poor people, criminalize homelessness, and cut the funding for a number of affordable housing projects as well as other social services like health care and public education.
I also did a bit of research on the Board of Directors at YSM. Turns out that the Chair has a history working with natural gas and mining companies (Direct Energy and Robotic Mining Inc), as well as companies that were in the arms industry selling defense technologies to armies around the world. Here’s a quote from that last company’s website, which is called “Mission Ready” and features a Header that is a picture of soldiers, tanks, and other war machines:
We collaborate with the world’s best and largest defense companies to deliver equipment that meets or exceeds mission requirements. We support militaries with fully integrated systems, new-builds, resets and modernizations as well as pre-positioning, in-theater logistics and depot services. Through our Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc. and Federal Manufacturing & Technologies businesses, Honeywell also provides specialized services and capabilities for U.S. defense and space programs.1
Thus, the person at the very top of the hierarchy at YSM is a fellow who has profited from some of the most rapacious industries in the world. Not surprisingly, most of the rest of the board is composed of other representatives from big business or government. To pick just three other examples, there is a trader and investor who runs a consulting team called “Wealth-By-Design” which assists “affluent investors” to overcome the “significant financial challenges” they face, while helping them to protect, preserve, and grow their wealth.2 I wonder how much he understands about structures of poverty. Or, there is also a Director at KPMG LLP, which is a company that, amongst other things, specializes in helping corporations outsource and offshore labour money – one of the corporate practices that is most responsible for producing poverty here. Or, there is another fellow, who is an executive with the Royal Bank of Canada. Of course, RBC is heavily invested in such projects as the Alberta Tar Sands, was also very involved in profiting from the Iraq war and, to go back just a bit further in their history, made massive amounts of money investing in the Greater Nile Oil Project and sponsoring genocide in the Sudan. Where there is money to be made, RBC is there, regardless of how many people die in order for the bank to profit. Yet these are the people responsible for establishing the trajectory of YSM and ensuring that the Executive Director is doing what is best for the folks whom you serve.
I’m not just picking on YSM here. I suspect you will find the same characters on any of your Boards. I also looked into the national Board for the Salvation Army and it has an appalling number of mining executives – from one of Canada’s biggest and most-dealing industries – not to mention bankers and others who specialize in outsourcing and offshoring corporate accounts.
Beyond the Board of Directors, there are also the outside connections that charities foster in order to survive and grow as agencies. Charities rely upon building connections with people with access to wealth and power. This means courting corporations, various levels of government, representatives of other large conglomerations of people, and wealthy individuals. Essentially, this means building connections with the elite members of society.
As we all know, this comes with strings attached. It is easy to see how this is the case with government but we need to remember that strings are also attached to corporate money. If the Royal Bank of Canada cuts you a cheque for $500,000 you better not speak against the money they have invested in the tar sands or in other destructive or warmongering endeavors. The same applies to wealthy individuals. When a philanthro-capitalist comes to you and offers you money, by accepting that money, you are boosting the brand status of that individual, regardless of how he or she gained, keeps, and grows that wealth. Essentially, by playing this game, we participate in a system that permits the wealthy and powerful to hoarde not only goods but also goodness. I have yet to meet a charity that was willing to speak publicly and critically of any corporate donor or, for that matter, of any of the corporations operated by their Board members. I was nearly fired for doing this at my last work place, even though I was not claiming to speak as a representative of the agency. Speaking this way also prevented me from receiving promotions at work. So, be warned: if you criticize the powerful, you may never make it beyond front-line work.
In this way, despite the good work they do with individuals, charities end up participating in the broader structures of Death in our society. We partner with bankers, with politicians, with energy giants, with real estate developers and, apparently, with arms dealers, and in doing so we affirm their work, we praise them as honourable and moral people and we surrender our voice to speak critically in any meaningful way about the ills of our society – instead we talk about how the rich and poor need each other. Thus, while we may positively impact the lives of some people on the personal level, we negatively impact a great many more people on the structural level.
Therefore, it is interesting to observe that the early Jesus movement takse a very different approach to these things, both on the personal and structural levels. I’m sure I don’t need to say much about how Jesus disregarded social standards about compliance and who deserved what but, basically, Jesus welcomed all into the community that gathered around him. Those whom others rejected on moral grounds – the prostitutes and sinners – were welcomed. Those whom others rejected on the base of legal health codes – the lepers and the untouchables – were welcomed. Those whom others rejected on political and ideological grounds – the tax collectors and the zealots, to pick the extremes of the traitors and the revolutionaries – were welcomed. Actually, the only people who seemed to have a hard time joining up with the community around Jesus were not any members of the poor and oppressed, they were people like you and I. Those living a comfortable distance above the subsistence level. Those who had an education. Those who were considered religious leaders. All the poor were welcomed and all were considered deserving, simply because they were poor. Hence Jesus’ well known summary of his mission in Lk 4.18-19:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Poor people are deserving because they are poor. That is the sole criterion upon which they are welcomed into the community which gathered around Jesus. The addition of any other criteria to that one is opposed to the Way of Jesus Christ and, as far as I can tell, is out of line with the character of the God whom Jesus worshiped. It is also this criterion that should make us stop and ask ourselves what makes us think we are so deserving of the life that we have. More on that later.
For now, we should also observe that Jesus refused to become complicit with the death-dealing structures of his day. I will spell this out in more detail in the third and fourth contrasts. For now, let us note that one of the reasons that Jesus did not become complicit with these structures is because the representatives of those structures expelled him from the get-go and, rather than trying to bring him back into the fold, they quickly tried to find ways to kill him. Thus, immediately after Jesus’ mission statement in Lk 4.18-19, we see the community at Nazareth, from Jesus’ family to the religious and political leaders, gather together to to expel him from their midst. This was a public shaming episode and Jesus is lucky to have escaped with his life given that the community was simply following through on the injunction in Deut 21.18-21 that prescribed the execution of rebellious sons (all this, as well as what follows in this paragraph, is well explained in Chapter Two of Rick F. Talbott’s book, Jesus, Paul, and Power). In fact, given that his own family was just barely getting by at the subsistence level – constantly scrambling to gather enough food for the present day – and given that this was true of most at Nazareth, Jesus’ call to care for the poor outside of one’s kinship group and his decision to also go to outsiders at Capernaum with this message, actually jeopardized the well-being of his whole family, shamed his father, and jeopardized the honour and survival of the broader community at Nazareth. That Jesus then went on to call sons away from fathers (the established authority) and that the loss of these sons meant the families left behind may not be able to escape abject poverty means that those at Nazareth in Lk 4 are not wrong to see Jesus as a rebellious son. He has gone outside of the established structures and begun to act in ways that threaten those very structures.
Charity helps people fit into the death-dealing status quo.
Rather than helping people to fit into the status quo that had rejected them, Jesus helped to establish any alternative assembly or “kingdom” that was more life-giving.
Not only does charity mimic oppressive hierarchical structures, and join the Powers in participating in death-dealing ways of structuring our life together, it also exists in order to make non-productive social drop-outs and misfits reconnect with and fit into the death-dealing status quo. Note what this does: on the one hand, it takes people who are not making any money for the Powers-that-be, people who aren’t paying taxes, who aren’t making any significant purchases and who can’t build up good credit, and it turns them into people who are profitable for the Powers: they pay taxes, build up their credit, buy a home or start a business and so on. Thus, charitable staff members who are well-meaning people with infinite patience and nothing but good intentions, do the hard work of building relationships with the drop-outs—not in order to create a society that is more life-giving in any “big picture way,” but to help others to find life by learning how to properly participate in a system that is death-dealing. Of course, as we noted a minute ago, this requires a certain degree of compliance and submission from clients, but this is the pay-off for complying. If you learn to submit and play along, you can live comfortably. Sure, you may need to leave your friends behind, but isn’t that one of the first things we tell people who are street-involved? “You gotta abandon your loved ones if you’re gonna get ahead. Sorry if that’s hard to take, Sister, but you gotta do what’s best for you. You can’t help anybody, if you won’t help yourself.. so, really, the best way to help your friends is to abandon them entirely. You don’t need those friends. You need good credit, a job, and a house. You don’t need to be loved. You need to be sober. There’s a lot more money in it for you.”
On the other hand, charity also takes people who should be the most equipped to resist the death-dealing status quo – those who are not invested in it, those who are not profiting from it, those who have suffered under it and have learned to view it both more critically and more honestly – and defuses their revolutionary potential. I remember that I was first alerted to this way of thinking when talking with a friend from El Salvador who, amongst other things, had attended the funeral of Oscar Romero. He said to me that the Welfare system is a way of paying poor people to remain poor. If there was no welfare system the people would starve and so they would riot, stores would be looted, cities would burn, and people would die. Thus, the government spends just enough money to keep people poor, while constantly threatening to take that little bit of money away from them, thereby keeping them in a state of fearful obedience. Something of the same trajectory of thought applies to charity. Charity introduces those who are not invested in the system to good-hearted, lovely people who believe in them, and help them to get invested back into the system. Thus, charity helps to serve and protect the death-dealing way things are, instead of helping to make a space for something new and more life-giving.
It is important to recognize that this doesn’t just happen at the level of clients – it also occurs at the level of staff. I’m sure that everybody here is here because they wanted to participate in that which is life-giving and change the world for the better. I would be shocked if anybody was here because he or she wanted to prevent that change from happening. However, unless we are properly informed and exercise the proper amount of analysis and caution, there is every chance that our best efforts will be co-opted and placed in the service of the Powers-that-be. In this regard, is useful to refer to Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “active” versus the “passive” revolution. According to Gramsci the “active revolution” is much along the lines of what we think of when we imagine the French, American, Haitian, Cuban or Iranian revolutions today. The “passive revolution” is when those who benefit from the death-dealing status quo create systems and structures which make space for those who wish to bring about a more radical change, while also ensuring that those spaces co-opt the energy of those people, and ensure that the change that is produced is one that meets the interests of the ruling classes.
Gramsci, a prisoner in Italy at the time, took the Mussolini regime to be an example of the passive revolution, but I believe that charitable institutions today are one of the primary means by which the active revolution is made passive. People who work in such agencies are generally people who wish to make a difference, people who are aware that all is not as well as it could be, and people who are more critical of the way things operate. Consequently, social service agencies co-opt the energy and actions of these people in order to ensure that the status quo continues on unabated, and in order to ensure that those with wealth and power continue to possess and gain even more wealth and power. The fact of the matter is that we all exhaust ourselves helping people find jobs or acquire lifeskills, exhaust ourselves acting as advocates in court or with landlords, exhaust ourselves lobbying politicians, exhaust ourselves building relationships with funders, and all of this is work that is done within the death-dealing status quo. None of it challenges that status quo and after all is said and done, who has the time or energy to try and pursue some sort of life-giving alternative. I’m way too tired after work to go and stay in a tent in St. James Park with a bunch of ding-dongs. It’s cold outside and I’ve got things I need to do before I go to sleep and get up for another work day tomorrow.
This points to another contrast between charitable practices and the Way of Jesus Christ. It could be developed on its own, but I will only mention it briefly here, for the sake of time:
Performing charity is (relatively) easy and profitable, and raises the status of those who participate. If engaged properly, it produces a good career, a stable retirement, a certain amount of prestige, and an honourable life amongst its committed followers. This is the way of passive revolution. There are benefits for those who choose to engage in this way.
Following the Way of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is (relatively) difficult, costly, and lowers the status of those who participate. If engaged properly, it produces failures, no security for the future, and shame paired with abandonment, imprisonment and execution amongst its committed followers. This is the way of active revolution. Not a lot of benefits to be had here.
Thus in all three of these facets – by transforming non-contributing members into productive citizens, by defusing the potentially revolutionary anger of some, while also ensuring that any revolutionary work done within the agencies is always passive – charity helps people, from clients to workers, to fit into the death-dealing status quo.
All of this is quite different than what Jesus did. Rather than slotting people back into the death-dealing status quo of his day, Jesus created an alternative society which sought to structure itself in a way that was more life-giving. Jesus did not help the lepers to find their place within society as it was, he did not help sex workers learn the job skills they needed in order to transition to another profession, he did not tell the poor that they just needed to work harder and act more virtuously to get ahead. No, Jesus welcomed the lepers as lepers, the sex workers as sex workers and the poor and the sinners as the poor and as sinners – and when they ran out of booze at their parties, he provided more (cf. Jn.2.1-11). He invited the folks who were most able to be critical of the status quo and the folks with the most potential to act against it, and, instead of defusing that energetic possibility, he utilized that energy to create an alternative, which he described as the “kingdom of God.”
Here we should observe the ways in which this led to the sharing of resources and a disregard for money. Note how this differs from the ways in which contemporary charity depends upon money provided by outsiders – by people who generally are not directly involved in the community of work as either staff or clients. We are desperate for money, not only for today but in order to meet our financial goals for this quarter and this fiscal year. Jesus, on the other hand, disparaged money and encouraged folks to share what they already had with one another so that everybody had enough (cf. Mt 6.19-34). This is the true miracle in the feeding of the 5000 (cf. Mt 14.13-21/Mk 6.31-44/Lk 9.10-17/Jn 6.5-15; similarly, Mk 8.1-9/Mt 15.32-39). When a crowd of hungry people gathered, some folks were bound to have food but would not want to share it with others because they knew what they had was not enough for everybody. However, when a young boy shames them all by offering his loaves and fishes, suddenly others share what they have and there is more than enough for everybody.
By establishing practices like these, the early movement that gathered around Jesus was not dependent upon outsiders who wanted to co-opt them, buy them out, and set their agenda. The movement became self-sufficient.
This becomes clear when one reads of the subsequent structure of the community as it is described in Acts 2.44-47 and Acts 4.32:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need …Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
Furthermore, Paul very deliberately expanded this model of mutual care and sharing beyond Judaea and into the other territories occupied by the Roman Empire. We see this in his sustained effort to develop a collection on behalf of the poor in Jerusalem. This is actually one of the most important efforts undertaken by Paul – we see him referring to it in numerous letters (Gal 2.10, 1 Cor 16.1-4, 2 Cor 8.1-9.15, and Ro 15.25-32), covering almost the entire span of his public work as an Apostle. Hence, it obviously holds great significance for him. What this is, is a collection of money raised by poor people in one part of the Empire – those who had momentarily made enough to be slightly above the subsistence level – on behalf of poor people in another part of the Empire – those who had momentarily fallen below the subsistence level (generally due to some sort of natural disaster). Thus, we see Paul taking what Jesus began on a local level and taking it to the transnational level. What begins as a single community that provided enough to cover the needs of everybody involved, turns into a transnational network of communities capable of meeting the needs of each other.
By meeting the needs of one another, this network of communities is able to maintain its distance from the status quo. Because they do not rely upon funding from the wealthy and powerful who are invested in that status quo and who would inevitably shift the trajectory of the movement if they were asked to support it, this movement is able to establish itself as a genuine and more life-giving alternative to the way things are. In fact, when others with greater levels of wealth and power tried to at as patrons to the movement, in part, to begin making the movement more like the status quo, Paul rebukes those people and rejects their money – this is why he rejects money from some at Corinth while accepting money from others elsewhere. Consequently, by structuring life together in this way, people who are drop-outs remained drop-outs. People who were unproductive, remained unproductive. People who were moral blots on the landscape, remained moral blots on the landscape. Yet together they structured a way of sharing life together that was beautiful, and generous and godly.
Charity is concerned with and constricted by questions of what is legal, regardless of times when the Law is death-dealing.
Jesus was willing to break the law in the service of Life.
One of the major restrictions upon all what we do or do not do as charities, and that which establishes the rules by which everybody is supposed to play, is the Law and issues of legality. Charity is constricted by the Law and follows the Law, even when it is death-dealing. A good example of this is found in the “Streets to Homes “model that Toronto has imported from New York. I was learning about this the other night when I stayed at the Gateway. Apparently, one of the stipulations from the city is that front-line services can no longer hand out food or items like sleeping bags to people who are homeless. According to the city, this is done to try and drive people into accessing services. That is to say, it is an effort to situate people in places where they can be monitored and disciplined appropriately. Of course, it goes without saying that obeying this injunction is completely contrary to any Christian understanding of caring for the poor and homeless, but if the Gateway were to disobey the city’s orders, they would lose their funding. Therefore, from what I have been told, they follow the Law and no longer hand out food or sleeping bags during outreach or when people stop in to ask for help late at night.
Of course, the same holds true for every other law related to social services. Did a minor show up at Evergreen? Call social services. Did somebody show up needing a bed but you are already at capacity, along with every other shelter in the city? Send them back out into the night. On and on it goes: is it illegal to give out needles to prevent the spread of Hepatitis or HIV/AIDS? Don’t give out needles. Is it illegal to have a space where people can inject while being supervised to ensure that they don’t overdose? Make sure you don’t create such a space. Will you lose funding and political clout if you establish personal relationships with your clients? Make sure you stay professional. Regardless of all the ways in which these actions can be life-giving, legality trumps all else.
With that in mind, it is also important for charities to carefully distance themselves from anybody who engages in less-legal tactics in the service of Life. When an anti-poverty group sets up an illegal occupation of a building in order to try and raise the issue of rent control or gentrification, I have yet to see any well-established charity speak approvingly of that action, let alone speak approvingly of other actions like property destruction or armed blockades enacted by First Nations people. In this way, charities end up siding with Death rather than siding with Life. By not supporting these kinds of actions, charities not only deprive those actions from much needed members and support on the ground, they also make those who perform such actions appear in a negative light before the public. After all, if people who work at charities aren’t speaking on behalf of this sort of action, then it must be the action of crazy, irresponsible radicals. If the those who really understand the issues and care for poor people – people like Dion and Rick and Greg – don’t support such actions, obviously they are misguided and have bad motives. Thus, charities actively enforce the Law by constricting themselves and engaging their clients in strictly legal manners, and they passively enforce the Law when they refuse to support others who serve Life more than Law.
One such person who acted in this way was Jesus of Nazareth. We regularly see Jesus breaking the Law in order to serve Life. Take, for example the story told in Mk 3.1-6 (cf. Mt./Lk):
[Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Jesus breaks the Law by healing a man’s hand on the Sabbath. Not only does he break the Law, but he states that following the Law, going with the flow, is not a neutral option – rather, following the Law in this situation is to “do harm” and “to kill.” However, because he breaks the Law, the religious and political leaders begin to plan his execution. The Law must remain supreme and if people discover that there is Life to be found outside of the Law, who knows what might result? Anarchy? Better that such a man be sacrificed for the good of all (which, of course, is what the High Priest says prior to handing Jesus over to be killed; cf. Jn 11.50).
With Jesus, this is not an isolated episode of Law-breaking in the service of Life. Both Matthew and Luke preface this story with another about Jesus and his disciples breaking the Law by picking and eating some heads of grain on the Sabbath (cf. Mt 12.1-14/Lk 6.1-11). This was an illegal action but one that satisfied the hunger of the poor (as, we should recall, Jesus’ and his disciples were poor). And so Jesus approved of it and rebuked the authorities who would put the Law before such things.
Jesus also performed other healings on other Sabbaths. In Lk 13.10-17, we read of how he healed a crippled woman, is rebuked by the Law-abiding-and-enforcing authorities for doing so – “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” – but Jesus responds with a rebuke of his own, shaming the authorities and delighting the people. On another occasion, Jesus asks the authorities if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, but they remain silent knowing that it is not lawful but also knowing that if they say so, they will lose favour with the people, and the Law will lose credibility. So, Jesus once again rebukes them and then heals a man who was suffering from some sort of swelling (cf. Lk 14.1-6). Similarly, in John’s Gospel Jesus heals a paralyzed man and tells him to pick up his mat and walk, which he does but, by carrying his mat as Jesus suggested, he breaks the Law. Both Jesus and the healed man are reprimanded by the authorities and, once again, the violation of the Law is one that leads the authorities to plot to kill Jesus (cf. Jn 5.1-18; see also Jn 7.23 for Jesus’ ongoing rebuke of those who criticize him for breaking the Law by healing on the Sabbath). Finally, we also see Jesus encouraging this sort of behaviour in others. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus commends the Samaritan and condemns the Priest and the Levite who passed the dying man, even though the Law forbid them to defile themselves by touching him and his blood (cf. Lk 10.25-37).
The key thing to realize in all of this is that Jesus is not simply breaking some sort of private moral code, some sort of strictly religious “Law” that is only recognized by certain folks, when he acts in this way. Jesus is breaking the socio-political and civic Laws of his land. These were also religious laws, but there was no divide between religion and politics in first-century Palestine. Therefore, if we are to imagine what this sort of action might look like today, it would look like breaking the Laws that our cities and states provide us. Maybe by doing things like giving out sleeping bags and food to homeless people, regardless of what the “Streets to Homes” program says we can or cannot do. And, if you are to scared to rebuke those authorities, then lying to them might not be a bad option.
That said, Jesus’ conflict with the Law is only heightened when we look at what Jesus had to say about the legal experts – those who created and enforced the Law. Jesus describes these people as those who formulate laws that are like burdens too heavy to carry, which they then strap to the backs of others, while they themselves do not need to worry about carrying such a load (cf. Mt 23.1-4). And, really, isn’t this they way it has always been? The Law is enforced upon the poor and the vulnerable, the wealthy and powerful are able to get around it. No wonder, then, that Jesus calls these people “hypocrites,” “blind guide,” “blind fools,” and “children of hell” (Mt 23.15-17). He doesn’t stop there, but goes on to say the following:
Woe to you, [creators and enforcers of the Law,] hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous and just to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, [creators and enforces of the Law,] hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? (Mt 23.27-32).
Once again, I would suggest that these words apply not only to the creators and enforces of the Law in Jesus’ day but also to the creators and enforcers of our Laws. I was reminded of this the other day when a group of political and corporate elites gathered together to to unveil a new memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. this last August. King, of course, was dedicated to not only ending the oppression of black folks in America, he was also strongly opposed to America’s wars and was beginning to build a movement that focused upon poverty beyond racial lines. Because of this, King was killed. However, King was a powerful figure in America’s history and so those with wealth and power, who continue to wage war on people of colour, in other nations, and against the poor, have a vested interest in controlling his legacy. Therefore, just like the creators and enforcers of the Law in Jesus’ day built tombs for the prophets, decorated the graves of the righteous, and proclaim their own righteousness, today’s dealth-dealing elites lined up to honour King during the unveiling of his memorial, both as speakers and as funders. There was a string of CEOs from companies like GM, Tomy Hilfiger, Medco, GE, and Wal-Mart. All of these companies have acted and continue to act rapaciously and murderously against poor folks, especially poor folks who are not white, and have structured the Law so that they (mostly) are able to get away with doing that. Then, of course, there were politicians who came out to honour this peacemaker – people like Madeleine Albright who approved of sanction policies that lead to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five. There were also some Israeli-funders and speakers present who had vocally supported Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2009 and who are simultaneously investing millions into apartheid in Palestine (for more, cf. http://www.zcommunications.org/no-way-to-honor-dr-king-by-medea-benjamin). Whitewashed tombs, indeed. But, of course, the point is that the same critical lenses should be turned upon ourselves, not to mention our Boards or our funders. We may well be those who honour the prophets, who honour Jesus even, but who are full of dead and filthy things.
Turning back to Jesus, however, we should observe that it was his ongoing practice of illegal actions that prioritized Life over Law which led to his death. Here, we should mention that Jesus did not only participate in actions that were illegal, he also took part in actions that were violent and it was especially this that became unbearable to the authorities. To be clear: this was not a violence that Jesus practiced against other people but it was a violence that Jesus practiced and permitted to be praticed against private property, when private property conflicted with Life. There are three easy examples of this. The first is Jesus’ tacit approval of those who damaged the roof of a private home in order to have their paralyzed friend healed by him (cf. Mk 2.1-5; Lk 5.18-26). The man was paralyzed but could not get to Jesus for healing. Therefore the roof of a private home was destroyed and Jesus appeared to approve of this course of action by healing the paralyzed man.
In the second episode, Jesus played a more active role. Here, an illegal act of violence occurred during the healing of a certain demon-possessed man who lived amongst some tombs (cf. Mk 5.1-20; Mt 8.28-34; Lk 8.26-39). In this action, Jesus casts a “Legion” of demons into a herd of about two thousand pigs. These pigs rush into a lake and are drowned. This prompts the locals to plead with Jesus to depart from their region. This response is a bit puzzling until one remembers that Jesus has just destroyed an expensive herd belonging to a wealthy but absent land-owner. This land-owner had entrusted his herd to the locals and would be furious at his loss. Therefore, the locals likely wanted Jesus to leave before he could do any more damage and further threaten their already precarious safety. Thus, Jesus liberates one man from his possession to this “Legion” but does so while destroying two thousand pigs and threatening the safety of many others. However, it should be noticed that this is a safety that relies upon compliance to and participation within the society as it is structured by death-dealing overlords. Thus, it is not a coincidence that the demons identify as “Legion” – the name of a Roman military unit – nor is it coincidental that the demons go into a herd of pigs, as the pig was the symbol of one of the Roman legions that destroyed Jerusalem prior to the writing of these Gospels (except for Mark, maybe). Thus, while Jesus’ actions destroyed some property, by threatening the safety of the surrounding residents, he also offered them a risky opportunity to move out of their status quo existence into a more life-giving way of sharing life together.
Finally, the most obvious example of this kind of violent law-breaking is the action Jesus takes in the Jerusalem temple (John 2.13-16; cf. Mk 11.15-17; Mt 21.12-3; Lk 11.45-46). This event is interesting because it is the closest Jesus comes to employing physical violence against others. Indeed, the reason why the buyers and sellers fled the temple was because of the perception that physical violence might be used against them. However, the texts seem to suggest that violence was only actualized against property. Here, property is not only damaged, it is probably also stolen, and violence is used to facilitate that theft (to imagine the scattered coins being left for the money changers to gather is a bit implausible).
Three points are usually overlooked here: first, although a detailed exegesis is used in order to demonstrate the likelihood that Jesus’ violence was restricted to property and not people, the point that Jesus actually does engage in an act of violence against private property is not appropriately emphasized. Second, this passage tends to be cited as the only example of Jesus engaging in a physically violent act, but this overlooks other passages like those mentioned above. Third, what Jesus does is completely illegal.
Furthermore, he did what he does did Passover. During this festival, people gathered in a city occupied by foreign imperial powers to remember a time when God set them free from foreign imperial powers. Revolts and riots often occurred around the Passover festival and so the Romans were always on high alert. It is into this context that Jesus does with he did at the Temple. It is no wonder that he predicts his own death on the way to Jerusalem (cf., for example, Mt 26.1-2). A contemporary analogy would be to go to New York on September 11th, smash the computers in the Stock Exchange, drive out the traders with some sort of weapon, while ranting about how a nation that speaks of freedom and goods for all is, in fact, a den of thieves who murder and rob others. If that doesn’t get you killed, disappeared and tortured in Guantanamo or Bagram, or simply imprisoned for life, I would be amazed. Acting that way did get Jesus killed. As a terrorist, too, which is what the banner “King of the Jews” was meant to imply. A similar act of mockery would be if the Obama administration had posted a picture of the corpse of Bin Laden with a banner reading “Freedom Fighter” tacked above his head.
Thus, in all these ways we see how Jesus’ commitment to serving Life led him to violently conflict with the Law and with the creators and enforcers of the Law. This conflict was so fierce that it ultimately led to his death. It would be hard to find an approach to serving Life that is any more different to our current model of charity than this one. We want to be able to put enough away to get our kids through school and retire comfortably. What we don’t want to do, is love people as Jesus loved them. For, as Jesus says, the entire Law and prophets hang upon the commands to love God and love our neighbours (cf. Mt 22.34-40). Therefore, anything that is death-dealing is not a Law that deserves any sort of recognition. Paul also agrees with this and asserts that love is that which is greater than the Law or, really, which is the fulfillment of anything that deserves that name (cf. Ro 13.8-10; Gal 5.14). Not only that, but he also continues Jesus’ assault upon the Law and argues that the rule-of-law has now been replaced by the rule-of-grace. Again, the important point to remember here is that Paul is talking about a Law that is just as political and social as it is religious. Paul is an advocate for the anarchic rupture of the Law – which, as he notes in Ro 7, actually prevents him from doing the good he wants to do – in order that folks can love one another in the service of the God of Life. Realizing that the Law often has little to do with justice and much to do with injustice, he proclaimed that we are “no longer under law but under grace” (Ro 6.14) for God has set people free from “the Law of Sin and of Death” (Ro 8.1-2). From this point on, all law is delegitimized. Not surprisingly, not too long after making these statements, Paul was also executed by creators and enforces of the Law of his day.
Charity requires the oppressed to reconcile with their oppressors without changing the context of oppression or pursuing just restitution for the past. Furthermore, charity blames the oppressed, requiring them to confess, repent, and even express gratitude to their oppressors, while letting the oppressors off the hook.
Jesus offers forgiveness unconditionally to the oppressed, while simultaneously addressing the context of oppression and creating the space for healing and restitution for past wounds. Furthermore, Jesus required that oppressors cease contributing to the oppression of others in order for them to be reconciled to others and to God.
Given what we have already said about the hierarchies of charity, the ways in which it participates with the Powers in perpetuating certain death-dealing social structures – including the Law – and the ways in which it is intimately linked to the status quo of our society, this point about the ways in which charities essentially blame victims while claiming to humanize them, should come as no surprise.
Essentially, charities place the onus for change upon the shoulders of those who have been oppressed. Of course, they offer folks some assistance in accomplishing that change, but, when all is said and done, it is still the oppressed who must change, not the oppressors and not the context of oppression. Not only that, but oppressed folks are expected to confess all their sins to their workers – you have to be honest with yourself and with others if you really want help – and they must then repent and rid themselves of their vices so that they can be properly assimilated into the status quo. On top of this, we expect them to be grateful to us, our donors, and whomever else, for helping them through this process. This despite the fact that we ourselves are more likely situated within the company of the oppressors. Not only because we work for institutions that are death-dealing in the ways I have already described, and not only because we pay taxes that go to funding things like war and the rape of people and lands from Haiti to Afghanistan to any number of Latin American countries, and not only because the vast amount of goods, clothes, food, electronics, and children’s toys that we possess are stained with the blood of women and children working in slavery in the two-thirds world, and not only because we rely on oil and gas and are killing the very possibility of life on earth, but also because in our own lives we hoard goods and wealth for ourselves when the Bible and the Church Fathers teach us that anything we possess that falls outside of caring for our basic needs actually belongs to those who are poor and are not having their basic needs met. Justo Gonzalez documents this in his book Faith & Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money, which I consider required reading for every Christian. Here are just three quotations from the Church Fathers illustrating this point:
First, Ambrose of Milan writes: “When you give to the poor, you give not of your own, but simply return what is his, for you have usurped that which is common and has been given for the common use of all.”
Second, Hilary of Poitier asserts: “Let no one regard anything as theirs, or as private. On the contrary, to all of us were given, as gifts from the same Father, not only the same beginning of life, but also things in order that we might use them… Therefore, in order to be good, we must consider all things as being common to everybody.”
Third, John Chrysostom argues that: “The rich have that which belongs to the poor, even though they may have received it as an inheritance” and he goes on to say that single acts of charity are not enough – one will only have given enough when one has literally nothing left to give.
Thus, by expecting our clients to be grateful to us, we are essentially acting as robbers who have stolen everything from others and have decided to return a mere fraction of what we have stolen on the condition that those whom we have robbed first confess, repent and express their gratitude to us.
Of course, adding injury to injury, we do this while we let oppressors off the hook and turn a blind eye to the ongoing context of oppression in which we live and which I have already observed in previous points of contrast. We do photo-ops with the politicians and “business leaders” and instead of calling for restitution we call for a donation and make sure we say “thanks ever so much” and “my, isn’t that generous of you,” and on and on the cycle goes. The hypocrisy and viciousness of this is especially vivid in any of our interactions with First Nations people – the liberal bourgeoisie call for reconciliation and ask for us to all get along, the First Nations call for restitution and ask how we can all get along while we continue to try and exterminate them (a point well made by Taiaiake Alfred in his highly recommended book, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom).
All of this ends up being a far cry from what Jesus and others in that movement were trying to create. In this regard, the first thing we should observe is the way in which Jesus unconditionally welcomed, accepted, and joined company with people who had been oppressed. Look at how Jesus goes about proclaiming the forgiveness of the sins to “the poor” and “the sinners” – i.e. to those who are socially, economically, religiously, and politically oppressed. Remember, also, that official channels existed by which these people could seek forgiveness, yet Jesus is offering forgiveness in a manner that disregards and invalidates those official channels. Furthermore, this is an offer of forgiveness that often comes prior to or outside of any confession or any repentance. Take, for example, the case of the paralyzed man in Mt 9.1-8 (cf. Mk 2.1-12/Lk 5.17-26), whom we mentioned earlier. When he appears before Jesus, and before he can say or do anything, Jesus says: “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” Immediately, Jesus is accused of blasphemy by the religious leaders who know that Jesus cannot make this statement outside of the official channels that exist to bring about confession, repentance and forgiveness. So, as proof of his authority, Jesus then heals the paralytic, who stands up and walks home. Nowhere, it should be noted, do we see any confession or repentance on the part of that man. Rather, we see the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness for this member of the oppressed and we see that proclamation lead to new life here and now. We see the same thing occur in Lk 7.36-50. While Jesus is at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee, a woman known as a “sinner” and as “that kind of woman” enters, anoints Jesus’ feet with an ointment, baths them with her tears, and, to the horror of any member of Middle Eastern culture past or present, also kisses them repeatedly. Jesus responds to this by turning to the woman and proclaiming that her sins are forgiven. Again, people wonder how he could make this proclamation both apart from any sort of confession of sin and outside of the official channels that existed to bring about forgiveness.
The same thing occurs on a regular basis when Jesus practices table fellowship with people who are known to be sinners (cf. Mt 9.9-13, Mk 2.13-16, Lk 5.27-32; 15.2; 19.1-10). Table fellowship was a boundary marker that showed who was “in” and who was “out.” Thus, to eat with sinners in Jesus’ day, was to demonstrate that one had lost “insider” status and now belonged in the company of “outsiders”. Yet, Jesus ate with sinners – i.e. the poor, the oppressed and the ostracized – but by doing so he was proclaiming that they already were forgiven. He was proclaiming that they were accepted as they are. The New Testament scholar, E. P. Sanders, summarizes this well:
[Jesus offered sinners] inclusion in the kingdom not only while they were still sinners but also without requiring repentance as normally understood, and therefore he could be accused of being a friend of people who indefinitely remained sinners [cf. Jesus and Judaism, 206].
This practice completely differs from all the barriers we create and the all things we require of oppressed people today. Here, the onus to change, confess, repent, and express gratitude is not placed upon the backs of those who have been oppressed. Rather, the message is one of unconditional welcome, acceptance, and forgiveness.
However, it is significant that this is not the same message that Jesus gives to everybody. Jesus places the onus to change, confess and repent upon the backs of those who are well-established within society. Here’s the problem with that: everybody would have assumed that these people were already “insiders,” were already moral guides, and were already doing much to help others. That is to say, Jesus put the onus to repent and change, not upon the backs of our clients, but upon the backs of people like you and I and our funders. Thus, to give but two examples, one can think of the harsh words Jesus has for members of the religious elite – calling them “whitewashed tombs” full of dead things (cf. Mt 23.1-37) – and for the political elite – referring to Herod as a fox (Lk 15.31-35) and calling his followers hypocrites (cf. Mt 22.15-18; also Mk 8.15) and mocking all kingly aspirations with his parody of a triumphal entry into Jerusalem at Passover (Mk 11.1-11/Mt 21.1-11/Lk 19.28-34/Jn 12.12-19) – and we all know that a certain rich young man was required to sell all he had and give the money to the poor if he wanted to join the company of those who gathered around Jesus (Lk 18.18-30). It is also to this contingent of people to whom Jesus addresses his warnings of coming judgment and wrath, as it well illustrated in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25.31-46; see also passages like Mk 3.28-30). The poor and the sinners who have been oppressed are welcomed into the people of God and will continue to be welcomed; the wealthy and righteous who have been oppressors have a lot more to worry about. Krister Stendahl, another noted New Testament scholars summarizes this well: “when God’s judgment falls… it is mercy to those wronged, and it is doom for those who have done wrong or perpetuated and profited from the wrongs of others” [cf. “Judgment and Mercy,” 99-100].
Thus, Jesus does precisely the opposite of what we do on this end of the spectrum as well. He calls for restitution, he calls for the end of the hoarding of private wealth, and he isn’t afraid to call people death-dealing when they are death-dealing. This, I reckon, is what is needed if we actually desire to do something about the context of oppression itself. Unfortunately, there’s more money to be made in courting whitewashed tombs and in appeasing the consciences of rich young rulers and so things continue on the same as ever.
Charity imposes power imbalances and boundaries to truly intimate, human life-giving relationships.
Jesus pursued intimate, human life-giving relationships, regardless of any boundaries and power dynamics.
Here I am interested in the ways in which professionalization, including the practice of “self-care,” creates a very odd sort of relationship within charitable organizations. This ties into my initial point about hierarchies but is focused upon the hierarchy that exists between clients and workers and how that impacts the relationship that is said to occur or not occur between them. We are so accustomed to the sort of professional relationship produced, and we have heard the importance of producing that dynamic repeated ad nauseum, that we may miss how odd this interaction it or, perhaps, how odd it is to refer to this interaction with relational language.
To begin with, you have clients who are expected to need help in some way and who are to receive that help from staff members. These staff members are not to receive help from clients – at least not in any material or substantial way – nor are they to receive any gifts from clients. Thus, all the giving, at least in so far as that giving is material and related to goods or items or even something as small as a cigarette, is to flow in one direction – from workers to clients. This then creates a dynamic wherein one party, the client, is permanently indebted to the other party. Of course, you can always say, “Oh but people give so much to me, too, they are the presence of Christ in my life,” and so on and so forth, but that doesn’t really get around the real power imbalance that is systematized here, nor does it mitigate the power imbalance as it is experienced by clients. Rather than being a relationship between equals, this is very much a patronage-based relationship – one party has the power to give, the other power has the power of giving taken away and may only receive.
Adding to this imbalance are the personal levels of disclosure that are expected from the two parties in this relationship. Clients are invited to disclose anything and everything – from past traumas, to current sexual practices (are they safe?), to any risky activity in which they may be involved – while staff members are instructed not to share details from their personal lives with clients. Of course, everybody does that anyway as a means of building relationships, but staff members tend to only share safe information or innocuous details. Nothing that makes them vulnerable, nothing shameful, nothing about their current sexual practices or risky activities in which they may be involved (or, for that matter, nothing about how many drinks they had last weekend). The normalization of this imbalance helps the worker to retain control over the relationship. Rather than being a relationship between equals, this is very much a manipulated interaction, which places all the strings in the hands of one party.
Furthermore, there is the additional factor that the staff members are being paid for the time they spend with clients. Clients are not being paid to be there or, on the rare occasion when they are attending some event or research-gathering session which includes an honorarium, clients are not being paid anything close to what staff members are paid. Not only this, but staff members are generally not permitted to spend time with clients when they are not being paid to do so. Where they can interact with clients is also severely limited. Don’t have clients into your home. Don’t go to the bar with clients, and if you accidentally run into a client at the bar, leave. Don’t invite them on family vacations with you. Don’t give them your personal email or your phone number. You’re not getting paid to do that and you can lose your job if you do it for free. Besides, so the story goes, you need to not burn out and you need to take care of yourself. Don’t view this as a lifestyle; view it as a job. Don’t view it as an expression of what it means to be human at anytime, anyplace; view it as a career trajectory. You’ll never make it to management – where you can do even more good than you can now as a front-line worker – if you over-invest yourself now! Rather than being a relationship between equals this is a job. Your client is best viewed as a project, not as the same kind of person that you are.
Finally, that we transform all of our clients into statistics only adds to the dehumanization of the more vulnerable members within these interactions. As far as stats are concerned, people are only important insofar as they are numbers. Of course, we may tell ourselves otherwise but the onesidedness of this is worth highlighting: as far as I know, I have yet to find any clients who keep stats on their workers or on the staff members of agencies. We would find this pretty weird, but it’s only weird because they’re not trying to get paid to hang-out with us – so, really, who is being weird in this situation? Of course, if they did want funding in order to be paid to hang-out with us, then keeping stats would make pretty good sense because their corporate backers would want to know that they weren’t wasting time with some of us less-than-ideal, less-patient, less-caring, or less-productive workers. If clients started keeping stats on us, we might not like what they found. So maybe we should be grateful that our clients treat us a lot more like human beings than we sometimes treat them. Because, rather than being a relationship between equals, this is a process of converting clients into statistics. It is a process that transforms human beings into commodities in a process of exchange between staff members, agencies and funders. We provide them with the numbers they like to see – maybe throw-in a few stories to add a human element to the whole thing – and they provide us with the money needed not only to fund our programs but also to pay off our credit cards and student loans, fund our mortgages, and pay for our family vacations. Rather than being a relationship between equals, this is the commodification of poor people.
All of this is markedly different than the ways in which Jesus chose to relate to people. As we have already seen, Jesus chose to re-identify his family, his friends, and his closest personal connections with people whom we treat as clients. What for us is a job was a lifestyle for Jesus. This was not a 9-5, it was something that occurred 24-7, much in the same way that our relationships with our friends, our spouses, or our children are not 9-5 jobs. This means that a lot of the boundaries that we establish for self-care simply did not exist. Although this did not stop the disciples from trying to establish those boundaries for Jesus, like when the little children come to him in Mk 10.13-16 (cf. Mt 19.13-15/Lk 18.15-17):
People were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Within the culture of Jesus’ day, in the rankings of people who matter, children were at the bottom. Therefore, the disciples found it necessary to try and protect Jesus from the children so that he could have the energy to press on and do things that really mattered. Yet Jesus completely rebukes this perspective. Rather than agreeing that the children were insignificant, he takes them in his arms and says that they matter the most of all. Jesus thought it was more important to spend time with the children than it was to spend time resting and engaging in self-care in order to do something that “really mattered.”
The same reversal applies to the one-sided barriers we establish in relationship to giving. Look at the stories told about a woman who anointed the feet of Jesus as told in Mt 24, Mk 14, Lk 7, and Jn 12. I’ve already mentioned it but note that Jesus, as a male, permits a woman who had a reputation for engaging in sex work, or being sexually promiscuous, to touch his body in a very sensual manner. He also permits her, a poor and marginalized woman, to anoint his feet with a very expensive ointment. That is to say, he accepts a gift from a person whom we would treat as only a recipient, and not a giver, of gifts. When is the last time you let a staff member of the opposite gender interact with a client in this way? When was the last time you saw it as a good thing when a client tried to buy a staff member an outrageously expensive gift? You would probably think that was wholly inappropriate and wasteful – and you would be in good company if that is what you thought, after all, Judas thought the same.
The same reversal applies to a number of other relationships in which Jesus engaged regardless of the social protocols that had been established for him. When Jesus engaged the Samaritan woman at the well in Jn 4.1-24, he breaks outside of the established boundaries in order to relate as a person to another person. The same goes for his interactions with those who were considered “lepers” and “unclean.” Jesus regularly touched people who were supposed to be untouchable.
He did all of this, it should be noted, not with a group of professionals but with a group of misfits and rejects and other people who were poor and marginalized. Nobody was getting paid to do this. Nobody was trying to control the relationship. Nobody was holding back details about their own self. Nobody was trying to establish a hierarchy of disclosure, giving, and control. Nobody was thinking, “I better limit my time with this person because it might burn me out.” This was just people relating to other people as people. It was people relating to other people not as burdens, or as clients, or as projects, but as fully human beings and as equals. No wonder the early Jesus movement grew so rapidly.
Charities confuse the charitable institution for the people being served, thereby ending up becoming one of the death-dealing Principalities and Powers that they were initially founded to resist.
Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem and by executed by the death-dealing Principalities and Powers, rather than institutionalize or legitimize the movement that he had helped to create. Such things were left in the hands of he Holy Spirit who comes unexpectedly to all and to any, regardless of their class, gender, abilities, or wellness – thereby preventing the true movement of Jesus-followers from being able to convert into another death-dealing Power.
This final point helps to explain how places that are full of people with good intentions end up doing a lot of the harmful things I have described. How does a charity founded to love and assist people who are poor and street-involved end up becoming an institution that oppresses and harms the people it was hoping to serve? One of the most significant ways in which this happens is a shift in focus that inevitably occurs when charities grow. This, by the way, is not just true of charities, it tends to be true of all institutions and I have also seen it happen with schools, seminaries, and churches. Basically, what happens is this: as institutions grow, they begin to confuse the institution itself for the people the institution was founded to serve. When this occurs, things like institutional growth and brand equity begin to replace other standards as the marker of whether or not a charity is doing well. Did we add any new programs this year? When our logo is shown to members of the general public are the able to identify what we claim to do? Did we bring in more funding dollars this year than last? Do we have more staff members? Are they more highly trained? The answers to questions like these become the gauge of whether or not we are doing good work and so, in a somewhat subtle manner, we come to serve the institution – its growth and survival – rather than serving people. Of course, according to the institutions we are serving people by serving them, and there is some truth in this (although we should ask which people we are serving), but the point is that the institution now has priority over people. Hence, for the supposed greater good, charities will go to great lengths to protect their brand equity. Once, I witnessed an agency cover up a series of events wherein a staff member sexually assaulted some clients. In order to prevent a scandal, they simply paid that staff member to sign a non-disclosure agreement and, instead of ensuring that others would not be assaulted by this person, they assisted that staff member in finding work elsewhere.
Not only does the institution gain priority over people, but this sort of trajectory almost inevitably shifts the charity’s focus upon the kind of people with whom they will work. What you see as charities age and become more established is almost always a shift from lower barriers to higher barriers to service. The history of the Salvation Army provides just one example of this. If you compare accounts of Salvation Army workers one hundred years ago, as told in books like God in the Slums by Hugh Redwood, with the practices of Salvation Army shelters like The Gateway, the difference couldn’t be greater. Back in the day, Salvation Army workers, were required to live as friends and neighbours within communities – if you wanted to work with people from the projects at Jane and Finch, you had to live in the projects at Jane and Finch and get to know people in their homes, in the park, at the bars and so on. A bit different than a place that requires people to come to you, and does not permit them to access service if they’ve had a few beers. However, this shift from lower barriers to higher barriers is one that is in the best interest of a charity seeking to gain a stable and ever expanding donor base. While Christian concern for folks who are poor would suggest the opposite trajectory – lowering barriers in order to ensure that those who fall through the cracks or are denied service elsewhere would still have somewhere to go – the opposite tends to happen. This is because higher barrier programs generally produce stats that look more impressive to donors who are uninformed about matters related to poverty and who, in fact, tend to be complicit in a lot of the negative stereotypes that exist about poor people. To folks who know nothing about poverty and think homeless folks are lazy people who indulge their vices too much, a program that requires them to be sober and then puts them in touch with a Case Manager who makes their stay conditional upon completing some sort of job or housing search, makes a lot of sense. Thus, in order to gain access to more money high barrier programs tend to skim from the top and tend to feed into the dominant stereotypes regarding people who are poor. Rather than trying to educate the public, they tend to simply take the highest “functioning” folks from the street community and help them to transition off the street. While this does genuinely help some street-involved people, it really helps the institution itself more than anything.
In this way, by confusing itself for its client-base, a charity becomes another of the Powers and Principalities. The Powers and Principalities, according to the biblical texts, are those things that are non-human but that take on semi-personal identities of their own and then draw people into serving them rather than serving others or serving Life. An easy example of that today would be those transnational corporations which actually have the same legal status as people, which draw people to serve them and which put a moral gloss over what they do – generally, today, employing the discourse of “free markets” and “job creation”. Nations are the same and don’t hesitate to make human sacrifices under the moral discourse of “dying for one’s country.” In such a pantheon, charities are lesser beings, demi-gods or demi-idols, if you will, but they are Powers and Principalities nonetheless.
This, then, leads us back to where we started and goes a long way towards explaining why charity does not produce the change we want to see in the world. Charitiy is not impotent, as we may have first imagined. It actually does a phenomenally good job at doing what it is intended to do. However, what it intended to do is not what we first imagined. Rather, it is intended to meet the interests of the Powers-that-be and it does that very well, in part, because we think it exists for another purpose.
Jesus, however, took deliberate and drastic, albeit fatal, steps that helped to ensure that the movement that had gathered around him would not be transformed into another one of the Powers and Principalities. I’m sure that Jesus could easily have been tempted to do this. It would have been easy to take what he had begun and convert it into something much more respectable, profitable, and manageable. Something with a long term plan, something not so caught up in the moment, something not so juvenile and impetuous that it was blind to the fact that it needed to win some support, build a foundation, and make friends with people with money and power in order to make a difference not just now but in future years. It must have been hard to resist this temptation. In fact, it wasn’t that many years after Jesus died that some folks did precisely this and gave us Christianity and the Church and all sorts of levels of institutionalized Christian leadership. Of course, poor folks, shameful folks, sick folks, rebellious folks, and women all got cut out of the process in different ways when this happened but I guess you have to make sacrifices to get ahead or, rather, other people have to make sacrifices so that you can get ahead sometimes.
For Jesus, however, the sacrifice he chose to make was himself. Instead of giving into the temptation to turn stones into bread – to turn a life-giving moment into a more sustained and sustainable Power – he chose to go to Jerusalem and engage in a terrorist act that he knew would get him killed. Instead of giving in to the temptation to be known as as godly leader, he fled every time the crowds tried to make him a king, and he made a public mockery of all glorious messianic pretensions by riding into Jerusalem on an ass surrounded by a bunch of misfits and bums. If you think the ragamuffins at St. James Park are laughably pathetic when they talk creating a more free and just world, Jesus and his crew looked even worse when they came to Jerusalem.
So Jesus chose to die rather than do the equivalent of incorporating and seeking charitable status. Furthermore, he made one of the most fundamental leadership errors by making this choice: he chose to die without have established a competent successor. He chose to die at a time when he knew even his closest male companions would run away and abandon him. He chose to die when he knew that, short of a miracle, the movement would fall apart, people would lose hope and scatter, and each would return to their old ways.
But he chose to die. By doing so – and by ascending to heaven after his resurrection – he left the movement bereft of any powerful leaders. Instead, of left the movement in the hands of the Holy Spirit. And this is the miracle. In the hands of the Spirit, any and all people may be the very voice of God, the very power of God, and the very body of Christ. This, then, goes against any institutionalization of the Jesus movement. The Spirit does not permit authority structures to become established; she does not permit any sort of lineage of leadership to become encoded; she does not respect standards of class or gender or wellness or age or education or competence or virtue. Rather, the Spirit constantly disrupts and interferes with anything that would turn the assembly of Jesus-followers into a Power or Principality. Whenever that happens – as it always does – we know that the Spirit has probably moved on.
No, the Spirit is not content to be contained. She is restless. She moves and stirs and laughs and plays, creating Life within the most surprising people and places. Sometimes, she visits us, eats at our drop-in, spends a night at our shelter, stops in at three AM, ripped on Es, and looking for condoms, but she doesn’t stick around too long. Instead, she calls us out to meet her where she is at. In the street. With the poor. With the oppressed. With the crucified. Let us run out to meet her there.
I wish to conclude with a parable. It is taken from the sayings of the Desert Fathers. This is the parable:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and to the limit of my ability, I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts, what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be utterly changed into fire?”
Fire on Babylon. Lord, have mercy. Amen.
1Cf. http://www.missionready.com/ ; accessed 11/Oct/21.
2Cf. http://www.wealth-by-design.ca/ ; accessed 11/Oct/22.