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Don’t Give Up on Giving: How a Theology of Creation Informs Resilient Poverty Solutions

Recently, Joe Coletti at The Federalist wrote about private giving in his reviews of Robert Lupton’s “Charity Detox” and Arthur Brooks’ “The Conservative Heart.”  Coletti contrasts old concepts of charity with the efforts of people like Lupton, who founded the remarkable Focused Community Strategies ministry in Atlanta (if you’re interested in diehard, big-picture urban development, Bob’s your guy). In broad terms, old-school charity has been tossed aside over the last decade, condemned for its ineffectiveness. TOMS got its talking-to about giving away free stuff. Faith-based and secular organizations alike today use language of “asset-based,” “sustainable,” and “dignity-giving” development. We now live on the other side of Dambisa Moyo’s groundbreaking book “Dead Aid,” and have watched Bono join the chorus of Westerners who disapprove of altruism that fosters dependence. The world needed this shift in standards, and I myself am a proponent of enterprise-driven poverty alleviation.

These changes have spawned some notions about community development that are valuable and increasingly popular. Some come from economic modeling, others from empirical observations about the way the poor live. But both can be too readily enforced. And in order for the naysaying to remain productive, I think we need durable visions of what poverty means.

One concept that many economists (including Coletti) employ in discussions of poverty alleviation is that only reciprocal exchanges create value. We build trade theory upon this, and it helps us explain why enterprise benefits the poor. But as an ideal it cannot describe the range of human experiences. Simply by living in social environments with partners and children and loved ones we come to know there is something inherently valuable about giving and expecting no return, and equivalently in receiving unwarranted gifts. The Bible centers around this theme, embodied most remarkably in the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.

In other words, the practical observation that exchanges create value cannot serve as a normative, universal reasoning for the condemnation of altruism. Instead we need a vision of holistic human flourishing that affirms the merits of both economic exchange and unreciprocated giving as they relate to serving the poor.

In their most recent book, “From Dependence to Dignity,” Brian Fikkert and Russell Mask discuss the relational nature of humans: because we are created in the imago Dei, we necessarily reflect the relational attributes of the Triune God. Our wellbeing depends upon relationships—fundamentally, those with creation, others, self, and God. (The book and other resources from the Chalmers Center expound on the Biblical reasoning here.) Value finds its conception in these relationships, and they encompass both giving and earning. Understanding this gives a broader picture of what can be called “good” in our economies. And if poverty has dynamic roots, then it has globally and culturally adaptable solutions.

The aim of poverty alleviation, then, becomes relationally defined, and “dignity” begins to mean more than the opportunity to exchange labor for a wage. It is a result of creating culture, working because we are related to creation, caring for self and for families, and having the ability to give and to see no reciprocity. Work becomes valuable not only because it sustains households, but because it can enrich our relationship with creation. Job creation is a worthy ambition because working a job is a theological expression—not simply because of economic models or even the value our (sometimes) work-obsessed society gives it.

A strong theology of work and our bond with creation articulates our goals, and gives us the tools to re-imagine how we achieve them when our best efforts fail. It enables us to create policies that uphold locally and privately driven organizations, rather than bisecting the two visions (like Coletti). And when we encounter a culture that doesn’t celebrate individual enterprise in the same way that Americans do, our definition of “dignity” becomes flexible—a quality given in Psalm 139 and Genesis 1 and unrestricted by neoclassical notions of mutual benefit. A relational view of human beings holds the promise of more culturally transferable development, always focused on the nature of God and man rather than their fiscal capabilities.