Thursday, October 18, 2007

Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life

I'm reading a book by Robert Lupton entitled 'Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor'. So far, it's an amazing read that seems to be touching on many of the issues we are currently wrestling with as a community at Vox, as well as making me rethink some decisions that were made when it comes to living life here on the East side. In fact, I feel that this book is slightly prophetic in some ways because several of the issues the author discusses are ones he has trudged through in his 30+ years in Atlanta, but are current issues that seem to be blooming here in the city of Austin. Issues like gentrification, yuppies marginalizing the poor by gobbling up low income real estate and people with doing more harm than good, even if they have good intentions.

I came across this portion of his book and found it to be spectacular and full of wisdom.

Ancient Hebrew wisdom describes four levels of charity. the highest level is to provide a job for one in need without his knowledge that you provided it. The next, lower level is to provide work that the needy one knows you provided. The third level is to give an anonymous gift to meet an immediate need. the lowest level of charity, to be avoided if at all possible, is to give a poor person a gift with his full knowledge that you are the donor.

Perhaps the deepest poverty of all is to have nothing of value to offer in exchange. Charity that fosters such poverty must be challenged. We know from 40 years of failed social policy that welfare depletes self-esteem while honorable work produces dignity. We know that reciprocity builds mutual respect while one-way giving brews contempt. Yet we continue to run clothes closets and free food pantries and give-away benevolence accounts and wonder why the joy is missing.

Perhaps it is our time and place in history to re-implement the wisdom of the ages and to fashion our contemporary models of thoughtful compassion. Our donated clothes could create thrift store and job training. Our benevolence dollars could develop mini-economies within the economy - daycare, janitorial, fix-the-widow's-roof services that would employ the jobless in esteem-building work. "Your work is your calling," declares the reformer, Martin Luther. Does not the role of the Church in our day include the enabling of the poor to find their calling?

This book has sent me into a vortex of wondering if everything that I've learned, and much of what I practice when it comes to loving your neighbor was built on the what ancient Hebrew wisdom considers to be lowest level of charity that should be avoided if at all possible.