“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”-Martin Luther King
Charity is noble and necessary, but it cannot and should not replace justice. Charity, if done well can be selfless and well-intentioned; but meaningless if the barriers that create the need for charity remain. We live in a world where giving to charity is seen as a noble and altruistic act at its surface. Wealthy people donate to charities regularly and college students and young adults volunteer at soup kitchens and food banks to serve people in need. Few people would scoff at the idea of voluntarily giving your time and/or money to serve someone in need. Yet too many of us give and volunteer irresponsibly and/or selfishly. Furthermore, so many of us see charity as the end all of helping people in need while ignoring the systems that place people in their situations and how our mindless and thoughtless charity is contributing to and reinforcing people’s conditions.
I am not opposed to giving to charity or volunteering in and of itself. However, I am skeptical and cautious of people’s intentions (including mines) and conscious of the dangers and consequences of how charity is done. At its best, charity can educate people about the social conditions people are living in and motivate them to act and give in a way that does not reinforce the plight of the oppressed. At its worst, charity will contribute to unhealthy thoughts and practices including the White Savior Complex and in many cases, contribute to more oppression and greed around the world. As you give money and volunteer during this holiday season, there are 7 dangers that you should be mindful of. These dangers, if unnoticed will further contribute to the systemic oppression of marginalized people domestically and globally.
- Charity is selfish: There are many benefits to giving to and volunteering for charities. This includes tax deductions, public acclaim, and good experience for your resume to name a few. Why wouldn’t someone want to give some of their income to a charity or spend a Saturday morning volunteering at a food pantry? The benefits seem great. The selfish ambition of charitable people breeds a lack of concern for the intended population and in so many cases, it breeds more oppression. If you are so unconcerned about the plight of the communities you give to or serve, you will do little to listen to the real experiences of people directly affected. Furthermore, you will be unconcerned about where your money or time is really going towards. It is all about you and your fame and success. If you are planning to volunteer over the next week for Christmas and your only concern is getting good experience, don’t waste your time. Your selfish attitude is not needed and it will create far more harm than good.
- Charity ignores social problems: Many people who give to charity genuinely believe that doing so helps address a real social need. While short term charitable work in the wake of disasters can be necessary and organizations that are active and involved in neighborhoods and countries do meaningful and sustainable work, without addressing the root causes of a condition, charity is merely a unstable band-aid. People who are experiencing homelessness need far more than just a hot meal for dinner or some clothes, they need housing and justice. People experiencing racism and poverty in America’s cities need far more than Christmas toys and new shoes. They need justice for their daughter who was harrassed and killed by the police. They need better and closer schools for their son who walks through rival gang neighborhoods every Monday through Friday morning. These little charitable gifts and volunteer work don’t even crack at the problem in most cases. There are many who give money to support non-profit advocacy organizations that advocate for social change and in particular, organizations that actively engage with and take guidance from people who are directly affected by social injustices. Giving to these kinds of organizations is one of many steps to supporting work that addresses root problems; but more needs to be done. We have to be active and involved in addressing systemic issues that affect our brothers and sisters around the world. This starts by acknowledging that there are social injustices that exist. We tend to recognize this when looking at international problems but we fail to admit that America is a major agent in the oppression of marginalized people both domestically and internationally. We are so patriotic and idolizing of this country that we ignore the many evils of this empire. We have to be honest with this. We cannot be so naive as to think that giving to a homeless shelter is all we need to do to “help the homeless.” We cannot be content with shipping clothes to refugees in Syria; we cannot stop at “giving a dollar to feed a kid in Africa” or “feeding kids the local neighborhood.” If you charity causes you to ignore or avoid learning the real institutional problems that affect marginalized people around the world; your charity is dangerous.
- Charity is not relational: When many churches feed people experiencing homelessness, they don’t share a meal with them. Instead the give them food and expect the homeless person to be grateful. Some humiliate and talk down to people in shelters as if its OK to disrespect someone experiencing homelessness. There are countless problems with how churches do charitable and mission work, one of them is the lack of relationship building. One of the best ways to break down social barriers is to build relationships with the very people you are serving. This includes having lunch with him/her and getting to know his/her story and experiences. The lack of humanization of people experiencing homelessness or people experiencing poverty is toxic and shameful. I often hear church people complaining that a homeless person “smells bad” or that a person with mental illness is “annoying”, and use that as a reason to be distant from the people they serve. Let me be clear, if you cannot humanize and build relationships with the people in communities that you want to serve and work with, you should stop helping because you are only hurting. Your protective and insensitive attitude is more toxic than one who refuses to give or volunteer. Relationships are a crucial need for every human and so much of the poverty and pain that marginalized people face is being humiliated, lacking recognition, and being dis-empowered. If you want to help people, build a relationship with them and let them be human and powerful.
- Charity is convenient: Charity is convenient in a sense that it allows people to give and serve as little and meaningless as possible and still be comfortable. The best way to address this is to think about and act in ways that are not convenient for you. Take action and make a stand against the oppression of people when its unpopular. Spend time engaging and learning from people without any expectation. Learn how to do justice and humanize people when it requires more work and effort or when it’s in an environment where your actions may not be as receptive. Whether it’s in your corporate work environment, with your friends at a bar, or with your family for Christmas, you should embrace the inconvenience of your environment and be an advocate for justice and a moral humanizer.
- Charity keeps people in bubbles: Similar to the point of charity not being relational, charity too often keeps people in bubbles. For example, if your environment consists of upper middle class white people, and you think you have the knowledge and “answers” to helping and serving people on the other side of town, you are wrong. First of all, you will never have the “answers” to solving complex issues like racism, poverty, and economic exploitation. Second, if you have not attempted to learn from and build a relationship with someone experiencing the problems that you want to “help with”, you are nothing more than a white savior who is setting yourself up for the further dehumanization and marginalization of impoverished people. Get out of your bubble and listen and learn. Stop giving and planning to serve mindlessly.
- Charity can do real harm: Many countries in Africa have become dumping grounds for charitable gifts including clothes and shoes at the expense of people’s lives and families. Many people who sell clothes and shoes in other countries to provide for their families end up bankrupt and out of work because of the constant gifts from America. Why buy clothes from a native businessman who sells t-shirts when Americans will give them for free? What this results in is thousands of people with t-shirts who are unable to provide for their families. We have to be really careful that our charitable giving of money, other material things, and time does not result in harming and starving communities and nations. We have to think more critically and selflessly about what we are giving towards. We have to think about the unintended consequences because good intentions are no longer enough. People’s lives and well-being are at stake. Stop thinking about getting a quick benefit for giving a few thousand dollars or some shoes overseas and think instead about how you can do long-term things that aren’t harmful.
- Charity is oppressive: Finally, to sum up all of the other points, charity is oppressive and if you are not careful about what you give to and who you serve, you will further contribute to the oppression of others. If you aren’t careful, your “Jesus work” to black kids on the Southside of Chicago will reinforce your racism and power over them. If you are not careful, your one click donations to a “kid in Africa” will go to support greedy international businesses that exploit other countries. If you are not mindful, your charity will lead you to believe that people who are homeless “choose that lifestyle” and you will lead a generation that is ignorant of the root causes of homelessness. If you are not paying attention, you will support policies that continue to exploit black and brown people, policies that further deprive Middle Eastern people of their well-being and safety, and policies that subsidize businesses that traffic young women.
Charity is noble and necessary but it cannot and should not create justice. Charity is dangerous and without real justice-oriented people is detrimental and often deadly. Recognize the dangers of charity and remedy them.