True Generosity or False Charity: 3 Challenges
“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued...to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands--whether of individuals or entire peoples--need be extended less and less...so that more and more they become human hands which...working, transform the world.This...must come, however, from the oppressed themselves and from those who are truly in solidarity with them" -Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
As I attended a dinner recently, a friend approached me, asking if I had heard about a specific evangelical Christian organization. “They do amazing work helping Palestinian refugees and women, and I know you care about these issues too,” remarked my friend. She seemed very enthusiastic, so, out of curiosity, I checked them out when I arrived home.
As soon as I did so, an all too familiar feeling of disappointment arose, coupled with guilt at my scepticism. Their website featured a smiling American couple with an amazing story of coming to the Middle East and providing assistance to thousands of Palestinians and other Muslim groups. The organization also featured their staff, comprised 100% of Christian Americans, each with a various function in their charitable projects.
“Another Western Christian organization trying to save the day,” I thought to myself. “But why does this bother me?” I wondered. “Why does a story of well-meaning charitable people irritate me so much?”
Soon after, an Israeli told me about this great coexistence project in Jerusalem, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for various activities. When I learned more, the same feelings of frustration arose-an effort led by enthusiastic Israelis portraying themselves as quite generous in giving their time and resources to help Palestinians participate in very Western activities alongside Israelis. Again, I questioned why these coexistence projects seem so empty and frivolous lately.
As I processed my own reactions, I realized a common theme-privileged people reaching out to those without privilege, while not addressing the underlying injustices that lead to the need of the people being helped,and also without any leadership or input from the less privileged. It is a form of generosity that actually perpetuates the problem in a way, that depends on the current unjust status quo continuing; it also exists so that the privileged can feel good about themselves, with minimal sacrifice and no need to give up their position of power or privilege to the less privileged other.
This is not true generosity and it is not empowering. It is rooted in pride, perhaps unconscious and well-intentioned, but still pride.
It happens in many forms, whether as Christians and Messianics towards Muslims, Israelis towards Palestinians, or white Westerners towards non-Western or non-white groups. We like to see ourselves as “helping,” yet very few people seem willing to place themselves under the leadership or to seek the input of those they are “helping.” Apparently, those being helped simply do not know what is good for them.
In Christian circles, we often clothe our pride in language, such as being “a light” or “reaching out” to the poor and to those not privileged enough to to be a member of our own group. We see ourselves as good and generous, patting ourselves on the back.
But that generosity means little if we do not see the people we are helping as capable of being leaders and making change for themselves. Can we respect and trust the very people we reach, hoping they will go beyond us? Otherwise, we are merely continuing the status quo.
Are we also willing to give up a little of our own position in order to be led by or receive input from those among the group we are helping? To step back and not assume we have all the answers “they” need?
For those of us who hail from a place of privilege, I would like to challenge us:
- To place ourselves under the leadership of those in the group we are helping and involve as many members of the less privileged group in decision making as possible
- To not only give or help, but also work to end the systems or structures that lead to oppression and need. Giving to a group that is being oppressed and then turning around and voting for or benefitting from the systems of oppression that keep them in need is counterproductive.
- To realize that we, as individuals or as a privileged group, may have to sacrifice our own ideas, positions, and comfort in order to see those with less privilege begin to enjoy the position and privilege we have so long taken for granted. Because this is often unconscious, those of us with privilege may not be aware of how disagreeable this may feel, as those from the less privileged group, when they are giving increased input and position, may do things quite differently than we would and may change things accordingly.
If we can’t do these three things, then we are probably operating under false charity.