Just finished reading When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. This is outstanding book and is a true gift to the Church. Corbett and Fikkert do a tremendous job of laying out a gospel-centered approach to understanding poverty and how to help. A warning, this book is challenging, and if taken to heart, will likely be paradigm shifting. It has caused me to repent for the way in which I have understood and approached poverty. Yet, it has left me in awe as I consider the cosmic implications of the gospel. I truly believe this is a book that all Christians should read. It will greatly benefit reformed folk who have a passion for personally applying the doctrines of grace on an individual level, but a passion to see the gospel transform all of life seems to be lacking. It is equally as beneficial to those who are passionate for social justice, but find themselves without a worldview to properly address these issues. Here is the review.
Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor-- and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009).
“Have you ever done anything to hurt the poor?” This is a question most evangelical Christians would answer with a no. Yet, it is a question raised by John Perkins in his Foreword to the book When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. With issues of social justice gaining popularity as well as an exponential increase in spending towards short-term missions, When Helping Hurts is a much-needed biblical response on how to understand and help alleviate poverty. If the authors’ goal is to reform our understanding of poverty alleviation by bringing our worldview under the reign of Christ, thus transforming how we understand poverty itself, then this book is a complete success. In this book, the authors set out to both challenge our typical understanding of poverty, and to affirm a biblical approach towards alleviating poverty. Those of us living in affluence are not likely to believe that our simple efforts to love our impoverished neighbors could in fact be causing more harm than good; yet, this is the exact challenge that Corbett and Fikkert offer. However, what makes this book such a success is not the authors’ ability to critically question the false paradigms which have been ingrained in our ministries, but it is the way in which they are able to practically address these problems, starting with Scripture, and ending in application to our lives. Further, the authors’ humility shines throughout the book, demonstrating the very principles they are conveying.
There is much to be celebrated in When Helping Hurts. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its foundation in the grand narrative of Scripture. From the beginning, Corbett and Fikkert set out to refresh their readers understanding of what poverty is by understanding the gospel story.
Typically, evangelical Christians assume poverty is a simple problem; thus requiring a simple solution. Poverty is materialistic in nature and can be solved by a redistribution of material wealth. While, a lack of material resources is certainly a large component of poverty, understanding poverty in the context of Scripture’s account of Creation-Fall-Redemption allows us to see the true scope and nature of poverty. To this end, When Helping Hurts rightly uses Creation as the starting point for understanding the nature of poverty. Man was created to be in perfect relation, with God, with himself, with his neighbors, and with creation. God created humans uniquely in his image in order that we may reflect his glory. In the Garden of Eden, these four relationships (God, self, others, creation) existed in harmony. There was no poverty. Then, as the story goes, Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus shattering the harmonious relationships that existed. All four of these relational facets were deeply affected by the fall. Therefore, rightly understood, poverty is the brokenness that exists between man and God, man and himself, man and others, and man and creation. When Helping Hurts does a fantastic job of establishing the source of poverty as the fall, and its scope as cosmic. As Corbett and Fikkert write, “poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meaning” (62).
This is helpful for several reasons. First, this shatters the common perception that poverty is simply materialistic. As Corbett and Fikkert point out, poverty is primarily relational deficit. Far more often than not, those impoverished describe poverty in terms of social and emotional brokenness rather than a lack of ‘things’. Words such as ‘powerlessness’, ‘shame’ and ‘depression’ are reoccurring descriptors. If we think poverty is solely materialistic, our solutions will address only materialistic issues. This is exactly why most people tend to view poor people as objects. The ensuing goal of poverty alleviation then becomes assimilation to North-American middle class affluence. In this stereo-typical view, poverty alleviation tends to address the effects of poverty rather than the cause. As the title of the book suggests, this results in both the poor and ourselves being hurt. This inevitably doesn’t work because it fails to recognize the nature and scope of poverty in light of the fall. Confronting our misunderstandings of what poverty is also causes us to rethink poverty alleviation in terms of God’s story of redemption. Corbett and Fikkert write, “poverty is rooted in broken relationships, so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again” (77). This is the power of the gospel; Jesus is reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20). This means everything that was lost in the fall is being restored through Christ. This includes individuals as well as systems. Evangelical Christians have a tendency to understand the gospel solely in terms of the personal forgiveness of sins. We tend to think that the only relationship of the four that really matters is the vertical one that exists between God and us. Once again, When Helping Hurts does a tremendous job of challenging this view of Scripture. While the personal forgiveness of sins is a primary aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is not the whole story. In the gospel, all four relationships are redeemed. The gospel gives man a new relationship with creation, with each other, and with himself. Not only are we forgiven, but the gospel also transforms work, politics, housing, education, etc. This is especially important because so much of poverty is rooted in broken relationships with creation, others, and self. Yet, overtime, we have somehow forgot the cosmic implications of the gospel. The major strength of this book is the way in which Corbett and Fikkert are able to realign our view of poverty with the beautiful story of God’s kingdom.
Further, When Helping Hurts clearly demonstrates this from Scripture. The book argues that poverty alleviation is rooted in the Church’s mission, which is rooted in Christ’s mission. The authors’ describe Christ’s mission as preaching the kingdom in both word and deed (38). Further, Christ’s words and deeds in Scripture go beyond justifying sinners. Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and cared for the poor. In essence, Jesus mission was to return us to a true expression of humanity in its fullest sense. Going further back, Corbett and Fikkert show this in the Old Testament. Israel’s God ordained mission was to be the agent of blessing to the rest of humanity. The Law was given to Israel in order that they may more fully display and express humanity as it was meant to be. This included alleviating poverty. For example, the Sabbath year was intended to cancel debts and allow the poor to glean from the fields (38). The year of Jubilee focused on social justice; ensuring that slaves would be set free, land would be redistributed, and the poor would be helped (39). Through Israel, God desired that, “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). Israel dismally failed to achieve this task. Yet, where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. Jesus came establishing God’s kingdom where all four relationships (God, self, others, creation) would be restored. Further, seeing God’s mission traced through the entire Bible allows us to see God’s heart in alleviating poverty. Alleviating poverty is not simply handing out materials to people, it is bringing all things under Christ’s reign, where all four relationships are made new. Since the nature and scope of poverty are rooted in the fall, the nature and scope of the solution must be rooted in Christ’s cosmic redemption of all things.
Having established the nature and scope of poverty and its solution, When Helping Hurts transitions from theory to practical application and methodology. This is extremely helpful, as up to this point, readers may be experiencing an over-whelming sense of inadequacy and guilt. In deconstructing our false paradigms, readers are left realizing the many ways in which their misconceptions of poverty have inevitably led to hurting the poor rather than helping. This begs the question, “Where do we go from here?”
On a personal note, this is exactly how I felt. This book left me not only rethinking my mental models, but more importantly, repenting of the ways in which I’ve misunderstood and mistreated those who are impoverished. It left me overwhelmed at the extent of poverty, but even more amazed at how depth of the gospel. It also forced me to address my own superiority complex. As stated earlier, affluent evangelicals typically minister to the poor by thinking that they are superior. However, as seen in the Creation-Fall-Redemption paradigm this is not true. An invaluable contribution of When Helping Hurts is the premise that “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (64). We are all broken from the fall and therefore are all impoverished to some degree.
In terms of methodology, this should result in coming alongside the poor rather than living in the distance. It should result in a mutual recognition that both the materially poor and the materially rich are impoverished, but that Jesus is fixing both parties. Although the materially impoverished usually exhibit a great deal of brokenness in all four relationships, Corbett and Fikkert rightly assess that poverty alleviation shouldn’t begin with needs assessment, but but by recognizing all the positive ways in which the poor exhibit human flourishing. Since we are all humans, we all bear God’s image and inherently bear good gifts from the Creator. Starting here functionally gives the poor the image bearing dignity that they rightly possess. Embracing our own poverty allows us to humbly see the good gifts that the impoverished already possess. It also allows us to recognize the things the poor do far better than most of us; things such as community.
This idea has had a tremendous impact on my life. In my ministry to those impoverished, my instinct is to think that I have all the answers and materials to give. Yet, I fail to recognize the way I am in need and can learn from the people I work with. I am not working for the poor, but am working with them. In fact, last week, I had an experience that demonstrated this exact principle. On my way home from work, driving through the inner-city of East St. Louis, I saw some guys playing pick-up basketball and decided to stop and join their game. After playing for an hour or so, one of the young men, recognizing that I was profusely sweating, graciously invited me into his home for a drink. Part of me wanted to skip out on this, since I knew I had a busy night ahead of me. Part of me wanted to turn down the offer because I knew that his family was probably struggling to make ends meet. Part of me thought, “I don’t really want to take some of their grape Sunkist to drink for myself.” However, applying what Corbett and Fikkert write, by God’s grace I was able to recognize that, just because Rashon (young man) and his family were poor, didn’t mean that they had nothing to offer me. I was indeed thirsty and in need of a drink. For me to accept that drink was in a sense to accept my mutual brokenness and need. It was to recognize the image bearing qualities of Rashon and his family and allow them to offer to me the gifts that God has gifted them with. It was recnognizing their dignity. At that moment, my superiority complex was crushed.
Along these lines, When Helping Hurts presents several models of poverty alleviation that rightly reflect the biblical narrative. One in particular is the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). This method starts first with the assets that the community has to offer, and builds on those by coming along side the impoverished and developing these beautiful image bearing qualities that the poor already have to offer. This involves always seeking the highest level of participation possible from those whom you are serving.
To conclude, When Helping Hurts is a significant work contributing to the field of poverty alleviation. The authors’ successfully challenge Western Christians’ traditional paradigms involving poverty; these include thinking of poverty in simple, materialistic terms, as well as models of poverty alleviation stemming from a super-man complex, rather than from an understanding of God’s cosmic mission to reconcile all things to himself. Poverty alleviation begins by recognizing our own brokenness and need of a Savior. It is at this point that we are able to humbly come alongside our brothers and sisters in love, not superiority. It is here that we are able to empathize with the multi-faceted nature of poverty. Lastly, it is here, in our own brokenness, where are able to apply and participate in the beautiful remedy for poverty; the gospel of Jesus Christ.