As I mentioned in my post called “Beyond Charity – Introduction“, I’m reading John Perkins’ book Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development. Part One of the book is called “Our Vision”, and it is divided into three chapters: “Beyond Charity”, “From Quick Fixes to Felt Needs”, and “The Marks of an Authentic Church”.
In chapter 1, Perkins exhorts Christians to move beyond a charity mentality. He says:
America’s best intentions, most sincere thoughts, noblest efforts – all of these are useless to the urban poor if they do not connect with our personally defined, deepest felt needs. In fact, acts of charity can be dangerous because givers feel good about actions that actually accomplish very little, or even create dependency. The result is that their sense of satisfaction takes away any motivation to seek more creative long-range development strategies. Overcoming an attitude of charity is a difficult task because it requires givers to demand more of themselves than good will.
“Charity” is an interesting word. Once, the word “charity” was used by Bible translators to translate the Greek word for God’s sacrificing love. The word “charity” meant demonstrating a love that was consistent and selfless; a love that originated with God, worked by the Spirit of God, and demonstrated to the glory of God.
Today, a common definition of “charity” is “a kindly and lenient attitude toward people”. Thus, today “charity” may cause you to give a few dollars, but it rarely causes you to give your life. The poor, the sick, the needy, the widows, the orphans, the foreigners don’t need a few dollars in the long run. They need someone willing to love them with the love of God.
Perkins lists several obstacles for going beyond charity to offering lasting help for “the least” among us: a charity mentality, racial polarization, a victim mentality and self-doubt, and government programs. Notice that some of these obstacles are carried out by those attempting to help, while other obstacles are caused by “the least” themselves.
Perkins concludes this chapter with his answer to overcoming these obstacles:
I believe there is only one group of people in society who can overcome these obstacles. God’s people have solutions that are qualitatively different from any other approach to the poor. The best that God’s people have to offer is relationships with the poor that reflect the kind of carefully, quality attention we have in our own families. This is the high quality relationships offered by a people seeking to “love their neighbors as they love themselves”.
I agree with Perkins. The church of God has quality relationships to offer the poor. However, I haven’t seen this very often. Instead, I see the church offering as many, if not more, quick fixes as anyone else.
From Quick Fixes to Felt Needs
Perkins argues that in order for the church to offer lasting and quality relationships with the poor, we must begin with their felt needs. These are actual needs that are pressing and oppressing the people. He offers an old Chinese poem to illustrate the felt-need concept:
Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Start with what you know
Build on what they have;
But of the best leaders
When their task is done
The people will remark
“We have done it ourselves.”
You can see that Perkins continues to warn about the danger of building dependence on others. The poor do not need to become more dependent – unless it is becoming more dependent upon God.
While everyone’s needs are specific to the individual, Perkins says that felt-needs can be grouped into three categories: 1) the need to belong, 2) the need to be significant and important, and 3) the need for a reasonable amount of security.
He also exhorts Christians to practice “the three R’s of community development”:
- relocation – moving into a needy community so that its needs become our own needs
- reconciliation – The love and forgiveness of the gospel reconcile us to God and to each other across racial, social, and economic barriers.
- redistribution – Christ calls us to share with those in need.
The Marks of an Authentic Church
Perkins’ “marks” are quite different from marks of the church as taught by other people. I think that “the least” would most appreciate Perkins’ marks, and I think they would care less how we structure ourselves.
Perkins suggests that the church in America today is broadly divided along three different theological ideals:
- European theology – European theology was a theology of liberation for Europeans… America was to be the place where European Christians could be liberated from the oppressive European governments that suppressed their religious expression and conscience. In America, they could serve God as they pleased. But the liberation Europeans took for granted for themselves was not extended to the native Americans who were already here and whose land was taken by force, nor was it extended to Africans, who were brought here by force to work the land.
- Black theology – Africans took on our oppressor’s religion. Upon close examination, our black forefathers found that a proper reading and living of “the Book” did indeed mean liberation for everyone, including them. Because the European theology would not accommodate our liberation, we created our own form of the gospel… Like all theologies should be, it is a theology of liberation from oppression. But liberation to what? Back to Africa? To integration? Black theology has never adequately answered this questions.
- Latin American theology – As Latin American Christian leaders living among the poor looked at their world, they saw oppression in the form of colonization through military governments and dictators who dominated the countries’ resources and sold their countries’ natural wealth to the industrialized countries for their own profits. Latin American Christians who loved the poor began to see the gospel, not communism or capitalism, as the best way to liberate people from oppression… often stop[ping] short of a strong message of spiritual liberation.
What is the answer for the church today? According to Perkins, the answer is found in the gospel – not the European, Black, or Latin American gospel, but the whole gospel:
The alternative to these incomplete theologies is a theology based on God’s character of reconciliation… To reconcile people to God and then to each other is the purpose of the gospel. This is the theology that is the true work of the church… Living out the gospel means bringing good news of God’s love to people who are in need, demonstrating to them the love of Jesus and introducing them to the eternal life found only in him. When I refer to eternal life I don’t only mean the hereafter, but eternal life that beings here on earth and continues after… In short, living the gospel means desiring for your neighbor and your neighbor’s family that which you desire for yourself and your family.
According to Perkins, these are seven attributes that the Body of Christ should constantly be striving to incorporate into their existence:
The authentic church absorbs pain.
The authentic community of believers is also called to proclaim hope in a despairing world.
An authentic church should point to God’s authority.
The authentic church brings people together.
The authentic church spends lavishly on the needy.
The authentic church reflects God’s character.
The authentic community of faith protects the vulnerable.
I can see all of these descriptions of the church in the New Testament. I don’t see them very often today. In fact, I don’t see these descriptions much in my life… but that’s changing.