Moving Beyond Ourselves
Regardless of the type of poverty work being done, I am convinced that most people drawn to it have a moral compass that points them to believing it is the right thing to do. However, the ways we perform poverty work all have mindsets. Ethical poverty work is about advocacy towards empowerment, shifting beyond a “rescue” mentality. What separates the ethical from the exploitative is moving past selfish desires as the primary motivation for our work.
The ethical mindset is the highest form outside of a Christian perspective. People in this mindset really want to create a “win-win” world. They value authenticity so actions speak louder than words and character counts. Advocacy towards empowerment becomes an identity lifestyle. It usually comes in the form of organized charity work.
According to the Praxis organization, it was not until the turn of the twentieth century—starting in the United States with the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 — that these charitable efforts were granted a special legal status called a nonprofit. Today, there are over one million public charities in the U.S., all with the goal of making the world a better place. Christians are drawn to both create and work in many of these types of organizations.
Thank God for all those who operate from the ethical mindset. History shows people operating ethically have done much good for our society. I call it pursuing the common good. What is the common good? It is the answer to two questions. What do those who have put their faith in Christ have in common with those who have not? And what can they do together to make the world a better place? When the ideas that flow from these answers find synergy and resources, great things happen.
However, danger lies in this mindset and I see it often. Well-meaning Christians enter poverty work when they realize that God cares deeply for the poor. After some time, they discover the faith they own is too narrow to engage the injustices she or he confront daily. And instead of growing in their faith, they either develop a diluted lukewarm version or they abandon it altogether for humanism and political activism. The “deconversion” becomes the tangible proof that their advocacy really was a higher form of the exploitative, rescue mentality.
In his article "Goodbye Christ, I’ve Got Justice Duty," Michael O. Emerson tells a story of a pastor who realized just how deep racial inequality affects our world. At the same time, he gained perspective on the role that the institution of the Church played making the race problem worse. He embraced advocacy from an ethical mindset.
His identity changed, and he was consumed by justice for the oppressed. This led to questioning not only his seminary education but the validity of the Bible itself. He changed his personal morality code, especially when it came to civility. The story ends with the statement, “Justice must be achieved, even if it cost him his faith, which in the end, it did.” This is a sad story, mainly because it didn’t have to be that way. He needed to make a shift beyond the ethical, in which I’ll talk more about in my post next week.