Friday, February 15, 2013

When Helping Hurts by Steven Corbett

This is one of those books that suffers, as some christian apologetics do, from the author coming up with a theory based on a limited amount of scripture, and then trying to make all ministry done by the church, a parachurch, or christians fall under the principles derived from his theory. Corbett decides that we all suffer from some combination of spiritual poverty (Poverty of spiritual intimacy), relational poverty (Poverty  of community), stewardship poverty (Poverty of Stewardship), or self-image poverty (Poverty of being), and our failure to properly acknowledge and deal with our poverty hinders us in our dealings with others with their own "sickness", which can result in material poverty, i.e., being poor, but all of these conditions can apply to even christians with plenty of material wealth. Rick Warren did a better job of gathering all church activities into groups in The Purpose Driven Church, but though Corbett does have some interesting insights into how we all do charitable work, his analysis is fundamentally flawed, in my opinion.

He does have some interesting insights, gained over his years of serving in poverty-focused ministries. The book is structured like a training guide, perhaps originally published as a workbook for a class taught by the Chalmers Center, where he works.

An interesting thought on the nature of the universe, and original sin:

"...the all-encompassing effects of the fall, it is important to remember that neither humans nor the systems they create are as bad as they could possibly be. Christ continues to 'hold all things together' and to 'sustain all things by his powerful word.' Hence, while the good creation - including both individuals and the systems they create - is deeply distorted, it retains some of its inherent goodness."

That's an interesting perspective that seems to riff on the idea that "all good gifts come from the Father". I'm not certain, from a Calvinist perspective, which holds to the idea that anything we do which is not led by the Spirit through rebirth in Christ is "as filthy rags," how valid that might be, but it's certainly something to consider - that all the good things in the world are the result of Christ's efforts. Hmmm.

One interesting concept Corbett expounds upon is that when working with the poor, one has to determine whether "the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development." When the need is immediate, such as after a fire or flood, situational poverty can be effectively aided, urgently and temporarily, through rapid relief. Once the situation stabilizes, rehabilitation by helping victims to work towards recovery, by donating labor or materials, or acting in an advisory capacity. What appears to be best, in Corbett's view is the act of development, moving "all the people involved, both the 'helpers' and the 'helped' closer to being in a right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.

I'm not sure exactly, how one comes to be in a right relation with the entire creation, but it sounds a bit like environmental gobbledegook to me. Sorry.

Actually, Corbett defines this a bit, and it's not quite that bad - evidently many cultures in what he calls "The Majority World" believe that unpredictable spirits control creation, and humans really have no way to affect their own destinies, rather fatalistic. If people are taught that God gave humans the right and responsibility to dominate creation, they are positively influenced to change their circumstances.

Corbett really hammers on short term missions, which have gained an astounding amount of participation today, especially in evangelical circles. He believes that they often do more harm than good, leaving indigenous pastors and staff reeling when the missions teams have departed, trying to live up to the standards set in the whirlwind of activity. Also, when the missions are project-based, like building a new home or church or feeding station, the first-worlders are far too focused on getting the job done as rapidly as possible, given a) their limited time and b)western culture's preoccupation with schedules and efficiency, rather than allowing the locals to set goals, manage the project, and take responsibility for their own development. Possibly valid points all, but I really hate to think that we would in any way discourage folks, especially young people, from going on a short term mission to introduce them to missions work in the first place, and to shake up their comfortable world view a bit, so they understand what life is like outside of the U.S.

Corbett does provide a number of concrete techniques and examples of how to properly assess and address needs in different situations, such as Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), Participatory Learning and Action (PLA), and Appreciative Inquiry (AI). He also spends quite a bit of space talking about various microfinancing endeavors in the Majority World, which is quite interesting.

One final concept I found interesting is what he had to say about different perspectives of time. In Western Culture, we have a "monochronic" view, which sees time as a "limited and valuable resource." We're very focused on schedules, see wasting time as a sin, and procrastination a vice. In other cultures, there is a "polychronic" view, which sees time as an unlimited resource. The "manana" culture of Latin America comes immediately to mind. Also, hunting season in Idaho. Time "takes a backseat to forming and deepening relationships." He claims that people in polychronic cultures have deeper and more meaningful relationships than most Westerners. Not sure that's automatically true, but it's certainly a pitfall to avoid for many of us, who struggle with prioritizing work time, vacation time, and family time.

This is a good book to read for anyone who's looking for some new perspectives on helping the poor, wherever they may happen to be in the world.

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