Repost: “They don’t sell clothes, they sell dignity”

Hacking Missions

A pastoral colleague sent me an interview with Robert Lupton whose recent book Toxic Charity has some controversial elements in it, among them criticizing the one-way relationship charities often have: The people with food give food to those without, etc.  Here’s a quote from the interview:

Q: You say churches and charities can harm those they propose to help. How?

A: Typically, the giving is one-way: those of us with the resources give to those with a lack of resources. One-way giving tends to make the poor objects of pity, which harms their dignity. It also erodes their work ethic and produces a dependency that is unhealthy both for the giver and the recipient.

I was reminded of a brief blog post from two years ago that is reprinted with some edits below. I think it encapsulates the charity work in a relational context rather than a one-way context.

September 24, 2009

I was traveling with a wise elder minister. We drove through a town and saw two different churches side by side.  The United Methodist church ran a clothing store where clothing was sold for 25 cents, jeans for $1, shoes for $2, etc. The other church advertised free clothes, jeans, and shoes.  Neither was open at that time in the evening so I had no idea of which was busier.

My travel companion and I had the following conversation:

Me: Well, I hope the Methodists don’t get put outta business.

Elder (craning her neck to see the churches): I would hope so, because that means that everyone is clothed and taken care of.

Me: I meant that the other church is giving clothes away while the UM church is selling their clothes. Seems like an easy choice.

Elder (twinkle in her eye): You think the UM church is selling clothes? They aren’t. Anytime you can buy something and feel a bit more like the rest of the world, you are getting dignity in the deal. So they aren’t selling clothes. They’re selling dignity.

Wow.  Neat.


(Image credit: Charity on Flickr)

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  1. Lisa Beth says

    Thank you! When things become “stuff we don’t want” it doesn’t automatically mean that those things are “stuff other people need”. Asking what people need or want rather than assuming what they need or want also gives them dignity and recognizes that we are equals.

  2. says

    Sure, maybe for some poor, but ‘selling dignity’ means that we’re still tying up a human’s value in money. That unless you can earn that money, you’re worthless. So despite me having enough, I’m a stay at home mom and don’t outright Earn anything, therefore, where’s my worth, my dignity? Am I only getting some when I shop? Consume and I shall be redeemed? I can be part of the community when I can spend, spend, spend? What an awful message.

  3. Kathleen Warren says

    Interesting. I think there is room, a lot of room, for both. I think we are to despise the shame that others would love to throw at us and prop themselves up against and retain every ounce of dignity regardless of whether we have what might be considered an equal exchange or not. If I were to offer Christ a drink of water or a piece of bread or a visit while imprisoned … who would really benefit?

  4. Kathleen Warren says

    Sometimes it is NOT that the person supposedly IN NEED needs to act, but just as frequently the person who IS CALLED UPON TO ACT NEEDS TO RESPOND! To give should be at least as humbling as to receive.

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