Don’t you just hate it/love it when a book takes a long-standing ministry practice or cultural disposition you’ve unwittingly nurtured and totally applies the ol’ command-option-esc (or control-alt-delete to be P.C.) to completely reset things? A text I’ve been reading for the Kern Reading group at Talbot School of Theology--namely, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012)--just pulled this on me. Let me explain.

I’ve spent most of my life in and around communities desiring to care for the financially underprivileged. As the mouthpiece for several campaigns around charitable initiatives, I’ve found myself often falling back on a fairly “motivating” messaging strategy: Look at the difference you can make! These folks need what you’ve got! You can change the world! It seems, Corbett and Fikkert suggest, my well-intentioned efforts at filling hungry bellies may have concurrently, though inadvertently, been filling the belly of an additional party: a “god-complex.” They define this complex as “a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which [the economically rich] believe that they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves” (61). Ouch ... and eureka! Though a rather one-sided “you-can-make-a-difference” commercial may get folks on the bus, it tends to reinforce a narrative which misses a critical point, and one of the major premises of Corbett and Fikkert’s book: “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (61). The truth, they maintain, is that both the financially well-to-do and those in material poverty “are broken and that both...need the blessing of reconciliation” (75). Rather than envisioning our relationship with the materially poor as one of bringing “relief” to the helpless or “fixing the problems” of others, the authors advocate an approach to development that “moves all the people involved—both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’—closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation” (100).

One dimension of this development process, Corbett and Fikkert contend, involves an “ongoing repentance” on the part of those in financially privileged positions in which they “embrace the message of the cross ... saying ... every day: ‘I am not okay; and you are not okay; but Jesus can fix us both.’” Another facet involves “showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities.” This beautiful journey, the authors conclude, helps “them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we [relatively well-off North American Christians] recover from our sense of pride” (64).

I’m still very much processing these concepts (and I’m a total rookie to Corbett and Fikkert’s field). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think of the reciprocity ubiquitously underscored in the ministry relationships of Paul of Tarsus. His relationship with the Christ-confessing communities at Thessalonica, for example, was not one of “I came, I preached, y’all benefited, you’re welcome”, but, “... now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:6–8, NASB). He doesn’t frame his relationship with Onesimus as “enfranchised patron (Paul) expending his valuable time and status to ‘save’ a low-status, highly vulnerable runaway slave.” Rather, he showcases Onesimus as “useful both to you and to me” and a brother Paul sends to Philemon’s house church as if “sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel” (Philemon 11­–13). Finally, though examples could be multiplied, Paul ends his magnificent letter to the Romans with an extended greeting section (chapter 16) gushing with gratitude for the many amazing women and men God provided to strengthen the church-planting and equipping ministry in which Paul was involved.

I will leave it to the community development scholars and practitioners to critique and/or affirm the many practical tools, methodologies, studies, and statistics in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself. As far as the book prescribes thoroughgoing mutuality, ongoing repentance (i.e. giving the “god complex” no quarter), and reconciliation-postured ministry, I think Paul of Tarsus would review it with a resounding “Amen!”