Written by Kyuboem Lee
Friday, 20 December 2013 00:00
Christmas Gifts for the Poor
It has become a well-established tradition in the Western world for good folks to come together at the end of the year and give back to the community by looking out for the less fortunate among us, in the spirit of the season.
We give out turkeys and serve at soup kitchens during Thanksgiving.
We make out checks to worthy charities and make year-end, tax-deductible gifts.
And we purchase toys—good ones that we’d get for our own kids, not some cheap, dollar-store kinds—and bring them wrapped to poor homes and deliver them to delighted children who wouldn’t have been able to enjoy such warm Christmas cheer if not for us good people.
What could possibly be more demonstrative of the Christmas spirit?
Not very much, thought the good people of “Creekside Community Church” (recounted in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, 65-67). The church members went door to door in a nearby public housing project, singing Christmas carols and delivering said gifts to the kids.
The ministry seemed like a huge success. They had overcome racial and class barriers and reached out in a positive way to address poverty, and the laughter of the children made it all worthwhile. Brilliant.
However, after a few years, people began noticing that despite their efforts, the lives of the project residents didn’t improve. Moreover, only children and women were around to welcome the ministry teams; the men were nowhere to be found.
“Deadbeat welfare queens don’t deserve our help,” some started saying. Others weren’t as harsh (or as right-wing politically), but still felt unmotivated at the lack of real results.
The ministry dwindled away.
This story has been repeated in various settings so often that by now it is a predictable one. We shouldn’t be surprised at how it ends, but we are.
Is it possible that we are missing something?
And is there a way to introduce change to this narrative?
There are a lot of things we could say, but let’s keep the discussion to some brief observations.
Let’s start with the absent man of the house. Unbeknownst to the Christmas ministry members, there are husbands present in many households. But when the team comes by, he would disappear into an inner room or leave through the back door. Why? Because the good people bringing fancy gifts to his children were doing what he should have been—they were usurping his role—and it shamed him. It was yet another reminder that he was poor, less worthy in the eyes of the world, unable to carry out his fatherly duties.
Rich and poor have fundamentally different definitions of poverty. As Corbett & Fikkert point out, the materially rich see poverty as a lack of material resources. So the solution to poverty is found in supplying material goods to the poor. But the materially poor don’t see poverty in the same way. They primarily define poverty in terms of “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness” (53).
From the poor’s perspective, you can see that the well-meaning ministry team has further exacerbated the husband’s sense of shame, instead of helping him and his family.
The ministry team may have also done damage to themselves as well, because they could have allowed themselves more leeway in feeling indignant towards the “undeserving poor” who won’t help themselves despite all the help received, or in feeling self-righteous for a job well done in spite of the odds. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Bible itself teaches that sin is deceptive (Jeremiah 17:9); we can very easily disguise our messiah complex in the garb of our own good works, and feel further affirmed in the belief of our own virtuosity over against others.
Moreover, the relationship between the do-gooder and the poor has also experienced further brokenness. The relationship between the haves and the have-nots is already fraught with unequal power dynamics and perceptions of one’s relative superiority or inferiority. Interactions such as these can, if not carefully and self-critically evaluated, reinforce those perceptions and simply be used as validation of the status quo.
The social structure that has shaped this relationship must be transformed into one that is defined by justice.
We are familiar with the sayings, “Without justice there is no peace,” and “Justice is more than charity.” If we are to transform the narrative, perhaps a good place to start is with repentance and confession that we live in a broken, unjust world and participate in its brokenness and injustice. A transformation of the relationship is necessary if the narrative is to change.
I am reminded of a story told by the late Harvie Conn, one of my teachers in seminary. While he was a missionary in Korea many years ago, he reached out to prostitutes and held Bible studies with them. He thought, “Prostitutes are sinners; Jesus loves sinners; I should minister to them; perhaps they will change their sinful ways.” For a long time, though, no one changed. Until one day, someone did, and, Conn recalls, “that person was me.” His eyes were opened to how the prostitutes had been exploited for the gain of the powerful. The prostitutes were sinners, but they were also sinned-against. With this realization, he began to see how his American middle-class morality had blinded him to the structural injustice at the heart of our life together.
Acknowledging that this injustice exists would go a long way towards healing the rift between the haves and the have-nots. Then, perhaps, we could think together of what would really benefit the family in the projects.
What does such a family really need?
They might answer: decent employment. Christmas gifts are nice, but they don’t change the fact that mom and dad aren’t bringing home enough pay to take care of everything, no matter how hard they work.
Perhaps the question could change to: Is there a way to provide Christmas gifts to the families at a lower cost? Some have found that this is a more dignifying way to provide gifts, and went the route of low-cost Christmas gift stores where parents could shop with their own money and gift the kids themselves on Christmas morning.
Going back to employment, is there a way the good, religious people can work towards providing these families with more opportunities for employment that pays a decent wage?
Or: Can we work together to address structural issues at city or state levels that adversely affect those with less clout?
More questions need to be asked. At the heart of these questions is the bigger question: What kind of community are we called to be?
I pray that opening up these new vistas can lead to real help for those who are struggling with poverty, as well as to those who, unbeknownst to themselves, suffer from a messiah complex. Perhaps this process of repentance, reconciliation, and justice-seeking together is more of a Christmas gift for us all than the gift of toys ever will be.