When You’re Afraid Of Being Toxic

by FCS on

by Shawn Duncan

What do we do if someone knocks on our church door asking for lunch? What if a new immigrant family in our congregation needs a crib and baby clothes? What if a neighbor asks for help getting Christmas gifts for her kids?

Should we help? Should we give? Should we “empower”? What does that mean? What does it look like to support creative, “non-toxic” acts of charity in my real life?

Toxic Charity, in many ways, is a book about the unintended negative consequences of our best efforts to do good. Since it was published in 2012, we have learned, interestingly enough, that Toxic Charity has itself had some unintended negative consequences. One is what I like to call "Compassion Paralysis."

Compassion Paralysis

Our desire to do good "the right way" can have a paralyzing effect on practitioners. Once a person becomes aware of how well-intentioned charity can actually do more harm than good, they can get stuck not knowing if what they are doing is right or wrong.  

The fear of being “toxic” can become overwhelming. And the unfortunate result may be that they do nothing at all. Their genuine compassion gets paralyzed by the fear of doing harm.

Acts of Compassion

At FCS, we want to encourage people to make room for honest, everyday acts of compassion. Taking time to respond to someone who is hurting or in need is a good and faithful thing to do. Compassion is part of what makes us God’s image bearers. Squashing that in the name of “getting it right” is not the goal!

We need to make room to practice and celebrate acts of compassion. Acts of compassion are amazing because they are simple ways neighbors can care for neighbors as a way of building relationships and creating a community of mutual support.

Toxicity, on the other hand, enters when we turn acts of compassion into a programmatic effort to treat poverty’s symptoms rather than its causes. Our compassion becomes damaging when we try to programmatically address chronic poverty with crisis interventions.

It is one thing to share a meal with a person experiencing homelessness, sharing your story with each other, praying together, and allowing a mutual blessing to occur. It is another thing to decide to create a nonprofit that hands out free lunches every day on a street corner with claims to be addressing the hunger crisis among the homeless in your city.

See acts of compassion as a way to build new relationships. Find ways to make the mutual rather than one-way. And if you sense a call to address the root issue creating this need, make sure you implement the principles of responsible charity.


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