To Give or Not to Give? Rethinking Dependency, Restoring Generosity, and Redefining Sustainability
John Rowell. Atlanta, GA: Authentic, 2007. 262 pages.
I have seen the negative consequences of paternalism and dependency, both as a fruit of my early attempts at helping poor neighbors in Honduras, and as a result of the actions of other individuals and institutions. I have, to a large degree, accepted the conventional wisdom that because of the risk of creating dependency we must be guarded in giving money, and especially cautious about giving ongoing subsidies. Yet I have also observed various denominations in Honduras go through the process of being weaned off of support from the North through the simple calculus of reducing the amount of money given by a set amount each year. This approach felt arbitrary and cold. It generally led to serious cutbacks in programs and personnel. I wondered, “If we are resource rich, shouldn’t we share?” For years I have felt the tension between these two—concern for avoiding dependency and the obscene contrast between our wealth and their poverty.
John Rowell aims to ease the tension by calling for extravagant generosity and challenging the conventional wisdom on dependency. It is not that Rowell denies that dependency has negative effects, but he questions the remedy often proposed: refusing financial support to indigenous ministries in poorer parts of the world. He boldly shifts the focus from the receiver to the giver. Paternalism creates dependency. Dependency occurs when reciprocity and responsibility are ignored. If the giver treats the receiver as a child, who is causing the dependency? Where does the problem lie?
Rowell urges that, rather than seeking to avoid dependency, we work to foster interdependency. He argues that the chief problem is the strings that the wealthy attach to their gifts. He asks, “Can we not learn to share with those less fortunate than ourselves without controlling their lives and ministries in the process?” (41). He calls us to step away from the ideal of self-supporting ministries, which is rooted in Western values of individualism, autonomy, and power, and embrace a biblical ideal of covenantal relationships. In one chapter Rowell gives an example of how he has had to do this in Bosnia. In other chapters he shares principles and characteristics of this covenantal approach.
Rowell has great insights, but the book as a whole does not match their excellence. There is needless repetition, and he gives different lists of principles without synthesizing or coordinating them. He covers a number of corollary topics, such as missionary lifestyle, strategies for overcoming global poverty, history of the three-self paradigm, and the U.S. welfare state. Although in some cases, like the latter two, he insightfully makes connections to his thesis, in other cases he simply summarizes the work of others. Although the topics are important, they do not significantly advance his central argument.
Rowell briefly discusses the corrupting influences of riches, focusing on those of us in wealthier settings. Mammon, however, has a corrupting influence in all settings. Although I applaud his call for generosity, I wish he would have paid some attention to what can be done to limit the negative influence of Mammon in poorer settings as well. Yet the book is worth reading because of its clear and powerful analysis of and confrontation with conventional wisdom on how to avoid dependency, and because it provides not just critique but alternatives. Rowell’s arguments merit our attention as North American churches work at making the shift from being the parent church to being a sibling to churches around the globe.