When Helping Hurts? Irony

David Burchard Book Shelf, Politics, Writings 2 Comments

I’m currently reading through a book on economic development, When Helping Hurts. The authors are presenting their case as the Christian and prudent perspective on poverty and helping the poor.

My issues with the book so far include: 1. arguing that the church is responsible to care for poverty of the world, even of those who do not belong to the household of faith (my critique of that idea can be found here and here), 2. confusing the causes and effects of poverty with the definition of poverty (my critique of that idea can be found here), and 3. unobserved irony.

My favorite unobserved irony so far can be found in Chapter Two’s reflection questions, found on page 68.

“In what ways do you suffer from a ‘god-complex’, the belief that you are superior to others and are well-positioned to determine what is best for them?”

The irony in the authors ending their chapter with this question is twofold.

First, when explaining the god-complex earlier in the chapter, a complex they understand to be bad, of which Christians ought to repent, they begin by defining the god-complex with a list of desires and pursuits that are actually commendable for a Christian man to be characterized by.

The authors confess that motivating their work to help the poor is the desire “to accomplish something worthwhile with my life, to be a person of significance, to feel like I have pursued a noble cause…to be a bit like God.” All of these desires are commendable. God has made man in his image, so of course it is good for a man to want to be “a bit like God”. God has made men to be leaders and providers, so it is good for a man to pursue significance in life, to pursue accomplishing meaningful things, to pursue noble causes like knights of old. We should want more men like this, not cite these desires as a cause for repentance.

It is true that in further explanation of this initial list the authors do write in a way that is directly conceptually associated with the reflection question at the end of the chapter. We certainly can find ourselves treating people like objects, objects of our creation which we are free to use simply to further our life’s goal of erecting a long-lasting self-esteem monument. This is what the authors seem to have in mind in this particular section of the chapter, but, structurally, they try to force fit this bad thing into the original list of good things. In this failure of labels and wording, the authors ironically say “bad” to what is bad and “bad” to what is good.

Second, while the authors criticize those with a ‘god-complex’, who believe that they are superior and know what’s best for lesser men, they build their chapter’s argument by citing Cornel West (51), a radical race baiter and socialist, who has literally built his academic career on the assumption that he personally knows best, and that the government should be one big and fat, Sanders Super-sized, nanny state, providing for the needs of its citizenry, the citizenry’s needs obviously being defined according to the state’s vast and benevolent wisdom.

That’s the definition of a god-complex, a government denying the people freedom from the belief that the people are too cretinous to know what to do with freedom. And that is ironic.

Comments 2

  1. This is a bit nit picky:
    1. The point of the book isn’t alleviating the poor. The title itself reveals that. It’s just an aside to a very important message—teach a man to fish, and teach him how to use his context’s tools. Better yet, learn from him so you can coach him, but dont take over and make everything happen. Let him do it himself wherever possible. (And then the bits about disaster relief, which was also super helpful).
    2. A god-complex is awful. Maybe their explanation of it is weak, but their chastisement of if is necessary.
    3. By attacking the person they cited, you’re committing a logical fallacy (genetic). Truth is truth no matter the speaker. Deal with what he said, not with who he was.

    1. Post

      Susanna, you are an evidently intelligent lady; and I appreciate your comments. Thank you.

      1. With you, I’m all for “teach a man to fish.” Yes and amen. If that is all the authors want to do, great. I’m with them. Assert the goodness of the adage; demonstrate the goodness of the adage. It appears that you and I are on the same page on that point.

      But, for whatever reason, the authors have decided to build their argument on chapters 1 and 2. This is almost certainly because they intend to target a Christian audience. But better to avoid explicit Bible interpretation than to do bad Bible interpretation. It weakens the book to start with bad Bible arguments. I link my criticisms to the main thrusts of chapters 1 and 2 in the above post. They are basically: 1. it is not the job of the local church to directly address the physical needs of the unbelieving world 2. the authors confuse the causes and effects of poverty with poverty itself, resulting in writing that sounds good but it incorrect.

      2. Agreed. A rightly defined god-complex is sin for which men must repent. But a wrongly defined god-complex is ironic and confusing; and, in a Western context that promotes male effeminacy and assaults good and godly masculine drive and ambition, calling good things bad things is certainly unhelpful. By putting some good things in the context of other clearly bad things, they tee up readers for some unhelpful false views on motivations.

      3. The point of my post was not to deconstruct Cornel West’s specific quote. So, while I disagree with the quote itself, it doesn’t further the point of my post to get side-tracked on it. Also, that is why I haven’t committed a logical fallacy. I did not argue, “This isn’t true because Cornel West said it.” That would be a fallacy. I’m arguing that the authors have done something quite ironic.

      Let’s say I want to write an article on the sanctity of human life. I begin and end the article with the assertion, “Human life has God-given dignity and so pre-born babies need to be protected.” As I argue my case in the body of the article, I want to quote a source in support of my claim, a well-respected and well-known source. So I decide to quote Planned Parenthood, which has recently tweeted about the dignity of life and the right to life. Now, that is ironic. Out of all the folks I could quote, I picked the organization that loves to dissect babies the womb and sell their body parts. It’s like giving a speech on the richness of Jewish culture and positively quoting Adolf Hitler.

      To use a major part of the chapter to condemn a god-complex, whilst having as your prominent, positive quotation a statement from Cornel West, whose career is dedicated to building an institution that runs on the god-complex, is ironic. That’s not fallacious to point out.

      Again, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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