“Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.” – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., from his book Credo.
Sam Hodges of the Dallas Morning News Religion asked several of his regular panelists comment on Coffin’s claim.
The quality of their answers varied considerably. James Dennison, President, Center for Informed Faith and Theologian-in-Residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had the best response:
Jesus was committed to both. He “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23, NIV). When he met the hungry, he fed them. When he spoke with authorities who contributed to the injustice of his society, he rebuked them (Matt. 23:23).
Of course, it’s more convenient to give a man a fish than to teach him to fish, especially when the powerful remain wealthy so long as he remains their hungry consumer. When people of faith give charity to those in need, society applauds. When they challenge the structures which perpetuate need, society fights back.
Justice has its price. Warren Bennis, the bestselling writer on leadership, observed that there exists an unconscious conspiracy in every organization to maintain the status quo for the future benefits of current participants.
Early Christians were more than willing to pay that price. Dr. King said of them, “The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
How many Episcopal churches do you of know that are doing charity work, but aren’t doing anything to solve injustices? How many have feeding programs, but aren’t engaged in finding solutions to the trap the poor find themselves in their area.
Is Coffin on target? Is charity easy, and justice work hard? Are we cynical of about our abilities to have an influence on the causes of poverty and oppression?