Is charity work an excuse for avoiding justice work?

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“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?

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20 Responses to "Is charity work an excuse for avoiding justice work?"
  1. Would Coffin be frustrated that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, yet failed to develop a robust public policy? I would personally define them this way: Social justice is making someone else bring in the Kingdom. Charity is doing it yourself.

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  2. That's why, Ryan, the Church celebrates Saints Ananias & Sapphira, who said "No!" to that Evil Peter, who had the audacity to "mak[e] someone else bring in the Kingdom" (Acts 5). Oh, waitaminnit...

    JC Fisher

    [Yup, I think "Article XXXVIII" is a sell-out of the Church and the Gospel. Good thing it's only in those (irrelevant) Historical Documents now!]

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  3. I agree Ryan, and I'm perplexed as to why an Episcopalian would say that the 39 Articles are irrelevant...it's amazing how some people have replaced the Gospel itself with certain "issues"...

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  4. Charity alleviates the immediate effects of structural injustice and fallen nature, and is not to be despised. However, it can never be more than a stop-gap measure. Unfortunately, the entire Church (including the Episcopal Church) is far too narcissistic to put more than tepid energy into rebuking a society where wealth continues to migrate to the top .5% of the population, and where militarism and obscene military spending are keeping vast segments of our citizenry sick, poor and under-educated, to say nothing of the concomitant havoc and death wreaked round the globe.

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  5. Bumper sticker theology aside, Ryan, the duty of Christians to work for justice is expressed repeatedly in Scripture.

    Roger, I think if you read Article XXXVIII of the 39 Articles, you will see that they support the point that JC is making, and that he is being sarcastic.

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  6. We're looking at this distinction in the Diocese of Maine. One of our seminarians - for her senior project - is developing a blog and on-line resource that will serve as a clearing house for mercy (charity) opportunities and resources in our churches and other faith and community groups in Maine and also highlight opportunities to become involved in social justice advocacy on various issues.

    Our Domestic Poverty Working Group, a small group that is supporting her efforts, recognizes that people's gifts and inclinations for ministry usually don't cover both types of activity: some of us are mercy types and some of us are justice types. So the thinking is to provide resources and connections for the followers of Jesus to each do what they are best at doing.

    The site - which will be launched in late fall - is called justiceandmercyme.org

    Heidi Shott

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  7. Mr. Penfold's definition of justice leaves something to be desired; it removes personal responsibility.

    Justice is nothing more than the public face of Christlike love. Love is wanting (and working for) the best for another, even at the cost of not getting the best for oneself. So volunteering at a soup kitchen is love. But Christlike love becomes too much for a human when the crowd gets too big.

    Justice, as the public face of Christlike love, is ensuring that all God's children (= all persons) have equal access to the things necessary to live and to the things that give abundant life. So advocating for food programs from the government would be justice.

    The answer to "Who is my neighbor?" is clearly "all persons," and we are commanded by God to love our neighbor (thus, to love all persons). Thus, every Christian is commanded to work for justice.

    Love God. Love everybody else. That means: make sure everyone has equal access to healthy food, clean water, shelter, clothing, medical care, knowledge, learning, a spiritual life, etc.

    The world needs both love and justice. We are all called by God to the work of both love and justice. They dance together in the life of a faithful Christian.

    In Christ's love,

    Undercover Nun

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  8. Heidi - That sounds on target.

    Ryan and Tod, I think are both both wide of the mark although for different reasons. Each has their own bumper sticker.

    Justice isn't just calling for change in national policy. As congregations we're _also_ called to do roll up your sleaves justice. If we're ignoring justice issues in our locality that don't lend themselves to mere changes in government policy we're falling short of loving mercy and doing justice.

    Many churches do, of course, have after school programs or members who work one-on-one with at-risk kids. This is more in the category of justice than mercy -- at least to me. But even here these programs aren't taking a look at all the factors that make up the poverty trap.

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  9. To attempt to equate charity with social justice is, to my mind, akin to those willing to pitch in to help feed the hungry at Christmas - one meal a year doesn't cut it. Nor would anyone in their right mind call it social justice.

    DIY social justice (charity) may ease the mind and soul, but it does little for the individual in need long term. That can ONLY be addressed by those in power.

    The point some seem to miss is that anyone, even an unknown pastor from a Baptist church in Atlanta, can influence those in power - what is required is people willing to believe in that message. The effects may not be immediate, but they are felt long-term.

    [Hello first time commenter. Note our comment policy. If your signin name isn't your name, put your name at the end of your comments. Thanks. - eds.

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  10. I wouldn't equate DiY social justice with charity. And I wouldn't say that all justice problems can be remedied only by those in power. It's necessary for those in power to play their part, but it's not sufficient. Unless you're including us as part of those in power.

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  11. I would liken this distinction to the distinction between relief and development. Episcopal Relief and Development, for example, does both (hence the name). I think one needs to do both--address the immediate crisis or need and work to deal with the systemic issues. Charity without justice is ultimately futile, justice work without charity seems heartless. As was pointed out, Jesus did both.

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  12. Mr. Chilton... why are the kids at risk? Why are the after-school programs necessary? It's wonderful and vital that someone is taking the time to lovingly help individuals who are in any kind of need. What is also required from the Church is the vision and fortitude to confront the flawed policies which leave people in desperate straits in the first place. Without that institutional and collective commitment, the flow of desperation will never be diminished. But if all we can do as a Church is fume and fuss over an endless string of intramural conflicts, we will never be able to perform our priestly function of bringing good news to a suffering world, and we will certainly never engage the imaginations and passions of young Christians, who need more than altar guilds and tag sales to make them think that the faith has some pertinence to their lives.

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  13. Tod Jones - In responding to your last comment, I'm in enthusiastic agreement except on one point. Flawed public policy (and, worse, use of the political process to keep schools underfunded, bus lines out of reach of jobs, etc.) is, as I've said, only part of the equation as I've said. Some of us are good at advocating for better public policy. But I'm convinced that better public policy alone isn't going to bring justice even under some idealized political process. Some of the problems of the poverty trap just don't lend themselves to public policy solutions. That's part one. And part two is, I'm convinced each of congregations has a realm of expertise and influence that can be tapped and isn't always when it comes to doing justice.

    If injustice is systemic, and I agree it is, I don't believe the system can be changed through mere public policy. Systems are more organic than that, and we're part of them. And I think young people are aware of that and see the hypocrisy of an approach that has only one track. You need policy advocacy for the powerless and grassroots involvement with the powerless.

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  14. Because justice can be defined in many different ways, it is not clear what is being debated here. Is justice punishment (or even a cover for cruelty), restoration of the community, or something even broader, such as in Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, for whom it is an infinite responsiblity. One is always responsible and can never get off the hook, says Levinas/Derrida. If it is ininfite, then it is related to love. Is charity a synonym for love as infinite responsiblity or is to be defined as simply going through the motions to fix an unjustice system? Or is it simply sentimentality?

    Derrida says justice as infinite is the only thing that cannot be deconstructed. Justice is always to come and can never be present as such. To say justice has been done is unethical because it makes it seem as if everything has been fixed and moral ambiguities definitively resolved.

    People have to make do with substitutes for what can never be. Justice is, to use a big word, a catachresis.

    I didn't enter into the other problem of how just could be defined as whatever God says, even if it were not just according to any particular brand of ethics. "Just" could mean injustice in that case.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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  15. I entirely concede your point, Mr. Chilton, that better policy will not alleviate all our woes. What I see in my parish is a group of loving people who year after year give of their time and resources in countless ways to make our community stronger and more cohesive. No doubt more could be done, and we could probably find better ways to do it. But a lot of good flows into the immediate community from the local church. I agree with you that this is laudable, and that we need always to be exploring ways to be even more effective on this front.

    What I would like to see is a stronger more united stance from the major denominations of the Church on social justice. Policies will determine whether we go to war or pursue diplomatic means of conflict resolution. Policies will determine whether we spend our money on prisons or rehabilitation. Policies will determine whether someone can go to the doctor or not. The Catholic, Orthodox and Reformation Churches have together, in potential, a powerful, authoritative voice which could be used to turn the tide of events in favor of the suffering. But statements on such momentous issues as war and peace are not made in unison by the churches, and are not made insistently enough, in part because we are too inward-looking to make the alleviation of suffering on the large scale a priority.

    I don't see this as an either/or debate. We need charity and social justice, and both are proper endeavors for the Church.

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  16. I think if you read Article XXXVIII of the 39 Articles, you will see that they support the point that JC is making, and that he is being sarcastic.

    The first part of my post was sarcastic, Jim (Ananias & Sapphira aren't saints, Peter---while perhaps a bit extreme/maybe not infallible? ;-/---isn't Evil).

    But I *do* honestly (unsarcastically) believe that Art. XXXVIII was a sell-out of the New Testatment Church (though Articles are merely reiterating a sell-out made centuries before).

    But let me get back on-topic: like many of y'all---and like the Baptist (!) quoted---I believe that "Charity vs Social Justice" is a false dichotomy.

    To be Christ-like, one must always be OPEN to the immediate needs of one's brother or sister, right in front of them (Charity).

    But did Jesus care for ONLY the blind, and hungry, and paralysed, right in front of him? The ones he could tactiley touch?

    No!

    His love was for ALL of them---NOT just eschatologically, but in the Here&Now. And he expressed his love not only by his direct touch, by but speaking Truth to worldly power, too (Social Justice).

    That's what the Church must be about, too. "Bread for the World" . . . AND the Episcopal Public Policy Network. It's not an Either/Or.

    JC Fisher

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  17. I apologize for my original reply being trite. I feel that a focus on political work misses the motivation from which Christian love flows--it is self-giving, self-offering, self-emptying.

    The general consensus seems to be that charity is a band-aid, stop-gap. 'Of course it's *ok* and *good* but it doesn't really *do* anything.' Charity assuages a guilty conscience without having to get down & dirty.

    Perhaps we need to redefine/recapture what charity means. Charity, in my opinion, demands more, going further than the political, systemic, societal. Charity isn't giving some, it's giving everything. Charity ought to mean societal transformation as an outcome of personal transformation.

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  18. I understand you better now, Ryan. I wonder, though, why political work can't be self-emptying. I had a friend who was involved in lobbying against US policy in Central America in the 1980s. He said one of the things he had to learn to let go of was the good opinion of certain other people. This seems like a kind of self-emptying to me. No?

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  19. To piggy back on that, Jim: one can't talk about returning to the New Testament Church model (e.g., "all goods in common", "turn the other cheek to one's enemies") without expecting to "let go of was the good opinion of certain other people" . . . esp. other Christians! ("That's not realistic" being the chief diss)

    JC Fisher

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