How to discern between charity and justice – Means and ends are not the same

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

“I will tell you, O human, what is good and what the Lord demands of you. To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
(Micah 6:8)

Charity is an act of kindness. There are times when charity can be an appropriate and necessary response to people in crisis. It can become a lifeline to people on the verge of drowning.
Bishop Johnson

There are also limitations, however, associated with the giving of charity: Limitations that must not be ignored; limitations that challenge us to move beyond Charity to Justice.

What are these limitations?

With charity the life of the receiver does not change for the long term. Charity gives a momentary reprieve but it does not provide a lasting solution to the problems of life.
Charity is seductive: It makes the giver feel good about helping someone in need. This “high” can actually help preserve the unjust system that makes the giving of charity necessary.
Charity can also cause shame. This results as receivers find themselves in a vulnerable situation, dependent on others for help.
Charity also leads to fatigue in the giver. After responding a few times with help, people are often eager to help someone else. This is why food closets often have a limit to how much and how often they will help one individual. When they have used up their services from us, then they will have to go without.
With charity the giver feels good, relieved of guilt, but the recipient soon feels the same old hunger pains. In fact, the giving of charity can actually makes a bad situation worse as the root cause continues to exist but the motivation to solve the problem is alleviated.

Charity not enough

Surely, there has to be a better way! Charity is not enough.

Where charity addresses the symptoms of life problems, justice digs down to deal with the sins that are the root causes of injustice in the world. Justice calls for systemic change in society itself, and such change does not come without a real battle.

Someone has to say: ‘Enough! This has to stop!’

John Wesley caused riots with his preaching against the slave trade in Bristol, England. People were becoming rich through the forced servitude of others. It took fervent political action to bring about a change. Laws had to be passed. Someone had to speak out for change.

This is the cry of justice. Someone has to say: “Enough! This has to stop!”

Is this not what we celebrate as we remember the courage of the prophets, women and men called by God, unafraid to speak truth in the halls of power? The work of justice requires a commitment to solidarity, to join our voices to the cries of the exploited, the abused, the neglected, the disenfranchised, the tortured and the invisible.

Not behind closed doors

This is why Methodism worked for prohibition, child labor laws, and the right to unionize. This is why Methodists have boycotted lettuce, baby formula, Taco Bell and FedEx.

This is why Methodists marched against Jim Crow laws, integrated their churches, and registered people to vote.

This is why Methodists provide sanctuary to the undocumented people and march on Washington for humane, comprehensive immigration reform.

Justice does not work behind closed doors. Justice opens up the doors so all the world can see the dirty little secrets that dehumanize the lives of so many. Justice tells the truth and refuses to be ignored.

The difference between charity and justice could be seen in the example of someone helping a blind person across the street. The person who is helping the blind person is giving an act of charity.

Justice, though, would involve asking deeper questions. How did the person become blind?

Perhaps it was River Blindness? There is a lot of this in Africa. It is a disease caused by a virus that comes from exposure to a particular insect. With a simple medication it can be prevented, but the medicines are expensive and the distribution system is difficult.

Justice would call us to find ways to make this medicine affordable and available to the many people now being stricken by horrible illness.

Another question would be: “What is wrong with the street lights?” The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that street signs have “blind-friendly” pedestrian talking features that tell when it is safe to cross. Justice would call us to require the state to install these signs as the federal law requires.

How about the educational background of the blind person? Was he or she given an opportunity to learn mobility and the use of a cane? Has he or she been given the benefit of rehabilitation training that teaches the blind how to cross a street safely without requiring help? Justice would call upon the state to provide these services.

Charity, without justice, leaves the blind person dependent on more and more charity. Justice, on the other hand, makes it possible for them to move beyond dependency to self sufficiency.

Dependency vs. liberation

While charity creates dependency, justice restores and liberates.

What then does justice look like?

Justice is relational, it takes personal involvement.
Justice is not done by writing a check — even though a check may be written.
Justice takes personal interaction, not only with those who are struggling, but also with those you are struggling against. They have to see your face. They need to witness your commitment and feel your passion. They need to know that you care and that you will not stop until change happens.
The doing of justice means you will make new friends and establish new enemies. It means the “mountains are brought low and the valleys are raised up”; there is a leveling of life, and equality is established for everyone, no exceptions.
Justice is transformative, it changes lives. It is a process of education and revelation. It brings about new understandings and changes how we look at the world. What once was accepted is now unthinkable. What was once unthinkable, is now becoming the only way forward.
Justice changes the heart as well as the mind. When a vision of God’s justice takes hold in our hearts there is no turning back, no matter the cost.
Justice is restorative, it changes lives. It builds bridges between people, creating new understandings. It frees people from hatred and bitterness, and fosters forgiveness, opening doors to a new way forward. In South Africa justice meant telling the truth.
As long as lines continue to be drawn and divisions made, justice will not happen and peace will not come.
Justice is revolutionary, it changes society. Rights are protected. People are set free and their dignity is recognized and affirmed.
The goal of justice is not for me to win and for you to lose, but for us to find a way forward together. The goal of justice is not to continue to punish yourself or others, but to find a new freedom that energizes all of life.

Charity is nice. It makes us feel good, but in the long run it accomplishes little: It is a Band-Aid.

Justice, on the other hand, is the real deal: the radical surgery that creates real healing. It demands our total involvement. And God is using it every day to change the world.

Editor’s note: Bishop Peggy Johnson is Episcopal leader of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. This article is based on her remarks last month at “United Methodists Uniting: Pennsylvania Anti-Poverty Summit” in Harrisburg, Pa., sponsored by “United Methodist Advocacy PA” (formerly “UM Witness”). All three of the Pennsylvania annual conferences participated in the summit.

Date: 11/9/2010

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