Bible Studies
Written by Jim Jordal   
Monday, 25 October 2004

Charity and justice differ in that charity seeks to alleviate poverty while justice advocates against the causes of poverty and oppression.  Unfortunately, American churches do not always know the difference.  We do massive amounts of charity, but often fail our advocacy function.  Both are important, and both must be done by churches if there is to be any significant lessening of poverty and injustice.

by Jim Jordal

“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 seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it.”
         William Sloan Coffin, as quoted by Warren Goldstein in William Sloan Coffin Jr: A Holy Impatience.

Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor, and exact a tribute of grain from them….You who distress the righteous and accept bribes, and turn aside the poor in the gate….I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs: I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.
                                                                                                                                      Amos 5:11-24 (NASB)

      American Christian churches need to learn the differences between charity and justice, says William Sloan Coffin, well-known Yale University chaplain for many years.  He defines charity as an attempt to alleviate effects of injustice---poverty, homelessness, inadequate medical care, under-employment---while considering justice as effort seeking to eliminate root causes of these disparities.
      Charity has for thousands of years been our chief response to human suffering.  Churches conduct charity sales and bazaars, collect special offerings for worthwhile causes, and commission missionaries to address spiritual and physical needs of the destitute in other countries.  All this is good and necessary.  But usually we fail to recognize that charity alone will not remove or even seriously lessen the evil effects of injustice and oppression.
      So who speaks against the causes of such suffering?  Who even attempts to identify and define these causes?  And who is willing to pay the cost of effectively moving against these causes?
     One of these souls was the late Dom Helder Camara, arch-bishop of poverty-stricken Recife, in northeast Brazil.  Known as the priest who loved the poor, he courageously carried the battle against poverty and oppression from the sordid streets of his city to the halls of Brazilian power by continually asking “Why are the people poor?”  Perhaps his best-known utterance was his comment, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint: When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
       On one occasion, Dom Helder expressed a desire to meet Mother Teresa of Calcutta so he could acknowledge what she had done for the poor of the world, but then asked the bold but too-often unanswered question: “Why are the Mother Teresas of this world necessary?”  He wondered why it was that Mother Teresa so sacrificially poured out her life for the poor, but seldom if ever confronted the intransigent structures of power and privilege creating the poverty.
     Karl Marx, who along with Frederick Engels authored The Communist Manifesto (1848), labeled religion the “opiate of the people” because it lulled common people into lethargy and complacency so they could better be exploited by an oppressive ruling class.  And such is often the case when religion offers the “sweet by and by” as the only hopeful outcome for the world’s oppressed masses, while ignoring their present maddening condition.  And when religion views its task solely as providing alms to the poor, it performs the function suggested by Marx as it lulls givers into a passive belief that they have met the need, and recipients into believing this is all they can expect.  So the church performs admirably in its alms-giving function, while failing utterly in its prophetic charge to agitate for change in those systemic injustices of society causing most of the suffering.
      The biblical prophet Amos railed against the same thing.  He quoted God’s word to the complacent religious establishment of the day, saying that Jehovah hated the feasts, solemn assemblies, festivals and sacrificial offerings of those who afflicted the poor and perverted justice.  Nothing they could do would remove the stain of oppression except to allow “justice to roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Notice that Amos does more than call for increased charity: He calls for reform of ruling classe values and a movement toward obedience to God’s law in national legal, political and economic systems.
      Poverty will never be conquered, even in the wealthy and powerful USA, until we do-gooders in the church learn that even sacrificial giving is not enough: We must unitedly, intelligently and powerfully move against the societal forces causing poverty.  We need to recognize, as did the apostle Paul, that “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, NASB).  We need to speak fearlessly and without favor to those institutions and their leaders who contribute to the injustice and oppression causing most poverty.  It may be necessary that we face the powerful forces of international finance, rampant globalism, decadent and morally bankrupt media/ entertainment, greedy multi-national corporations, rapacious governments, and even the age-old dominance of entrenched traditional religious values.
      But we are not alone.  If this movement toward the freedom promised in Christ’s kingdom is truly an idea whose time has come, then we have not only that force, but also the power of Almighty God behind us.  With these weapons, we cannot fail.
      NOTE: I’m indebted to the article, “A Living Example,” by Ched Myers and others, in  Sojourners Magazine (November-December, 1999), for information on Dom Helder Camara.

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