Charity and Social Justice

In order to be in right relationship with God, we need to see others just as God sees them. We see others as God sees them through the eyes and compassion of Christ.

“Mama Omale has five children in school and has a minimum income petty business in her local community. Each month, she only has enough money to pay for rent and food. She has no savings or a farm. Her children are treated badly at school because they wear uniforms with holes and patches on them, never have new clothes for Christmas or any special occasion, and cannot take part in school activities with an extra fee. The children never celebrate their birthdays and never travel anywhere. Mama Omale is hyperopic (longsighted); one month she loses her glasses. She cannot afford to replace them but cannot live without them. She borrows money from a neighbour to buy them but now has to try and pay it back in the shortest period. Sacrifices have to be made and the children go to school hungry a few days a week.”<

Does Mama Omale and her children need a charity intervention – donation of glasses, assistance with food, a gift of clothes, and fundraising for school fees? Is a justice solution more relevant to her situation – extension of community healthcare, increasing availability of microcredit or increasing minimum wage (if she were an employee), and increasing education funding? Is the church called to only give help to those who are in need – identifying an immediate need and fill it? Or is the church mandated to execute fairness, equity; the fair distribution of advantages, assets and benefits among all members of a society?

“God can do ‘exceedingly abundantly’ more than we could think or simply giving is just a drop in the ocean for what we as a Church can do.”

Bill Moyers once stated that faith-based charity only provides ‘crumbs from the table’, whereas faith-based justice ‘offers a place at the table’. It is clear that the lines between Christian charity and justice have become confusingly blurred throughout centuries of mission and evangelism, yet Moyers separates the two in no uncertain terms; he goes onto state that ‘Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth’, whereas justice ‘depends on commitment instead of circumstance.’

Faith-based justice, therefore, is marked out from charity because it is an unerring choice to act out of love and sacrifice continually, even when comfort and reason are up against you. Charity on the other hand, is all too often a means of appeasing the desire to stay neutral in situations of oppression; giving money to charity all too often turns into an excuse for inaction. It is for this reason that I would entirely question the notion of ‘faith-based charity’ in the first place. Is it possible to reconcile giving money away on a whim and from excesses of wealth and the biblical truth that God calls his people to deeply care about others, commit to speaking out against injustice and standing alongside the oppressed?

Was it not Jesus himself who lambasted the hypocrite Pharisees for giving their tithe without showing a true commitment to justice (Luke 11:37-44)? A short caveat must be inserted at this point, for it would be entirely wrong of me to assert that tithing ten percent of your income is wrong; quite the opposite is true, it is clearly biblical. It is however, only charitable, and entirely lacking in faith, to give money like the Pharisees and then continue to acquiesce in evil practises and not commit to a full picture of justice. Consider too the warnings of the Prophet Micah to the people of Israel; God makes it clear through his prophet that no weight of physical offering atone for neglecting the call to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8).

Throughout scripture, we witness God’s people fall dramatically short of His standard for living justly, and it’s important to note that charitable giving is almost always the limp alterative to radical discipleship and justice. Now this is not to undermine or attack the generous giving that holds such significance for so many people across the church as it is entirely biblical and necessary. In Luke 11, Jesus proclaims that the Pharisees should have practised tithing without leaving justice undone; He does not say that they should have abandoned tithing in favour of acts of justice; the two go hand in hand. It is just that giving without acting justly falls short of what we should, and can aspire to as Jesus’ disciples.

It is vitally important that we consider how we might act justly.

The translation for Ephesians 3:20 in the Kings James Version proclaims that God can do ‘exceedingly abundantly’ more than we could think or imagine. That blows me away. It is that power and potential for change that lives in us, and so simply giving is just a drop in the ocean for what we as a Church can do. It is why I believe Moyers hits the nail on the head with his analogy; we are feeding the world breadcrumbs from the table when we could be hauling them up to the seat that has already been prepared for them. It is vitally important that we consider how we might act justly.

One of the major differences between charity and justice is how you use your voice. As Christians we are part of a worldwide body with a significant voice and so we are called to use it to speak out against oppression and injustice. The same was true of God’s people, Israel; in Proverbs, God’s chosen people were reminded to speak out for those who have no voice and defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9). Imagine how effective our witness could be if we gave our money with integrity and then rallied to cry out against injustice. I dare you, just imagine it.

Most importantly, at the heart of justice is knowing God and leading from that example; how can we ever hope to speak for the oppressed if we don’t know how much God cares for them? Above all else though, how are we to show justice and love unless we know how God has shown it to us? Just as Yahweh always prefaced instructions to Israel about being a loving just nation with the reminder of what He had done in Egypt, we must also constantly remind ourselves that the same God has shown us incredible grace. God has rescued us from subjection to slavery (Hebrews 2:15) and has asked us to be a part of bringing freedom to fellow captives. Love others because God loved us first.

You see, the thing is, living justly is not simply an action, and acts of justice cannot be measured in a given volume; living justly is, however, a lifestyle choice – of which giving financially is an important part – with which worship and personal discipleship with Father, Son and Spirit is at its very core. If, as Christians, we are to change the world the way Jesus proclaimed the Church would, and bring the grace of our Lord to the broken, we need to first be radically transformed to give up the ways of this world. So, be still, know God, and then you will truly share His heart for justice. A