Unfortunately, most spiritual communities have become much better and much more comfortable at giving people a “hand out” than giving them a “hand up.”
Put simply, we prefer the self-serving feelings of charity to the self-sacrificing realities of justice.
We feed a person for a day, we turn their power back on for now, we give them shelter for a night, and those are good things, but we fall miserably short of challenging and changing the systems that will have those same people starving in a week, sitting in the dark next month, and sleeping in the streets all too soon.
Charity does help those in need, but only temporarily. Who it helps the most is those of us who have a need to help, who feel it is our calling to aid those in need. Charity lets us feel like we are doing something to respond to need in a world that is overwhelmed with people in need. There’s really no risk in it and people are usually very supportive of such efforts.
Justice, on the other hand, is hard.
It frequently requires a great deal of sacrifice and you probably aren’t going to get a lot of people cheering you along the way. Probably quite the opposite. So, most spiritual communities simply don’t do it.
Justice looks like words of love put into action.
Justice looks like activism and spiritual communities tend to shy away from that.
Justice requires you to not make nice with abusive systems. It requires you to rock the boat a bit and to take a stand on issues that are frequently political hot buttons. For too many churches, that sounds very… well, un-Church like. Too many of us think being “church” means being liked and all that standing up for something means standing against something and we just don’t like the thought of people not liking us because of it.
After all, why risk having our friends think we are being “too political” or have them think we aren’t a nice, polite, docile reflection of Jesus?
Why? Because Jesus was not nice and docile – at least not the way people have come to think of him.
He not only confronted systems of injustice, but he tried to teach us to do the same. He did it standing in the tradition of great prophets of Judaism who never failed to stand up against abuse of power. They risked everything. They frequently were run out of town or put to death for it.
Maybe that’s what we’re afraid of – the proverbial crosses we’d have to bear.
I’m not sure.
I certainly don’t think it’s because we’d rather see ‘the least of these’ carry the overwhelming burdens of a society structured to benefit the wealthy, than to be thought of as anything less than “nice.”
Maybe we just haven’t thought it through enough. Maybe we just need new leaders to stand up and say “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary,” with the passion and prophetic voice that Dr. King once did.
Then again, maybe WE are the new leaders. It is time for us to reclaim the place of prophetic voice in the midst of our struggling society. As the wealthiest of folk step on and abuse the poorest in our nation by co-opting our government (supposedly “for, of, and by the people”) through the voice and influence of the almighty dollar, we must reclaim our prophetic voice.
We must not stop doing the necessary and much needed work of charity, but we also must not stop there. We must push on, risking ourselves, risking ridicule, risking our places of privilege, and reclaim the biblical and prophetic voice of justice. We must stand in the footsteps of the likes of Dr. King, Dorothea Day, and Gandhi for without justice, charity falls short.
Because, you see, charity and justice? They are a matched set. It is time to let justice roll.