Hand Outs Do Not Equal Social Justice
By Wendy McCaig
When I explain to people that I work in the inner city and have a call to social justice ministries, I always get stories back about how they know someone who runs a clothing closet, or about how they served in a soup kitchen one time or give money to people on the street. I have nothing against acts of charity. Charity is a good thing. But charity is not the same as justice.
Several years ago the director of an urban retreat center clarified this for me, he said “Christian social teaching has two feet. One is the foot of charity or kindness and the other is the foot of justice. Charity says “That man is hungry.”, and feeds him. Justice asks, “Why is that man hungry?” and works to ensure that he will not go hungry in the future. We need both feet moving alongside one another if we want to get anywhere.”
Somewhere along the way, modern Christians got charity and justice mixed up and began to think they were the same thing. Everywhere I go, I see churches that spend a tremendous amount of energy and resources on charitable acts like feeding programs, short term missions trips, and the collection of material items for those in need. What these churches don’t see is that without someone addressing the justice side of the equation real change rarely happens. I have yet to meet a church that invests as much energy in social justice ministries as it does in charitable ministries.
As the founder of what became the largest furniture bank on the eastern seaboard, I have a lot of experience with charity. During the time I ran the furniture bank, we gave away thousands of dollars in furniture to hundreds of families. However, once the families moved out of the shelter, they no longer had a support system and a large percentage lost their housing, lost the furniture, and went back on the street. The charity foot moved forward, but the justice foot never budged. Only about half of my clients maintained housing for more than a few years, and this was after well-meaning Christians had invested countless hours in collecting furnishings and I spent tens of thousands of dollars transporting and storing the furniture.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to go beyond charity with a number of families. I have walked in solidarity with them and in so doing have become an agent of social justice. Not all of the individuals I have befriended in this way were able to maintain housing, but I know many would have been homeless again had we not been there to fight for justice for them. In these cases, the charity and justice feet moved together and great things happened.
I don’t think contemporary Christians really understand what “social justice” means. I think that is why people believe him when Glenn Beck implies that people who call themselves social justice Christians are really a communist plot to take over the church. (I actually wonder if anyone really believes him or if they just find his ignorance entertaining? But that’s question for another post.)
The all knowing Wikipedia defines social justice this way:
Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. Egalitarianism is a trend of thought that favors equality of some sort. Its general premise is that people should be treated as equals on certain dimensions such as religiously, politically, economically, socially, or culturally.
Not a great definition but fair enough. I think the key here is that justice seeks to recognize human dignity in its approach and seeks to level the playing field so all have equal access to resources; it treats people as equals and requires solidarity. When charity is not balanced by justice we can create systems that devalue the human being by creating dependency. That is not justice.
In creating a just system, those who believe in social justice are not proposing that the poor get more handouts. That would be an unjust system where some work and some don’t. A just system would ensure that all have the ability to get a job, receive a fair wage, and pay their own way. Those who are able to work and choose not to should not be allowed to become dependent on the charity of others. Charity should be reserved for those who due to their circumstances are unable to provide for themselves, such as individuals who are disabled, temporarily out of work, mentally handicapped, children, or elderly.
The key to insuring a hungry man is not hungry tomorrow or a homeless woman is not homeless tomorrow lies in their ability to gain employment. However, helping individuals with barriers to employment find employment is not easy and that is what makes the system unjust. The poor have a harder time accessing jobs because they do not have equal access to education, transportation, technology, stable housing, or communication systems like phones and email. Navigating these barriers requires help from others. Thus, the need for people who are willing to walk in solidarity with those who are suffering; Christians who will treat their new friend with dignity and as an equal. Justice requires people to fight against discrimination and unfair hiring practices. In other words, it requires Christians who are willing to seek justice and not just give handouts. It requires Christians who are in it for the long-haul and who are not just looking for a quick feel-good experience. It demands that Christians walk where Jesus walked and hang out with the people Jesus hung out with. It challenges us to see Christ in the “least of these” and receive from them the gift of friendship.