Good-hearted charity is not enough

Charity is about being good-hearted, but justice is about something more.

Individual sympathy is good and virtuous, but it doesn’t necessarily change the social, economic, and political structures that unfairly victimize some people and unduly privilege others.

We need to be fair and good of heart, but we also need to have fair and good policies.

Jim Wallis, speaking more-specifically about racism, puts it this way:

When we protest that we are not implicated in unjust systems by saying things like: “I have black friends”, we need to challenge ourselves: It’s not just what’s in our hearts that’s at issue; it’s also what’s at the heart of public policy.

We can have black friends but if our policies are racist there’s still no justice in land. Individual good will alone doesn’t always make for a system that’s fair to everyone.

And it’s precisely on this point where we see the crucial distinction between charity and justice, between being good-hearted as individuals and trying as a community to ensure that our social, economic, and political systems are not themselves the cause of the very things we are trying to respond to in charity.

What causes poverty, racism, economic disparity, lack of fair access to education and health care, and the irresponsibility with which we often treat nature? Individual attitudes, true.

But injustice is also the result of social, economic, and political policies that, whatever their other merits, help produce the conditions that spawn poverty, inequality, racism, privilege, and the lack of conscientious concern for the air we breathe.

Most of us, I suspect, are familiar with a story that’s often used to distinguish between charity and justice.

It runs this way: There was a town built alongside a river, but situated around a bend so that the townsfolk could see only that part of the river that bordered their town. One day a few of the children were playing by the river when they saw five bodies floating in the water.

They quickly ran for help and the townspeople they alerted did what any responsible persons would do in that situation. They took care of the bodies.

Pulling them from the river they found that two were dead and they buried them. Three were still alive.

One was a child for whom they quickly found a foster home; another was a severely ill woman, her they put in a hospital; the last was a young man and, for him, they found a job and a place to live.  Continue reading

  • Fr Ron Rolheiser OMI is the President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio Texas.
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