We’re all familiar, I suspect, with the difference between justice and charity. Charity is giving away some of your time, energy, resources and person so as to help others in need. And that’s an admirable virtue, the sign of a good heart. Justice, on the other hand, is less about directly giving something away than it is about looking to change the conditions and systems that put others in need.
No doubt we’re all familiar with the little parable used to illustrate this difference. It goes like this. A town situated on the edge of a river finds itself confronted every day by a number of bodies floating downstream. The townsfolk tend to the bodies, minister to those who are alive and respectfully bury the dead. They do this for years, with good hearts.
But through all those years none of them ever journeys up the river to look at why there are wounded and dead bodies floating in the river each day. The townsfolk are good-hearted and charitable, but that in itself isn’t changing the situation.
The charitable townsfolk aren’t remotely aware that their manner of life, seemingly unconnected to the wounded and dead bodies they’re daily attending to, might be contributing to the cause of those lost lives and dreams and thus be complicit in something that’s harming others, even while it’s affording them the resources and wherewithal to be charitable.
The lesson here is not that we shouldn’t be charitable and good-hearted. One-to-one charity, as the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, is what’s demanded of us, both as humans and as Christians. The lesson is that being good-hearted alone is not enough. It’s a start, a good one, but more is asked of us.
I suspect most of us already know this, but perhaps we’re less conscious of something less obvious, namely, that our very generosity itself might be contributing to a blindness that lets us support (and vote for) the exact political, economic and cultural systems which are to blame for the wounded and dead bodies we’re attending to in our charity.
That our own works of charity can help blind us to our complicity in injustice is something highlighted in a recent book by the American writer Anand Giridharadas, called Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World. In a rather unsettling assertion, Giridharadas submits that generosity can be, and often is, a substitute for and a means of avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and a fairer distribution of power. Charity, wonderful as it is, is not yet justice. A good heart, wonderful as it is, is not yet good policy that serves the less-privileged. And philanthropy, wonderful as it is, can have us confuse the charity we’re doing with the justice that’s asked of us.
For this reason, among others, Giridharadas submits that public problems should not be privatised and relegated to the domain of private charity, as is now so often the case.
Reviewing his book in America magazine, Christiana Zenner, an associate professor at Fordham, sums this up by saying: “Beware the temptation to lionise a market or an individual who promises salvation without attending to the least among us and without addressing the conditions that facilitated their domination in the first place.”
She adds that when we see the direct violation of another person, a direct injustice, we’re taken aback, but the unfairness and the perpetrator are obvious. We see that something is wrong and we can see who is to blame. But when we live with unjust systems that violate others we can be blind to our own complicity; we can feel good about ourselves because our charity is helping those who have been violated.
Imagine that I’m a good-hearted man who feels a genuine sympathy for the homeless in my city. As the Christmas season approaches, I make a large donation to the local food bank. Further still, on Christmas Day itself, before I sit down to eat my own Christmas dinner I spend several hours helping serve a Christmas meal to the homeless. My charity here is admirable, and I cannot help but feel good about what I just did. And what I did was a good thing.
But then, when I support a politician or a policy that privileges the rich and is unfair to the poor, I can rationalise that I’m doing my just part and that I have a heart for the poor, even as my vote itself helps ensure that there will always be homeless people to feed on Christmas Day.
Few virtues are as important as charity.
It’s the sign of a good heart. But the deserved good feeling we get when we give of ourselves in charity shouldn’t be confused with the false feeling that we’re fully doing our part.