Thursday, October 28, 2010

Charity and justice

When it comes to responding to poverty, most of us opt for individual acts of charity and compassion. 

We think of "the poor" as one person after another needing our help today. 

We aren't really put off by the realization that, unless many factors change, these same people will need our help again tomorrow.  By the time we get to day or incident 5 or 6, our charitable impulses begin to wear thin.  We begin to create narratives in our heads that justify our decisions to terminate our charitable instincts, reasoning that if the object of my recent charity would do his or her part, my resources wouldn't be needed. 

We all know the drill, don't we?

Charity is about individuals.  Individuals in need.  Individuals with resources and the freedom to decide as individuals to help or not to help.  Charity maintains the existing power differentials and relationships insuring that those with the wherewithal to "help" decide when to help and when to walk past folks suffering in need.

Charity settles for "poster children" results.  Anecdotal stories and one-off success reports of individuals who, against great odds, manage to work their way out and up from the cruel clutches of poverty. 

Charity concerns itself with the presenting symptoms and results of the presence of poverty.  So, it works best in soup kitchens, food pantries, street feeding and giveaway programs of various sorts. 

On the other hand, justice seeks equity resulting from a systemic response to poverty and the forces that support its existence. 

Justice brings individuals together to work on collective solutions. 

Justice wants to change rules and offer up sustainable, public responses to problems so large that they call for scalable solutions beyond the reach of uncoordinated, individual acts of kindness. 

Justice wants to hit the reset button on a number of institutions. 

Justice calls for new default positions and options. 

If charity puts the spotlight on a few individuals who excel and escape, justice provides a tour through a renewed neighborhood or a high-functioning school system or an open health care benefit plan or a new company that employs hundreds of workers and pays a living wage. 

Charity asks its questions about the  individual.

Justice demands answers concerning scalable solutions to community-wide problems and challenges. 

To be sure, charity and compassion are wonderful.

But, when compassionate people come together--rich and poor--to set in motion big, comprehensive changes that will open doors to new opportunity and pave highways out of poverty, justice and equity can be realized. 

To adequately address the large problems associated with poverty we must move beyond individual acts of charity to work on collective efforts resulting in justice.


Jim said...

Thoughtful article. Something to think seriously about and I will. Thanks.

jerryannpark said...

Thanks for the really clear explanation of why it is important to move beyond charity to address causes of poverty. It occurs to me that acts of charity fill the gap until justice is achieved, but should not be considered the solution to poverty. Charity has an element of patronage and gives the donor the sense of ownership and control. Justice creates a world in which people have chance to make their own way.

Anonymous said...

don't disagree, but all too often your collective justice means those us who have worked our way up and out or those who have merely done the right thing end up paying too high a price.

We get out of the trailer park, hood or barrio to a nice apartment or residential neighborhood and along comes, say the DHA, with a pocketful of empty promises and the big stick of a racialist Justice Dept and do for our neighborhoods what the education industry did to the public schools.

And of course we're coerced into paying for the thing.

And then we're labeled racists, or insensitive or uncaring.

It's a tough balancing act for us, and I understand and applaud your good works and laser-like focus, but the choices don't need to be Manichean with the reluctant cast as The Evil.

Dean Smith said...

Larry, thanks for such a clear and concise summary of the difference between charity and justice. This is especially significant for Christians, since the Bible consistently calls us to justice and not charity. Like homelessness, we need to stop "addressing" poverty and seek ways to eliminate it by offering people a hand up instead of a hand-out. That's where people that are wary of systemic solutions can help by joining the effort and conversation, ensuring a more balanced approach. The truth is, disagreement is a healthy exercise, if all of our hearts are focused on saving people instead of just saving money.

Redspect said...

"If you haven't any charity in your heart you have the worst kind of heart trouble" to cure it help people, let's unite for one good cause, be a volunteer"save lives"!mawaddainternationalaid