Charity is good. Let’s not discourage anyone from giving. Give generously, regularly, intentionally and maybe sometimes recklessly. When someone is hungry, they need to be fed. When disaster strikes, we need to respond and to help. It is one aspect of the other action of Micah 6:8, that God also requires us “to love mercy”.
Churches and church people tend to be good at charity. We give donations and raise funds, we hold bake sales and take up collections, we donate clothes and household goods, we praise those who volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and tell stories of our mission trips and outreaches to neighbourhoods across town. These are common markers of what it means to do good in our communities. I am old enough to remember when we used to mark Sabbath school attendance as well as reporting “Persons helped”, “Food parcels delivered” and “Items of clothing given” as part of our system for measuring our collective impact on those around us.
Again, much of this can be good. And many of these actions will be commended by Jesus, according to Matthew 25:31–46. But it can feel like we can never give enough. There are so many needs in the world and so many different causes we could support that we can despair of ever being able to give to the degree that feels like it truly makes a difference. While this might be because we don’t give enough—only rarely do we give in a way that actually costs us, rather than giving from our excess—it can also be because charity itself is not enough. If we only do charity, this brings two serious risks to fulfilling our justice calling as the people of God:
• Charity does not always bring out our best.
Most of us like to be thought of as generous—and we like to be able to think of ourselves as generous. Our motives for doing good are always slippery and fickle. This was something that Jesus warned about (see Matthew 6:1–4). When our sense of generosity gets mixed up with our charity, it changes what we are doing and, according to Jesus, it changes how God views our supposed generosity. It can also change our relationship with those who might benefit from our giving. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned that charity can work to entrench the obvious power imbalances in our world: “philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and . . . the latter element explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice”.1 Many of us have experienced the awkwardness that can arise in the donor–recipient relationship. Giving can create unstated or assumed expectations. It can be a way in which the relatively wealthy and powerful can flex their privilege, and economic disparity can be styled as a societal good—all with the veneer of generosity and benevolence. Even for those of us who do not consider ourselves among the super-wealthy, making occasional donations can be a way to salve our consciences and perpetually defer the call to justice.
• Charity is not a substitute for justice.
Partly for the reasons above, no matter how large the donation—perhaps exacerbated the larger the donations become—charity can undermine justice. It can make the status quo seem necessary and side-step the questions why some are perennially marginalised and vulnerable. Feeding a hungry person today is necessary and important; feeding a hungry person—or a succession of hungry people—every day for months and years must prompt questions about the systems that make this necessary, at the same time as such generosity seems to make that system possible. “Charity is no substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth—even if they decide to help the less fortunate—while others are short-changed, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible.”2
So do charity—then get about doing justice.
1. Reinhold Niebuhr (1932), Moral Man and Immoral Society, Westminster John Knox, 2021, page 127.
2. Michael Eric Dyson, “Voice of the Day,” Sojourners, December 9, 2019, <sojo.net/daily-wisdom/verse-and-voice-12092019>.