The holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas is the most intensely charitable time of the whole year. Church and civic groups gather clothes, food, and toys for needy families. Volunteers make their way to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Busy shoppers dutifully drop their change into Salvation Army buckets.
People feel good about doing good. And obviously, seasonal charity does some good. There are many needy families whose burdens are made lighter by acts of seasonal kindness.
But there is a haunting, dark side to charity. Even though we keep at it, season after season, poverty seems to continue unabated. Even the charity work that goes on throughout the year does not seem able to stem the tide of America’s poverty.
The cynical minded in our midst notice this fact and tell us we are wasting our time. They remind us that Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” So why are we surprised when they are?
Of course, that is not what Jesus meant. Jesus was actually quoting from the Law of Moses. Moses told his people that since there will always be someone in need, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
So we know we are right about the charitable impulse, though still puzzled as to why we can’t make any headway with the poverty that makes the charity necessary. Obviously, charity alone is not enough.
Biblical prophets called for justice, not charity. Justice is rooted in the belief that God has provided enough for everyone to have what they need. If there are some in the community who do not have what they need, the community at large is expected to rectify the imbalance. The prophets persistently identified the failure to address economic injustice as a serious breach of faith.
Clearly, many of our neighbors do not have what they need. Poverty in our world is massive and systemic. It is the result of political and economic systems. As such, it is not going to yield to charity alone. There are not enough soup kitchens and shelters in the whole country to even begin to make a dent in just America’s poverty. A problem of this magnitude calls for “We the people” to get involved.
Does this mean we should stop doing charity? Certainly not. Charitable acts relieve suffering and offer hope. Charity also renders a prophetic service by allowing us to see people in need. That’s important, because sometimes we don’t see the poor. Charity is also a tacit admission that we are responsible for our poor neighbors. In these ways charity may become a doorway to justice.
We need to be honest with ourselves here. Charity is easier than justice. Charity makes us feel good. It helps relieve some of the guilt we feel about having so much while others have so little. And, when the season is over, charity can be boxed up and put away with the Christmas lights.
Justice, on the other hand, is hard work. Biblical justice requires a strenuous commitment to what is right and fair. Unlike charity, justice is not a seasonal affectation. To do justice, we must show up every day.
So what should we do? What is required of us? How can people of faith be faithful toward our poor neighbors? The prophet Micah asked and answered this question a long time ago. “Love kindness,” he wrote. “And do justice.”
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.