Healing the Breach: A Christian Reflection on Charity and Justice
I remember one afternoon in my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, rapidly pacing towards Anderson Hall, I stumbled into a man at the west end of Washington Avenue Bridge. He was holding a cardboard sign with the words, “Homeless - Anything Helps.” I remember feeling unmoored by the irony and injustice of it all: while I studied social welfare policy at a multi-billion dollar institution, someone sat mere feet away without a home. Determined to “do something,” I started volunteering at a local charity. While our nightly meals filled stomachs and fostered community, they did little to address root problems. One frigid December evening, a man leaving dinner said, “Thanks so much for the meal—I’m gonna go sleep under a bridge.”
That moment ruptured my perception of charity as the shining love of Christ. I became hyper-aware of its limitations and shortcomings; its capacity to disempower people and further any perceived breach between “us and them.” If justice entailed tipping the scales to balance—setting historical wrongs right—charity felt like reaching down from above to below with meager offerings.
In my mind, charity (i.e., giving to someone who’s primarily characterized by their lack) and justice (i.e., creating an equitable society) were at odds. However, while researching for this piece, I was faced with a humbling reality check: modern scholarship points to a time in church history when charity and justice gracefully walked hand in hand.
At its root in the early church, charity stood in support of justice, not opposition. The foundation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection had serious implications for the social order; acts of charity tangibly claimed and worked towards this reality. In her work, Charity and Giving in Monotheistic Religions, Hebrew University Professor Miriam Frenkel (2009) explains that Christ was both servant and king, rich and poor; this fusion of “high and low within Jesus,” laid a foundation for social unity (p. 61).
One way early Christians claimed the reality “that there should be no division in the body” of Christ was through acts of charity (1 Cor. 12:25; Frenkel, 2009). These acts bridged class and social divides: the rich intentionally sought out the poor and “gave from their own hand” (Frenkel, 2009, p. 61). Moreover, charity promoted virtue in character. Early Christians viewed charity as a “spiritual exercise” akin to “ascetic practice itself, the object for which was achieving ‘humility for God’” (Frenkel, 2009, p. 61). There was a clear goal in early Christian charity: not to elevate oneself to the position of savior, but to lower oneself, for the humbling opportunity of witnessing God in another human being. In the early church, charity was merely a starting ground for disrupting the social order and cultivating a virtuous heart posture; acts of charity naturally lent themselves to the pursuit of a just, equitable society.
Unfortunately, charity can also work in the opposite direction, providing an easy way out of justice-work, instead of solid ground from which to move forward. This seemed most evident to me in the response of some established churches to the murder of George Floyd. While movement leaders called people to take the streets in support, solidarity, and communal lament, the church nearest to me stood at a comfortable distance in the pulpit, preaching against the evils of racism while collecting money and organizing food drives from afar. It struck me as a knee-jerk reaction, jumping into short-term charity before considering long-term advocacy. On community clean-up days, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and prayed like me, picking up ash on the streets and sweeping flood water into street drains (which were already engineered to drain water, I later came to discover), but I didn’t see very many of the people calling for systemic change and reform. A friend prompted me to reflect, why are we so quick to patch up what’s broken on the surface, before caring to heal the deeper wounds?
This temptation to take the short-path of temporary-charity, in lieu of the long walk towards justice, is familiar to me. I think back to times I donated clothes when, really, I just needed more closet space; times I gave money to someone when, really, I just felt guilty. “Disrupting the social order” and “building relationships” weren’t exactly at the forefront of my mind. Maybe you can think of moments like this in your life, too. Not unlike a relationship, charity is messy and complicated. Intentions get distorted, actions fall short, and it can be easy to stop at quick fixes before even looking larger problems in the eye. Former British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, keenly reflected, “the evil of charity is that it tends to make the charitable think that he has done his duty by giving away some trifling sum [of money or time], [their] conscience is put to sleep, and [they take] no trouble to consider the social problem any further” (Dickens, 2018). Charity, in some cases, is how we avail ourselves of addressing systemic injustice with commitment and personal responsibility.
If we’re going to live into God’s will for a just and caring world, our work can’t stop at short-term acts of charity. Rather, the early church demonstrates that charity can and should gracefully come alongside long-term justice work. It has the capacity to bridge perceived gaps between individuals; it can promote unity in spirit and humility of heart. Charity and justice can truly walk hand and hand, through time and God’s grace, healing the breach between us.
Frenkel, M., & Lev, Y. (Eds.). (2008) Charity and Giving in Monotheistic Religions. De Gruyter, Inc. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/umn/detail.action?docID=453844.
Dickens, J. (2016). Social Work and Social Policy: An Introduction. Social Science.