Many persons rightfully argue that we should act with charity toward those who are poor because it is the Christian and human thing to do. In fact, Christians call it a corporal work of mercy (feed the hungry, house the homeless). It is essential if you want to be Christian, they say. But this position leaves out a very important part of charity. Charity requires of us to also work to change those systems that keep people poor. Please let me explain.
I love my brother Paul very much. He is struggling with many health problems which require that I frequently take him to the local county hospital which, of course, is the brotherly, human or Christian thing to do. But recently, changes in social programs have resulted in cuts in hospital staff and services threatening Paul’s care and that of many others. What then does it mean to love my brother, and others, if not for me to also engage, as much as I am able, in addressing the social structures that control these funding cuts. As Cornell West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
Of course, there are many social structures that need changing but the biggest obstacle is that we all grow comfortable with social structures just as they are. The more comfortable we are, the less need we feel for change.
Father Dehon, founder of the Priests of the Heart of Jesus, saw the need to address our own acceptance of unjust structures when he called for the “Reign of the Sacred Heart in [both] souls and societies.” Changing unjust structure is a spiritual activity.
This is why working for social justice can be controversial. If we respond to ozone depletion by giving direct aid (nursing the skin of cancer victims) nobody would object. But if we work to pass and enforce laws to eliminate the chemicals that deplete the ozone, some companies and investors are sure to oppose us. Now deceased Archbishop Camara of Brazil acknowledged this obstacle, “When I tried to help the poor, people said I was a saint. When I asked why they were poor, people called me a communist.”
On the other side, while direct service is needed to help those most affected by unjust structures, such service might also challenge unjust structures. For example, providing direct service to immigrants (food, clothing, shelter) can be a challenge to the assumptions and the structures that say immigrants are taking jobs from U.S. citizens. Or, befriending a person from the Middle East can challenge the assumption and structures that say you are aiding the enemy. Such direct service offers us the opportunity to educate ourselves and others as to the true causes of immigration, prejudice, war and other injustices. In fact, the true charity of which I speak demands this of us.
Thus it can be said that true charity requires direct service and work to change systems.
Or so it seems to me.
Note: Herein, I have freely quoted from “Justice and Charity” by Jim Dinn