Politics, Public Policy and Progressive Faith

13 June

God, Politics and the Difference Between Charity and Justice

Presbyterian minister Mark Sandlin (@marksandlin) minces no words in his list of “10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus,” posted on the God’s Politics blog on Sojourners.

Among the items on the the list:

  • Force your religious beliefs and practices on others (#10).
  • Favor the rich over the poor (#8).
  • Support capital punishment–execution (#1).

Sandlin writes that he created this list after an earlier list of things one could not do while following Jesus was criticized for being too political. Instead of retreating, he opted to write an explicitly political list and take whatever grief was headed his way. As one might hope, the comments on both of these blog posts are substantial and interesting.

Not surprisingly, many of the items on the political list deal with policy issues–immigration, budgeting, health care, the death penalty, etc.–and that resurrects the battle over whether Christians are called to follow Jesus personally while leaving government to be government, or whether government–as something we create and maintain–should reflect our core values. I strongly believe the latter, though I recognize it gets tricky when trying to make policy in a religiously and otherwise pluralistic society. For my part, faith motivates me to care, but  I find it easy to make wholly secular arguments in favor of policies that ensure people get food, education and health care.

Furthermore, if we are going to rely solely on personal acts of kindness and charity, we miss the opportunity to seek justice. In our modern, complex society, that comes through policy. Through laws and courts and social movements. Charity is wonderful, but it is not a substitute for justice.

Rev. Scotty McClennan (@scottymcclennan), the dean for religious life at Stanford University, delivered a sharp sermon in 2004, differentiating between charity and justice, drawing heavily on the ideas of McClennan’s mentor, Rev. William Sloane Coffin.

McClennan, who has worked in law and ministry, recalled the emergence of homelessness in the United States in the 1980s:

I was doing a lot of housing law in the 1970′s, when there was virtually no homelessness problem in Boston or anywhere else in the nation. A big problem had developed, though, by the time I left my law practice go to Tufts as the university chaplain in the mid-1980′s. A political decision  had been which had reduced the federal housing budget from $33 billion annually to $7 billion. This was accompanied by political decisions nationwide to de-institutionalize mental patients, without the willingness to fund the community mental health centers required in local neighborhoods to house those patients, as had been promised. A lot of mentally ill people were simply discharged to the streets. As a direct result of these two types of political decisions, in Boston and all over America we suddenly had homeless people visibly everywhere — sleeping in subways, in parks, on heating grates.

Strangely, this was all happening at the same time as new governmental incentives were being implemented for business, along with general tax reductions — helping fuel an economic boom which resulted in enormous increases in wealth for the already well-to-do, but not for the poor, who lost ground during the 1980′s. Churches and other charitable organizations were asked to step in, provide shelters and food pantries, and help the homeless and hungry at dramatic new levels. Now, certainly “The churches have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But they have also to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice” (Coffin [2004] Credo: 155). They need political action and structural change in society, not just a warm meal and a bed in a church basement.

More from that sermon, quoting directly from Coffin:

Charity is finding a baby drowning in a stream and pulling it out; charity is pulling out a second baby and a third baby that come floating down the stream; justice is going upstream, finding out who’s throwing the babies in, and stopping the evil at its source. “Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of
it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation” (Coffin 2004: 62).