Charity Vs. Justice

It is often said that social justice is about forcing others to be charitable. I should let you in on a secret: I do not give a crap about whether you are charitable or not. If I was trying to force you to be charitable, I would be doing it to force you to be righteous, but social justice is not about whether you are just but whether our society is just (sorry, not everything is about you).

Now saying that I am trying to force you to be charitable, is a clever (though tired) rhetorical trick. If I am forcing you to be righteous, I am forcing you to be saved…I am carrying out Satan’s plan. But, I am not trying to save you. You are free to be selfish. I primarily interested in protecting others from the selfishness and cruelty of other.

Now, the prospect of a just world scares many religious people. I cannot be sure the reason for this, since the prospect of peace and equality does not contradict my religion. However, I think many worry that if we do not have inequality and misery people will not have a reason to seek out religion. Look at Europe, the well-being of social democracy has led to a people generally uninteresting in religion (though I think this mostly has to do with the history of religion on the continent). Yet, if your religion can only sustain itself through human suffering, this seems to be a religion that I should oppose rather than embrace.

One reason that I am generally uninterested in discussions about private donations versus government effort is that private donations are more about the giver than they are about
the needy. The change you put into the red kettle outside of WalMart this holiday season was more about the warm fuzzy it gave you or the sense of guilt it delayed than it was about those it will help. It will only help a small few and only for a short period of time.

This is not to say that it is bad to give to charitable organizations. In fact such organizations do much good, particularly when we consider the rather pathetic and meager effort we make as a society. However, these organizations cannot address to root causes of poverty (social and political inequality), they can only treat the symptoms.

The aim of social justice is not to "help poor people" (something we all think is good) but to minimize inequality and poverty. Now the political structure of the United States has largely undermined the effectiveness of most government efforts to address poverty and inequality, so this is not a defense of government programs as they now exist, but only collective efforts can address the issues of poverty and inequality.

Recently, a local Tea Party activist asked me when was the last time I had done any service or reached out to somebody who was homeless. Or did I just think that the government should do it? Being well acquainted with this particularly person’s passive aggressive style, I refused to answer. She was trying to change the topic of a particular discussion (which had nothing to do with helping the poor). I do not feel a need to appeal to my own righteousness as a means of vindicating my social and political views.

We all should be compassionate to the needy. Whether you are or not, this has nothing to do with the issue of social justice. Now, I hope that a compassionate heart would go hand and hand with a robust sense of justice. But at the end of the day, I am not responsible for whether you are charitable. However, as a citizen, I am responsible for whether my community and democracy are just.

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About Chris Henrichsen

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