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.

"Like" Approaching Justice on Facebook

Print Friendly

About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • Pat68

    “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.”

    Interesting thought. I think part of the reason, at least in the States, is that for so long this has been a Judeo-Christian country in which people have bought into the narrative that God is on our side and with that many also bought into the Protestant work ethic. So much so, that is believed that those who are down on their luck must have done something wrong or just aren’t working hard enough or they’re getting what they deserve. Thus, why would religious people who hold to this kind of mindset feel compelled towards the notion of justice? I once had an elder make the comment in regards to a ministry set up to minister to the poor that, “God didn’t call us to save the world”. I just about fell of my chair. No, God didn’t call us to save the world, but shouldn’t we be operating as His hands and feet in this world? But if one’s theology is tied up in retribution, working for justice for the least of these is a hard sell.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Pat68, thanks for the comment. I think you are correct to point to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” The idea of the deserving poor is something I deal with a lot in my theoretical work and should be posting about it in the coming weeks.

  • Tyson Smith

    This comment is coming from a purely religious context, but I read your post and it occurred to me that one of the reasons we may in fact “fear” a perfectly just world is that the tragedy and injustice that occurs here might in fact be for our own good. The Book of Mormon speaks of “opposition in all things”. Having misery helps us to learn what happiness is. Who can truly know justice until he has seen injustice….and attempted to conquer it? How can we ever grow unless we are challenged? Don’t get me wrong, I am not promoting injustice, I am just naming the benefits of it’s existence. I certainly want more good in the world, but not at the expense of our journeys through hardships, both as societies and as individuals.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Tyson. That is a great point. There will always be social injustice.
      Much and the way that there will always be sin. While some good things
      may come out of sin, we still seek to avoid it. In the end, I do not
      think we need to worry about a world void of injustice. We are mostly
      working towards having less and less.

      Thanks for the comment! I really do appreciate it.

  • jrs

    Brilliant. One thing I find frustrating is fellow Mormons’ common rejection of government welfare (& related social programs) on the basis that “we” do it better–e.g. Church welfare. Even if church welfare were “better” than e.g. TANF or whatever program is at issue, obviously the church is way too small to have a significant effect on socioeconomic issues as a whole. If you manage to feed everyone in your ward, great–that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the population of your city/country/world. (Outside of certain places in intermountain west, of course.) Why should everyone who doesn’t have access to LDS churches, or other private charitable groups, be denied Ralwsian “primary goods”? Yet trying to explain this to Mormons is often like trying to teach deaf people to identify bird calls. The brain turns off the moment you mention words like “welfare.”

  • Jim Cobabe

    Chris, it has been suggested on other blogs that we mostly depend on the government welfare state to be our channel to charity. Prosperous people see their tax money going toward government-administered welfare programs, and just figure, that’s enough, I pay my taxes, I’m all done with charity.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X