As a mainline protestant pastor it may be odd to be writing a post on a Mormon blog. But I got to know Chris Henrichsen through his run for congress in Wyoming and I really came to respect not only his campaign but the person behind it. We’ve had a number of discussions about religion, politics, and life in Wyoming and so I was invited to write for this site. This is my first attempt to do so.
I wanted to follow up on a previous post on the difference between charity and justice because I think this question is especially relevant for people of faith. I first want to introduce Aristotle’s distinction between the two. Justice is what happens when the minimum conditions of life is enjoyed by all people. Charity is pure generosity which extends beyond the basic demands of justice.
In which case while charity is certainly preferable, it cannot be a replacement of justice. In an unjust society, charity is not in fact charity. Justice invariably involves politics because it is determinative of the very conditions of a society and how goods are distributed. As such it is the primary virtue by which any other virtue is sustained or not.
Sometimes charity is seen as preferable (as if it could be divorced from justice) because of the impact on the individual giver. But Chris rightly points out that this can’t be the primary basis by which we judge charity. Shouldn’t the needs of one’s neighbor be primary? But also as Reinhold Niebuhr points out, the giving behind charity can also involve mixed motivations.
Charity can be a source of power over the one who receives. A number of evangelical churches will not, for instance, help our community soup kitchen, because they can’t use it as a means to proselytize. This is because our soup kitchen was intentional about removing conditions for receiving help. And that is a dramatic source of grace for participants who experience most public and private agencies as filled with nothing but conditions, forms, hoops to jump through, and interrogations over their lives.
Also charity is a rather broad term because it includes all money donated whether it is to fix my church’s organ, feed people, or to build more comfortable pews. The majority of donations are to churches, which may help people but more often is a way to sustain the institutions that we enjoy and participate in. This is true whether it is parks, churches, schools, and artistic endeavors. And for corporate donators, it is also a chance to advertise. Now again, concrete needs may be addressed in this but I want to problematize the idea that charity always call upon our higher angels in a way that public services do not.And there is a change in character and dispositions for people who live in societies who do have a high level of social services. It’s not just that they have less poverty and more income mobility but such societies have much higher levels of social solidarity. Especially when those public programs tie low income and middle income people together in shared goods. And the opposite is often the case; societies where austerity and zero sum economics is the norm, suspicion of the other as a threat becomes more prevalent. In the countries of southern Europe the rise of anti immigrant and fascist political groups has grown at an alarming rate during the economic crises.
As a pastor who relies on charitable giving, my church might be an example of the problems of dividing charity and justice. For one, our soup kitchen receives food from the Food Bank, which includes public dollars. And of course we’re tax exempt, which is predicated on the idea that we provide some social good and so we receive this public benefit. And even as we are grateful at the concrete good we can do, we are largely helpless in being able to respond to economic downturns and the removal of public services. The recent food stamps cuts in both the US Senate and House versions of the farm bill will directly hit many of the people that come into our church. There’s little reason to believe that we can make up the difference.
Lastly, this division between charity and justice finds no precedent in any moral philosophy or religious text before the 19th century. It just isn’t there. The Pslamist includes the king as much as individuals when it comes to our responsibilities to one another. The idea that what governments do is somehow outside the moral sphere would be unfathomable to any of our respective religious and moral traditions.