Do Not Confuse The Demands Of Justice With Charity

Do Not Confuse The Demands Of Justice With Charity November 18, 2020

12019: Contemplation of Justice / pixabay

Often, those who write on or discuss the need for government to work for the common good, that is, those who write on social justice, are told that charity should be not regulated by the government. That is, they are told that we should be free to choose for ourselves whether or not we will be charitable. Of course, the problem is that such a response confuses charity with justice. It suggests that many defects of justice can only be and should only be met by charity.[1] But if we followed this suggestion, justice would be denied, because where such charity is not given, people will continue to suffer from injustice. Charity is important, and invaluable, and it should not be discounted. It should be done out of love. But we should not use charity as the sole means to replace what is lost with injustice, for then we would end up undermining justice; charity should, instead, supplement and go beyond the expectations of justice.

It is interesting to note that many of those who say we cannot dictate charity, confusing charity for justice, have no problem telling others what to do with their private lives, indeed, have no problem having the government involved with such actions; what they dislike is having government work for the common good, to fix social imbalances which cause some people to be oppressed and others to have undue privileges. They are like the Pharisees Jesus criticized when he said, “But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Lk. 11:42 RSV).

Jesus was clear: justice should not be neglected. Although he not provide a systematic discussion on government and how it could and should work for justice, he often spoke on the principles by which we can and should determine what is or is not just. His silence on government was not because he denied government and its role in defending justice, but rather, he expected his followers would understand the basic principles concerning government and how it should work for the common good if they studied the Law (the Torah) and the Prophets. This is because the Law and Prophets spoke of and embraced the common good, telling government that they must enforce justice and not treat it merely as optional charity. They warned authorities that if they did not embrace the common good, they would and suffer the consequences of their actions. Charity should not be used as the only way to deal with the problems of injustice. The enforcement of justice is not optional.

No greater example of this can be found in the Torah than the establishment of the Jubilee:

A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. According to the number of years after the jubilee, you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years for crops he shall sell to you. If the years are many you shall increase the price, and if the years are few you shall diminish the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you.  (Lev. 25:11-16 RSV)

The Jubilee was not demanding charity from those who were told they were to forgive the debts of others, but rather, it was working for and enacting a principle of economic justice, to make sure that the just distribution of goods was not hindered due to economic hardships. The Jubilee made sure that there were regulations in place to help those in need, to make sure the hardships associated with debt did not go on infinitely. These regulations were expected to be enforced by those in power. What many now would treat as an issue of charity (forgiveness of debts) was expressly demanded by God, and government was expected to make sure the rules were followed.

The Torah, the Law, did not stop with the Jubilee. There were many regulations put in place which were expected to be followed and enforced by authorities, rules which many today would suggest fall under the category of charity, because they no longer have any proper understanding of justice. And yet, it was such justice which was expected by God, such justice which was demanded by the Torah and such justice which the rulers over the people of Israel were expected to enforce:

You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Deut. 16:18-20 RSV).

Foreigners should not be oppressed (cf. Lev. 19:34; Lev. 24:22; Deut. 24:14). This is because justice promotes the rights of all those who are in need (and not just those who are citizens of the land in which they are in). Thus, the Torah demanded that Israel, and its authorities, to look after the needs of orphans, widows, and foreigners, just as they were to look after the needs of the Levitical priesthood:

At the end of every three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in the same year, and lay it up within your towns; and the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do (Lev. 14:28-29 RSV)

In this way, we find Scripture dictating what many consider is to be done only out of charity, showing that what many consider to be a choice, is not, but a duty commanded by God: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deut. 16:11 RSV). Again and again, if we look through the Torah, we find justice required the people of Israel, and its authorities, to take care of others, such as when it said that some of the food grown in farms must be put aside and given to the sojourner and the poor:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.  And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:9-9 RSV).

The Torah was not giving us suggestions, showing various ways in which we can be charitable to others; rather, the dictates given by the Law were expected to be followed by the people of Israel, and enforced by their rulers. When those in authority failed to meet these expectations, when they denied justice and hurt those who were poor or needy themselves, the prophets rose up, spoke against them, and warned them they would face the consequences of their injustices if they did not change their ways and once again promote justice:

Thus says the LORD: “Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say, `Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah, who sit on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place (Jer. 22:1-3 RSV).

Ezekiel, of course, tells us it is not just the rulers, but the people of Israel who failed to do what was right. “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without redress”(Ezek. 22:29 RSV). That is, the people of Israel had followed the example of Sodom, undermining justice by their selfishness: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them, when I saw”  (Ezek. 16:49-50 RSV). Just as Sodom was destroyed because its people refused to follow justice, God warned the people of Israel that they, too, shall suffer loss if they did not repent. Thus, through Isaiah, God declared:

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the storm which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth? Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain. For all this his anger is not turned away and his hand is stretched out still (Isa 10:1-4 RSV).

Throughout the prophets, we find a common theme: when the people of Israel, and her rulers, turn away from justice, they have turned away from the covenant of God and will not receive its blessings. Justice was not optional. Helping the poor and needy was not merely a thing of charity, but expected and demanded of the people of Israel. Those who undermined justice faced God’s wrath, though of course, they could repent, and so receive his mercy. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17 RSV).

Oppression must be overcome, not as an act of optional charity, but as an act of justice. This principle, established in the Law and Prophets, was not repudiated by Jesus. Rather, it was a basic principle which he expected his audience to know and already understand. Those Christians who would suggest that the principles of justice must not be enforced, for that would undermine charity, are the ones who undermine charity, for they undermine the foundation upon which charity is to be given: charity goes beyond justice, and so it should not limit or impede justice. To support charity requires us to accept justice, otherwise, there is no charity, for charity wants what is best for all, while justice seeks to grant all a basic level of dignity for all. Scripture does not tell us we can ignore the role of government and its work for justice; rather, it shows the demands of the common good must be met by government, or else, the injustice will build up and harm all who find themselves in a place which such justice is denied.


[1]  This is because those who make this argument, still want to punish people for various crimes, and so use the government to enforce some forms of justice.

 

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