As we enter into the Advent season, I find myself reflecting on the words of the early Church Fathers on poverty and justice:
The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not – St. Basil
“Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world – should be eliminated from the church. Then the poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common. – St. John Chrysostom
As I chew on these words, I can’t help but think on them in relation to the concept of charity, which is actually quite fitting for this time of year. The holiday season always coincides with an increase in charitable giving – especially among Christians. Across the country, churches are already organizing food drives, raising extra money through the offering, buying toys for underprivileged children, and so forth (I can recall the all-out pageantry around the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering every year at the Baptist church in which I was raised).
We involve ourselves with these things because we believe it’s our Christian duty to do so. After all, the scriptures are full of commands to serve the poor, and what better time to fulfill those commands than the holiday season – especially when the starkest contrasts between the haves and have-nots are on full display?
But here’s a question that stays stuck in my head: when it comes to the poor, the destitute, and the hungry, where does our obligation end? Does it stop at charity? Should be content to donate a little extra money, volunteer some time, or buy up some canned goods and call it a day?
Make no mistake, Christians should give time, money, and supplies to charity as it is required to fulfill an immediate need for the poor, but our obligation does not, cannot, end there. We must not be content with charity. We must work towards justice – true economic and social justice.
And let’s be clear on what that looks like.
True economic justice is neither a capitalist nor classically liberal ideal. It’s not about “opportunity.” It’s not about the freedom to become a self-made individual.
True economic justice is supported by three pillars. First, that every human being possesses an intrinsic, God-given dignity. Second, that our labor – our very ability to create and produce – was a gift from God meant to benefit mankind (work is for man, not man for work). And third, that this earth was also a gift, the fruits of which (along with the fruits of our labor) are meant for all mankind, not just a few.
Simply put, it’s about ensuring that our labor, the fruits of our labor, and the fruits of this earth, are respected, protected, and ordered towards the benefit of each and every human being on the planet.
Now compare that to the world we live in today. Despite the fact that our country produces more than enough food and infrastructure to feed and house every single person in the United States, we still have hundreds of thousands of hungry and homeless roaming the streets. Despite being one of the richest, most resourceful countries in the world, we still have millions who struggle to afford basic medical care.
Does that sound like the justice outlined by our sacred teachings?
Of course, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Part of our problem is that we view everything through the lens of capitalism. In order for our world to work, everything *must* cost something. The thought of production for the benefit of mankind instead of for profit is entirely inconceivable. Because of this, we naturally assume that poverty is a foregone conclusion – something that can be treated but not truly cured. We hear “feed the hungry” and “shelter the homeless” under the assumption that these things are a constant. And we assume that all of this is ordained by God.
But perhaps those assumptions are wrong.
Perhaps we are commanded to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, not because it’s the “right thing to do”, but because we have enough so that “the hungry” and “the homeless” shouldn’t exist in the first place. Perhaps the immense bounty that God has blessed us with was never meant to be exploited and sold for profit. Perhaps the reason that Christ came as a poor man, born in a manager among shepherds and animals, is because God is not found among the excess of the rich.
Christians, this Advent, I submit to you that charity, while good, is not enough to fulfill our Christian obligation. We cannot be content with just charity. We cannot accept economic and social injustice as a fixed part of life. So long as there are rich and poor, there cannot be justice. So long as there are those who hold in excess while another holds nothing, then our Christian obligation is not fulfilled.
More on the divide between charity and justice next time…