On the Division between Charity and Justice

You’ve heard this one before:

Once upon a time there was a village that sat just past the bend in a river. One day, the villagers noted a few people floating past the bend and pulled them out of the water. Some were dead and the village buried them. Others were sick and the village nursed them back to health.

A few days later, more people came floating down the river. Then more people, and more, and more. And every time, the villagers responded the same way. They pulled the people out of the river, buried the dead, and restored the living to health. The work of tending to the people floating around the bend in the river became never-ending.

One day, an intrepid young woman went up the river to discover where these people were coming from. She found another village where the villagers were throwing their people into the river. She returned to her home village and organized her people, leading them against the village upriver. After a fierce battle, she and her people were victorious against the village upriver. There were no longer people being thrown into the river. Life in her home village returned to normal.

The first response by the village is charity. It solves an immediate problem without addressing the root causes. The problem is never solved, and charity becomes a constant, never-ending practice.

The second response is organizing for justice. It works to solve the cause of the problem and end the suffering.

Or so the story goes.

All parables simplify. This one simplifies in a way that creates a convenient distinction between charity and justice and obscures the deep connection between the two. And it does this by pretending that people fall into neat categories: the people being thrown in the river, the people throwing people in the river, and the people fishing folks out of the river; the oppressed, the oppressors, and the charitable.

The reality is that almost no one is in just one of those categories. Many of us, in one way or another, are in all three. We live in a world where we suffer from injustice. We live in a world where we benefit from injustice. We live in a world where we fight against the effects of injustice (and sometimes against injustice itself).

That reality is why I find the division between justice and charity… lacking.

When we favor justice over charity, we so often think that we are reforming the systems that those people – the oppressors – benefit from. We don’t always recognize that we are the ones who need to be reformed. Through justice, we hope to change systems.

When we favor charity over justice, we are reforming ourselves. Through charity, we hope to change our hearts. And with changed hearts, perhaps we’ll stop throwing people in the river. Perhaps we’ll refuse to benefit from systems that throw people in the river. And, of course, we’ll keep helping the people who are thrown in the river.

But maybe charity and justice aren’t in opposition. Maybe there isn’t a division between them. Maybe the attitude of charity – the deep love for every person as a precious child of a loving God – leads us both to help the people in the river and to stop throwing them in. Maybe a just world is one where our natural response to need is a charitable one: to meet that need.

Maybe justice and charity – once they’re realized – look the same.