Most of our religious traditions speak about path of mercy and charity. Our foundational religious texts urge us to express our love for neighbor by dealing with the immediate needs of the poor and marginalized. We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked and we shelter the homeless.
Because charity alone is rarely enough, our traditions also encourage us on the path of justice. Justice comprises all of the ways that we work on the underlying structural issues, the root causes of poverty, homelessness and hunger.
Like the proverbial horse and carriage, charity and justice go together. In fact, one could argue that they need each other. Take our Saturday Open Door ministry at University United Methodist Church. If we don’t serve food, there are some people who will go hungry. On the other hand, if we don’t ask questions about why there are so many hungry people, someone might wonder whether we’re really in this ministry out of compassion. When we do charity, there is always an implicit call to further acts of justice.
What I find troubling about my own faith tradition, in particular, and other religious paths, too, is the lack of attention to justice. Yes, charity is generally easier. It’s rarely controversial, and many charities allow those who give to stay in control of where their money goes.
Justice issues, on the other hand, are notoriously divisive and morally complex. Most of the issues are frustratingly long-term, especially for those of us addicted to the quick fix. Outcomes are more often than not beyond our control.
In my own Judeo-Christian tradition, however, you can’t escape justice.
You don’t have to read far in the Hebrew Bible to discover that God is a lover of justice. Psalm 33: “God loves justice and righteousness.” Psalm 82: “God says, ‘Give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.’”
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Luke’s gospel records his concern for justice (Luke 4:18). Jesus certainly did acts of mercy — feeding the hungry, giving sight to the blind — but he also stood up to the authorities of his day — exposing corrupt judges, condemning money changers, confronting the indifference of the wealthy toward the vulnerable — and he was ultimately crucified by the Roman government.
Justice has its price and justice ministries are sometimes avoided by churches for that very reason. Years ago, Archbishop Camera of Brazil said that when he encouraged feeding the poor, he was called a saint. When he asked why so many were hungry, he was called a communist.
Lately, I’ve begun to see that any act of social justice, however small, is incredibly significant. When we march against injustice, when we write letters of protest, when we sing songs that lift up the vision of God’s peaceable kingdom, the world becomes a different place, however imperceptible to our eyes.
Some years ago, I was marching in a protest against the death penalty in Richmond, Va. We were a small, rag-tag group of seminarians, professors and folks from the neighborhood. We had a couple of poorly made signs. None of us could remember any of the demonstration songs. I have to confess that I doubted our presence was making any difference at all.
In the middle of the march, one of my professors stopped us and said, “Shh, Listen.” I could hear applause, but where was it coming from? “It’s up there,” he said, pointing to the prison. “They know we’re here for them.” For just a moment, those men, many of whom had done horrible things, knew that someone outside cared. And perhaps they knew, too, that they were children of God.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
My hope and prayer is that, as we do good together, we will consider expanding our range beyond doing charity to doing charity and justice together.