Charity vs. Justice Work: The Difference Is Important

The Lead, quoting William Sloane Coffin, puts the question clearly:

Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.

This, people, is the core difference between liberal and conservative churches.  Conservative churches do (they’re supposed to, at least, and many do a great deal) charity work, directly helping people.   Liberal churches do justice work, getting the government to do the work for them.  The implied concept behind the latter is that the government is able to make the “necessary” changes in society that will stick long after the charity is done.

Needless to say, The Lead approvingly quotes a Baptist leader who notes that “When he (Jesus) spoke with authorities who contributed to the injustice of his society, he rebuked them.”

This, of course, is where liberals get lost in the New Testament narrative, a narrative whose veracity they’ve challenged as long as they’ve trumpeted social justice.  (That’s a major dissonance issue, but I digress…)  There’s not a shred of evidence that Jesus or his followers pursued a “social justice” agenda as we understand it today.  It’s one thing to tell people that they should follow the law the way God handed it to them.  It’s quite another to tell people they should change the law (or “the system”) for “equity” purposes, to disempower one group and empower another.

The simple fact in the time of the New Testament and for the remainder of the Roman Empire’s existence is that the open, democratic institutions that make non-violent social action even possible didn’t exist.  The Roman Republic had some of this, but things could get wild, as the Gracchi brothers found out the hard way.  To read back a “social justice” agenda as we understand it into the New Testament both does theological violence to the NT and is anachronistic.

Bringing up the Gracchi brothers points out something else: the alternative to “social action” is revolution.  And revolution, with the right kind of leadership and the right conditions, will result in change.  Personally I’ve always found that liberal Christian social activists are too chicken to be revolutionaries.  It’s just as well; the last century had far too much of the change that revolution brought.

2 Replies to “Charity vs. Justice Work: The Difference Is Important”

  1. I once considered myself a revolutionary.

    Now, I believe strongly that revolution (or coup d’etat) happens, at least in the here and now, when social justice goes begging. My two major examples are the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

    Hungry people will do desparate things in order to eat.


  2. I’m not sure that social justice would have fixed either one of these problems.

    Under Bismarck Germany had built a model welfare state, and the “Iron Chancellor” was certainly no social justice type. It was so successful that it deflected Germany from Marxism–and Marx complained about this in works such as the Critique of the Gotha Program.

    But war ruined Germany, and the aftermath of World War I–along with some peculiarities in the German idea–set the country up for a Hitler to come along. The Germans were of the idea that part of their country’s “salvation” was to undo the expensive humiliation of Versailles, and Hitler played right into that.

    In the case of Russia/USSR, the situation there was like Rome–there were no democratic institutions sufficiently influential to institute the kinds of reforms that were necessary. (No accident that Caesar ==> Tsar, and until Peter moved the capital to St. Petersburg the Tsar resided in the “Third Rome.”) Revolution was the only option out there, as 1905 and its aftermath demonstrated. It took the same war that ruined Germany to make it possible to have a successful revolution in Russia.

    It’s interesting to note that, when the revolution was reversed in the collapse of the USSR, the social justice types were nowhere to be found. Instead they were run over by the anarchy and corruption that overtook a society with no more sense of how to govern itself in 1991 than it did in 1917.


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