Charity is my job these days. So is justice. The majority of my waking hours are spent at the non-profit humanitarian organization where I work as a representative for Northern Ontario. It’s been my home for almost six years now, and I am indebted to the global perspective that I’ve gained over those six years. I leave work each day with a sense that I am contributing to something more than my employer’s paycheck, my company’s growth or my culture’s consumerism.
I know that I’m contributing to charity and justice in a very tangible way, but I sometimes forget the difference and the importance of each in the midst of endless phone calls, meetings, computer problems and angry donors. It’s easy to be numbed to the real issues that are going on in the world and to lose the right perspective in exchange for paperwork.
Even so, as someone who has been concerned about justice since my brother was old enough to take my toys, the story Ronald Stanley tells about the difference between charity and justice is difficult for me to ignore.
Stanley describes a scene where two men are fishing in a river. They begin to enjoy the fish they’ve caught when cries for help get their attention. One by one, they see people being swept away by the river. They jump in, desperate for a chance to save the drowning and, each time, they succeed. Tired after having worked to save several, they hear the cry of another: this time, a child. One of the men rushes away, leaving the other to rescue the child alone. The first man is confused. The second man declares he’s heading upstream to find out why there are so many people being swept away by the river.
I can’t help but laugh a little at Stanley’s story, partly because I can almost imagine the desperation in the conversation between the two men and partly because I can’t believe how effectively it captures the difference between charity and justice: charity is helping on the surface, for the short term, while justice is attacking the source of the problem itself. The first man was doing a great thing by saving the people who were drowning, but the second man went a step further by attempting to figure out from where the problem was originating so that he could do something about it.
Neither charity nor justice can stand alone. On its own, charity has the potential of becoming a band-aid solution, never really getting to or treating the root of the problem. Justice on its own, on the other hand, can be harsh and can ignore the immediate needs of people. Had the first man in Stanley’s story given up on his attempts at charity, people would have drowned. However, had the second man not worked just a little bit harder to get to the root of the problem, more people would have drowned. A balance is required.
A quick look at the media makes obvious that charity and justice are popular topics of discussion these days. We see celebrities adopting children from overseas and giving their time, money and endorsement to the charities of their choice. We see global campaigns like Make Poverty History. We see media endorsement for projects involving sending mosquito nets overseas to combat malaria. Numerous charities produce television spots. People give up their vacation time to volunteer overseas. It’s everywhere.
Ever since Dec. 31, 2004, when the undersea earthquake off the coast of Indonesia created tsunami waves that devastated coastal South Asia, Western culture has been inundated with opportunities to give its time and its money. And it’s all for good reason. We are aware that there is a world that needs the resources we are so blessed to have and are willing to invest our resources in something other than ourselves. Yet, despite how amazing this is, it’s just charity. And we’re not doing enough. Yes, charity’s positive impact is unmistakeable and, yes, charity encompasses elements of justice, but my fear is that while amazing things are being done in the world today because of our charity and generosity charity is just a trend. If our charity is just fashionable, is true justice really being done?
It takes sacrifice to develop a lifestyle that allows us to support charity. We need to watch how we spend our money and watch how we save. We need to respond when we feel any sense of compassion rather than changing the channel. It’s challenging, but even so, it’s still just charity.
Justice, on the other hand, is messy. Those of us who are aiming for fashionable don’t usually give it much of a thought. It requires long-term commitment and investment in prayer. It requires blood and sweat and tears and hard work and a fight. It requires that we not only sacrifice things in our lives so that we can give, but that we change our lifestyles entirely or, in many cases, that we live counter-culturally, making choices about our lifestyle based on how we will impact what deserves justice: the environment, AIDS orphans in Uganda, farmers making pennies on coffee farms in South America, 10-year-old sweatshop workers in Asia, 14-year-old girls who have been forced into prostitution in Thailand, street kids in Toronto.
While we are making an incredibly positive difference with our charity and while the Bible is clear that charity is incredibly important, taking the next step to create truly lasting change for our world requires justice. I imagine that God was trying to let us in on that secret when He asked that we “act justly…love mercy…[and] walk humbly with [Him]” (Micah 6:8, TNIV).