It’s an old saying but true: If you have to keep rescuing people out of a raging river, eventually you ought to walk upstream to see who’s throwing those people in the river.
This is the difference between charity and justice. Charity gladly plucks people out of the river because it makes the rescuer feel good about helping someone. And at least those who perform charity have enough heart to reach into the waters and not turn away with a certainty that “those people” surely did something to cause them to fall into the river. Next time, they ought to follow orders, work harder, take more precautions. At least they’re not saying that nonsense.
But justice goes beyond charity. Justice sees people drowning in the river and eventually wonders how to stop the problem at the source. Justice might even have to walk away from the rescue mission for a minute to investigate what’s happening upstream.
The problem for way too many people in the church is that charity looks like missions to them but justice looks like politics. And God forbid if the church gives even the appearance of engaging in politics — unless it’s your preferred politics.
Have you noticed how an aversion to “politics” in the church most often gets raised by people motivated by politics?
In my experience, at least, those who sound the alarm over politics in the pulpit or politics in the missions projects are animated by a political view that has supplanted religious teaching — or the fear that someone else, maybe a big donor or influential family in the church, will be offended because of their own politics.
Here’s a current-day example: We cannot talk about refugees without talking about immigration. Yet there are some in the church who will volunteer and give their money to refugee ministries but become offended when the topic turns to immigration policy. They have been conditioned — by politicians more than preachers — to think of immigration as a politically divisive topic.
“The problem for way too many people in the church is that charity looks like missions to them but justice looks like politics.”
Again, it’s nice that these folks are willing to love and serve refugees. That’s fantastic. But that is the work of plucking people out of the river and giving them dry clothes.
The love of God compels us to ask how those refugees got in the river in the first place and why they nearly drowned before anyone helped them out. We have refugees to serve because of immigration.
Another example is food and clothing. And here’s where the American church of the 20th century became a victim of its own do-gooding. We were trained to believe that missions means running food pantries and clothes closets.
Once again, the world needs food pantries and clothes closets. These are essential and Christ-like ministries. But are we just going to keep handing out food and clothes forever without stopping to ask why people are hungry and naked?
Surely this must be one of the meanings of the scriptural admonition to not grow weary in well-doing. When the church — or its affiliated ministries — keeps spinning the wheel of bailing people out without learning how to stop the wheel, weariness is the natural result.
There’s got to be a better way, a more holistic way that keeps plucking people out of the river while putting up some safety rails so that not so many people keep falling into the water.
“Are we just going to keep handing out food and clothes forever without stopping to ask why people are hungry and naked?”
That better way is to address the systemic problem. And, aha!, just by my use of the word “systemic” you’re likely already tensing up and thinking, “Ooh, that’s political.”
Why is it political? Who says? Why must we believe that?
It’s only true because politicians have said it’s true. The very people whose public trust should compel them to go investigate who’s throwing people into the river want to obscure their ineffectiveness by saying we can’t talk about the system they’re in charge of.
Yes, we can do charity all day long and avert our eyes to the reality of systematic injustice. When we take that approach, nothing will ever change. We’ll need to be down at the river every day plucking people out — or paying someone else to be down at the river. In the past, that passed for missions.
Justice — the kind of justice preached by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus alike — does its best to make charity no longer necessary.
Charity promises people a better life some day in the by and by. Justice is what happens when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.