Hand Outs Do Not Equal Social Justice

Social Justice — By on July 14, 2011 at 2:50 pm

When I explain to people that I work in the inner city and have a call to social justice ministries, I always get stories back about how they know someone who runs a clothing closet, or about how they served in a soup kitchen one time or give money to people on the street.  I have nothing against acts of charity.  Charity is a good thing.  But charity is not the same as justice.

Several years ago the director of an urban retreat center clarified this for me, he said “Christian social teaching has two feet.  One is the foot of charity or kindness and the other is the foot of justice.  Charity says “That man is hungry.”, and feeds him.  Justice asks,  “Why is that man hungry?” and works to ensure that he will not go hungry in the future.  We need both feet moving alongside one another if we want to get anywhere.”

Somewhere along the way, modern Christians got charity and justice mixed up and began to think they were the same thing.  Everywhere I go, I see churches that spend a tremendous amount of energy and resources on charitable acts like feeding programs, short term missions trips, and the collection of material items for those in need.  What these churches don’t see is that without someone addressing the justice side of the equation real change rarely happens.  I have yet to meet a church that invests as much energy in social justice ministries as it does in charitable ministries.

As the founder of what became the largest furniture bank on the eastern seaboard, I have a lot of experience with charity.  During the time I ran the furniture bank, we gave away thousands of dollars in furniture to hundreds of families.  However, once the families moved out of the shelter, they no longer had a support system and a large percentage lost their housing, lost the furniture, and went back on the street.  The charity foot moved forward, but the justice foot never budged.   Only about half of my clients maintained housing for more than a few years, and this was after well-meaning Christians had invested countless hours in collecting furnishings and I spent tens of  thousands of dollars transporting and storing the furniture.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to go beyond charity with a number of families.  I have walked in solidarity with them and in so doing have become an agent of social justice.  Not all of the individuals I have befriended in this way were able to maintain housing, but I know many would have been homeless again had we not been there to fight for justice for them.  In these cases, the charity and justice feet moved together and great things happened.

I don’t think contemporary Christians really understand what “social justice” means.  I think that is why people believe him when Glenn Beck implies that people who call themselves social justice Christians are really a communist plot to take over the church.  (I actually wonder if anyone really believes him or if they just find his ignorance entertaining?  But that’s question for another post.)

The all knowing Wikipedia defines social justice this way:

Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.  Egalitarianism is a trend of thought that favors equality of some sort.  Its general premise is that people should be treated as equals on certain dimensions such as religiously, politically, economically, socially, or culturally.

Not a great definition but fair enough.  I think the key here is that justice seeks to recognize human dignity in its approach and seeks to level the playing field so all have equal access to resources; it treats people as equals and requires solidarity.   When charity is not balanced by justice we can create systems that devalue the human being by creating dependency.  That is not justice.

In creating a just system, those who believe in social justice are not proposing that the poor get more handouts.  That would be an unjust system where some work and some don’t.  A just system would ensure that all have the ability to get a job, receive a fair wage, and pay their own way.  Those who are able to work and choose not to should not be allowed to become dependent on the charity of others.  Charity should be reserved for those who due to their circumstances are unable to provide for themselves, such as individuals who are disabled, temporarily out of work, mentally handicapped, children, or elderly.

The key to insuring a hungry man is not hungry tomorrow or a homeless woman is not homeless tomorrow lies in their ability to gain employment.  However, helping individuals with barriers to employment find employment is not easy and that is what makes the system unjust.  The poor have a harder time accessing jobs because they do not have equal access to education, transportation, technology, stable housing, or communication systems like phones and email.  Navigating these barriers requires help from others.  Thus, the need for people who are willing to walk in solidarity with those who are suffering; Christians who will treat their new friend with dignity and as an equal.  Justice requires people to fight against discrimination and unfair hiring practices.  In other words, it requires Christians who are willing to seek justice and not just give handouts.  It requires Christians who are in it for the long-haul and who are not just looking for a quick feel-good experience. It demands that Christians walk where Jesus walked and hang out with the people Jesus hung out with.  It challenges us to see Christ in the “least of these” and receive from them the gift of friendship.


Wendy McCaig is the Founder and Executive Director of Embrace Richmond (www.embracerichmond.org.) She blogs at www.wendymccaig.com on topics including social justice, the missional movement of the church and her experiences in doing inner city ministry in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia. Her book, From the Sanctuary to the Streets, was published by Cascade last year.

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  • jo hilder says:

    This is an excellent article Wendy, and very timely. More and more Christians are involving themselves in addressing some very pressing social dilemmas, but rarely stop to think whether they are helping people in terms of their human rights. I think many Christians have neglected the fact that refusing to right the wrongs that cause the issues in the first place basically equates to patronisation of the worst kind….that would be the kind that relies on the existence of people that are worse off than you are so you have a chance to prove how much better then them you are.

    • Wendy McCaig says:

      Hi Jo,

      Thanks for your comment. It is a hard paradigm shift for many Christians because our current approach to missions is defined by “what we do for other” instead of “what we help others do for themselves.” I often wonder how much of the resistance to a more empowerment based model is driven by our own need to be needed or our desire for a quick fix to a complex problem. Poverty and systems that perpetuate it are complex and I think the church has unknowingly contributed to some of the unhealthy systems by creating dependency.

  • This is nice. Good stuff.

  • ~ Fabulous, Wendy…Thank you!

  • Rob-bear says:

    A very timely piece, Wendy. As a pastor who has worked in the inner city, I can understand your thoughts. Charity and justice are two hands, two feet a you say. We do need both. But I am inclined to believe that justice — the focus of many Biblical prophets — is probably more important now, as we see society breaking down. I just blogged a piece relating to poverty, and the myths that are running rampant in Canadian society.
    Blessings and Bear hugs in your ministry.

  • Great stuff!

    I have served at the Baton Rouge Dream Center since 2007 and I agree with you 100%. I say it like this, a hand out has to come with a hand up for lasting change to occur.

    But I find that people would rather just do the hand out thing so they feel good about doing something, a hand up requires getting in the pit and loving someone, and that takes a lot more time, effort, emotion and persistence.

    Someone recently asked me what the key was to doing inner city ministry for a long length of time. I said it has to start with seeing every person as equal. I strongly believe that.

  • metanoia says:

    Wendy: Thank you for your contribution to this discussion. Your passion and concern came through loud and clear. I’d like to make a suggestion.

    I was an urban minister in a very diverse community (mostly upper-lower and lower-middle class with a high density of ethnic groups for over 20 years. I would suggest that the second leg of justice be more clearly defined. You gave some pretty clear illustrations of how charity is practiced, but were somewhat vague and general on what the vehicles for justice would entail. Perhaps this oversight wan an honest error because it is assumed that your audience already knows this.

    A simple appeal to helping others get jobs, housing and education doesn’t address the nuances of the nuts and bolts that are required. It is in the details that the job gets difficult but the battle can be ultimately won. Let me give an brief example of each:

    Education: Christians (and non-Christian concerned citizens) can get involved working with children in the early grades assisting them in learning to read and write. These two skills will pay great dividends. A good education is absolutely essential for any potential future success.

    Jobs: Helping young teens secure an entry level job and learn the industriousness and habits of holding a job will prepare them for advancement and higher salaried jobs in the future. All the while making sure that they are reminded that they must stay engaged in getting a good, relevant education.

    Housing: While there are a number of subsidy programs (charity) available to assist in paying for rent, utilities etc., teaching and training in how to manage household finances responsibly can go a long way to prepare for upward mobility.

    Justice begins at the most basic and early opportunities to solve a systemic problem over a period of time. Many get stuck on the practicing of the charity side because it assuages the conscience and pretends to offer the impression that an issue is being addressed with some kind of instant results.

    It must constantly be stressed that those who want to get involved in justice issues must understand that it is a marathon and not a sprint.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

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