Heart and Mind - February 2018
Heart and Mind - Dr. Lou Yock
Charity and Social Justice
As a UU church, we spend a lot of time examining what we do in terms of helping those in need. While any and all efforts are encouraged, welcomed, and affirmed, it may help us in our discussions and deliberations to draw some distinctions in our terminology. When a person goes to seminary, this is the sort of thing that is taught. When considering outcomes, which are all good, it’s academic and picky. But to understand how processes and thinking work, it helps to clarify. I hope through this we will better understand the difference between social justice and charity.
Charity is helping somebody in need. It solves an immediate problem. Are people hungry? give them a meal. Are they homeless? give them shelter tonight. Are they begging for money? give them some change. Is the sick child in need of care? donate to the fund.
Participating in Crop Walk, giving to MUUSJN (Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network), the UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee), donating to People’s Church, and OxFam, are all charity. It is a way of participating in a larger good. With all the money collected, professionals are engaged, lawyers are hired, equipment is bought, well diggers are paid, and food is delivered to far away refugee camps. It is necessary, as we cannot be all things to all people, and in all places at all times, that we band together in these charities to make sure that money is available to provide the good work that needs to be accomplished. I am very proud of all that our church and its members do in this regard. I believe we are exceptionally committed to the community and the wider world in all the support we unhesitatingly provide to these networks of charity.
Social Justice work, on the other hand, is working, to correct the systemic problems that necessitate charity. Social Justice often gets political and divisive, and there is no guarantee that needs will be met in the short term, as in charity. Social Justice work is muddled and messy, and usually does not leave a person feeling as satisfied as when engaging in charity. Giving to the food bank is charity, campaigning for a minimum wage increase is social justice. Contributing to Lamda Legal is charity, staging a sit-in in a legislator’s office is social justice. Donating to AFFEW is charity, attending work shops, asking questions, and voicing opinions is social justice. Attending a rehab build with Habitat for Humanity is charity, attending a city council meeting to require rental inspections is social justice. A pledge to St. Jude’s is charity, campaigning for universal health care is social justice.
As individuals, our church is overflowing with people involved in social justice work. We always want to do as much as we are able to uphold and help each other in our social justice efforts. Seeking individuals to join us, and joining with others as individuals, is the model we use in our church’s social justice activities. While other UU churches will take a stand on a specific social justice issue, our church will not presume to speak for another on a matter of social justice. The strength of this model is that we stay united as we help each other in support of social justice issues. The drawback is that it lessens the impact of collective strength, as when a church or religious body gives credibility to a cause by endorsing a specific stand.
When it comes to charity and social justice, the distinctions are not always clear, the measures and definitions are not absolute, and the categories can be rearranged to make one the other. It can get rather academic, but it is sometimes helpful to have academic guideposts as we explain our points of view. In the end, the best way to go about anything in either social justice or charity, is to always do what we are able, as we are able.