From Charity to Justice: Seeking Justice
Imagine that you were walking alongside a river one day, and you saw someone in the water, clearly in distress, struggling, and needing help. What would you do? Well, of course, I imagine that you would jump into the water and help the person out, or at least call on someone else to help. Of course, that’s what you would do. But what if, as you were helping the first person out of the water, more people appeared, coming down the river, all appearing to be in distress? What would you do? At first, you might think to quickly gather a group of people – together, with a team, maybe you could start to get all of the people out of water and to safety. But I think, eventually, if this problem persisted, you would choose to send at least one person to travel along the river, looking for the source of the problem. Why is it that so many people are in the water, struggling for their lives? Was there an accident upstream? Did a boat sink? Did a bridge collapse? Has there been some disaster? Is someone or some group trying to harm these people, throwing them into the water? Once these questions can be answered, you can begin to think about a plan of action. You still need, of course, to get the people out of the water who are in distress, with their lives in immediate danger. But in the long run, more people will be saved if you figure out how they’re ending up in the water to begin with.
I told you when we started this series two weeks ago that the focus of my doctoral work was studying how to help congregations move from a charity-based focus in their outreach work to a broader justice-grounded focus. This river scenario I just shared is one of the ways I help folks start to think about the differences between charity and justice. There is certainly a place for, a need for charitable action. We see this particularly in times of crisis, perhaps as a response to a natural disaster or a tragic event. Charitable actions focus on the immediate response, meeting immediate needs. It can be very individually-focused, as in “we need to help this person who has fallen into the water.” Charitable action focuses on fixing what we might call the results of oppression and injustice. If we’re thinking about poverty and hunger, charitable actions would focus on feeding a person who is hungry, providing material needs or cash assistance for a person struggling with poverty.
But there are some problems with charitable actions when they move from being the initial response in a time of crisis to being the primary response of people of faith to injustice over time. First, charitable action doesn’t address the causes of injustice, since it aims simply to alleviate the results. Charitable action can feed hungry people, but without asking why people are hungry, and working to address and change the causes of hunger, there will be no end to hunger. Our charitable actions are optional actions, based on generosity and desire. We can give or we can choose not to give. Charitable actions are often come with huge power differentials between the person who gives and the person who receives. Remember, we talked about justice and righteousness being grounded in right relationships between God and one another. If our only relationship with some people is through acts of charity, where we are always giving and the other is always receiving, there is no chance for mutual relationship. The work of justice focuses on ministry with people instead of ministry for people. The work of justice is long-term work, and focuses on changing whole systems and structures. And finally, the work of justice is what God requires. It isn’t optional, something that God calls us to do if we feel like it, if we have enough extra to share, if we’re feeling generous. Throughout the scriptures, the work of justice is work that God builds into the very laws that form the covenant between God and God’s people. The poor and vulnerable are protected by law, and failure to act with justice towards those whom God protects is a failure of justice, a violation of law, a sign of brokenness in the covenant. God takes it seriously when we fail to work for justice.
Part of how we get “off track” with charity is because the concept of charity has changed over time. In the scriptures, the word that can loosely translate into something like our word charity means “to give alms,” to give money to those in need. It appears in two or three places in the Bible, describing a practice of giving to the poor that was considered generous, but was also part of the law, an expectation for faithful Jews. As our PowerPoint title slide says, charity gives. We need charitable actions, we need to respond to the immediate crises of people in pain, people suffering. We can do good and needed charitable work. But, it’s a word that doesn’t really communicate what we want it to, and it perhaps doesn’t encourage us toward the mutual, set right relationships in the way we want it to, and it doesn’t change things beyond the immediate for the people who so need to experience the freedom and good news and release we read about in Isaiah last week. We are called to something more. Last week, when we shared in our Companion Litany to our Social Creed, we used the phrase “God celebrates when justice and mercy embrace.” Considering acts of mercy serves us better than acts of charity. The concept of mercy is grounded in our biblical witness, and speaks of God’s loving action towards us. To be merciful is to have compassion for others. You might remember me sharing with you last summer that the word compassion, often used to describe the way Jesus looks at us, means literally to have your stomach twisted in knots with concern for others. What if we acted with mercy and justice in the face of the world’s brokenness, and our need to build right relationships with God and one another?
We find both mercy and justice in our scripture text this morning. Today we turn our attention to the book of Micah. Micah is another of the prophets, and he writes around the same time as does the prophet Isaiah, and you can find a lot of similar themes in their work. When we pick up our reading in chapter 6, Micah is reporting that God is declaring to the hills and mountains that God has a controversy, a case to bring against Israel. Basically, God is accusing Israel of failing to uphold the covenant between God and God’s people. God has promised to be the God of Israel, and the people were in turn meant to be faithful to God and God’s law, but they’ve failed to uphold their end of the promise. God, though, is ever-faithful. Still, God is demanding an accounting, and when God brings the case against Israel, God starts by reminding the Israelites of all that God has done for them, of all the ways that God has been a guide, their leader, their strength. “Remember how I brought you out of Egypt and slavery?” God reminds. “Remember how I gave you leaders in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” “Remember how I saved you from the enemies that wanted to keep you from reaching the promised land?”
Micah then speaks on behalf of the Israelites, imagining their response to God’s claim against them. He imagines that the Israelites will offer anything – burnt-offerings, and offerings of livestock – extravagant riches – a thousand rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, even their firstborn children – in order to be justified, to be set in right relationship with God again. The pictures Micah paints are of extreme hyperbole, suggesting we’d promise anything to be on good terms with God again.
But, Micah says God has already told us what is good, and what is required. We already know what God wants – we just don’t seem to want to do it. What does God require? That we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [our] God.” God doesn’t want our extravagant gifts when they don’t come with our heart and soul attached. God wants our hearts, our compassion, our commitment to justice for all of God’s people, and our humble discipleship, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Both less costly than all of our treasures, and more costly, because God wants everything, heart and soul and whole lives as an offering.
What God wants, as always, is for us to make God’s ways our ways, for us to make God’s values our values. That happens when we seek righteousness – right relationships with God and one another. And God reminds us that God has always treated us with justice and mercy. Remember, remember, remember how I have loved you, how I have treated you, how I have worked for fullness of life for you. And let your remembering spur you to work for the same for others. Remember – you already know what I require – justice, mercy, and humble discipleship.
So, how will we do this work here, in this congregation and in this community? What can we do here that will help us make God’s values our values, set us right with God and neighbor? How will we love mercy here, and seek justice here? I think we can work to build on the things that we already care about as a community. Our church serves many families each fall with our We’ve Got Your Back to School program. There’s a vital ministry that can lead us to ask justice-seeking questions. How can our faith communities better support our schools, our children, and our educators? How can we be advocates, working to get the resources our schoolchildren need? How can we be in relationship with families with schoolchildren who feel overburdened and stretched thin? How can we support teachers and administrators and staff who can have such a profound impact on young lives? We have a thriving Friday Lunch program that brings meals to countless people in our community – so many people touched by this program. What do we know about what resources are available to the elderly in our community? How do we build meaningful relationships with folks that are often neglected and overlooked by a society that values eternal youth? We’re beginning to think and plan and dream about how we support people and families who are walking the road of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Already, we’ve been talking about being advocates for mental health resources, educating ourselves and our community, encouraging hospitality and breaking down stereotypes. There is no one right way to seek justice, grounded in mercy. There are so many ways to answer God’s call. What stirs your spirit? What way is God calling you? Where does your compassion meet God’s vision of justice and wholeness for the world?
God wants nothing more and nothing less than our hearts and souls. And God tells us just how we can make such an offering. Not with jewels and riches and without what God really wants. Requires in fact. God has told us what is good. Let us do justice. Let us love mercy and kindness. And let us walk, walk this journey as disciples, walk humbly in the company of God. Amen.