The Common Good
January 2004

An Active Faith

by Yonce Shelton | January 2004

What's charity without justice?

Why should Christians become involved with political activism when donating to a local food bank or homeless shelter seems to "do more?" Why should Christians try to influence public policy in a political system that is intimidating and frustrating, when they can "see" the benefits of volunteer efforts? Simply put, helping low-income people is not an either/or proposition. It requires a commitment to charity and justice.

The impact of charity often can be immediately observed. But securing justice requires long-term vision. Fostering justice comes by changing inequitable political and social systems that oppress, as Jesus said, "the least of these." To believe in the need to promote only charity or justice, ignoring the other's place in Christian theology, is to view the plight of poor people with one eye closed. Ultimately, to reduce the need for charity there must be increased focus on changing systems and policies that undercut the legitimate needs of low-income people.

Relying only on either charitable giving or political activism allows Christians to avoid thinking critically about the realities of our social and political systems. Narrowing our scope of concern to one at the expense of the other can produce a level of comfort and familiarity that sanitizes other social realities. Jesus did not seek such naive comfort.

We cannot ignore the charge to feed those in need (Matthew 25:34-40). Sometimes this means we act by literally feeding the poor; sometimes it requires that we act to feed by changing the way a system operates. Regardless, we cannot use the coming kingdom and its perfection as an excuse to ignore injustice in the here and now. As John Howard Yoder put it, "the church is called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately."

It is time to question our understanding of Christian faith if we are able to justify acts of charity but wash our hands of public policy. From a theological point of view, political activism is just as imperative as charity. Without a change in laws and practices that harm poor people, we can never hope to stem the need for charity.

Working for justice is hard because it requires us to evaluate—from a theological perspective—government, elected leaders' priorities, and, most important, our priorities. Thinking as Christians about politics challenges our very being. Unless we work for justice through social change, the need at food banks, homeless shelters, and low-income medical clinics will only increase. Is allowing this to happen consistent with Christian faith, when our democracy affords the opportunity to change systems and rules that contribute to poverty? At a bare minimum, Christians should regard voting as a reflection of a theology that cares for the poor.

Real progress in reducing social ills cannot be made by only volunteering and making donations. Charity is needed, but true justice requires a different kind of commitment—a commitment to change. Charitable giving cannot meet all the housing, clothing, food, and medical needs of families struggling with poverty. Nor should Christians expect it to.

Christians committed to helping neighbors escape the grip of poverty can spark a movement for change. The fuel to sustain such commitment is in our theology and Christ's examples of charity and justice. Will we tap into the power of our identity and witness, incorporating Christ's example to change the face of poverty in this country? Will we continue to toss crumbs from the table to poor people, instead of giving them a seat at that table? —Yonce Shelton

Yonce Shelton is director of public policy for Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty.

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