Why do so many churches mostly practice charity rather than justice?


Question & Answer

Q: By Pat
Why do you think so many churches mostly practice charity rather than justice?
A: By Rev. Mark Sandlin

Dear Pat,

Put simply, we prefer the self-serving feelings of charity to the self-sacrificing realities of justice.

Charity does help those in need, but only temporarily. Who it helps the most is those of us who have a need to help, who feel it is our calling to aid those in need. Charity lets us feel like we are doing something to respond to need in a world that is overwhelmed with people in need. There’s really no risk in it and people are usually very supportive of such efforts.

Justice, on the other hand, is hard. It frequently requires a great deal of sacrifice and you probably aren’t going to get a lot of people cheering you along the way. Probably quite the opposite. So, most spiritual communities simply don’t do it.

Justice looks like words of love put into action. Justice looks like activism and spiritual communities tend to shy away from that. Justice requires you to not make nice with abusive systems. It requires you to rock the boat a bit and to take a stand on issues that are frequently political hot buttons. For too many churches, that sounds very… well, un-Church like. Too many of us think being “church” means being liked and all that standing up for something means standing against something and we just don’t like the thought of people not liking us because of it.

After all, why risk having our friends think we are being “too political” or have them think we aren’t a nice, polite, docile reflection of Jesus? Why? Because Jesus was not nice and docile – at least not the way people have come to think of him.

He not only confronted systems of injustice, but he tried to teach us to do the same. He did it standing in the tradition of great prophets of Judaism who never failed to stand up against abuse of power. They risked everything. They frequently were run out of town or put to death for it.

Maybe that’s what we’re afraid of – the proverbial crosses we’d have to bear. I’m not sure.

I certainly don’t think it’s because we’d rather see ‘the least of these’ carry the overwhelming burdens of a society structured to benefit the wealthy, than to be thought of as anything less than “nice.”

Maybe we just haven’t thought it through enough. Maybe we just need new leaders to stand up and say “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary,” with the passion and prophetic voice that Dr. King once did.

Then again, maybe WE are the new leaders. It is time for us to reclaim the place of prophetic voice in the midst of our struggling society. As the wealthiest of folk step on and abuse the poorest in our nation by co-opting our government (supposedly “for, of, and by the people”) through the voice and influence of the almighty dollar, we must reclaim our prophetic voice.

We must not stop doing the necessary and much needed work of charity, but we also must not stop there. We must push on, risking ourselves, risking ridicule, risking our places of privilege, and reclaim the biblical and prophetic voice of justice.

Because, you see, charity and justice? They are a matched set. It is time to let justice roll.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin

About the Author
Rev. Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South. He currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. He is a co-founder of The Christian Left. His blog, has been named as one of the “Top Ten Christian Blogs.” Mark received The Associated Church Press’ Award of Excellence in 2012. His work has been published on “The Huffington Post,” “Sojourners,” “Time,” “Church World Services,” and even the “Richard Dawkins Foundation.” He’s been featured on PBS’s “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” and NPR’s “The Story with Dick Gordon.” Follow Mark on Facebook and Twitter @marksandlin

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