I have been thinking about the word ‘charity’. The dictionary states that charity is the “voluntary giving of help to those in need”. It’s a good thing to do, but as followers of Christ, the voluntary aspect of charity causes me some problem.

It is true that God gives us free will to do whatever we want with what he has given us—gifts, talents, resources, but what does he expect us to do with these things? Is helping the poor optional?

Caring for the poor

There’s no doubt that God cares for the poor—we can find examples throughout the Scriptures. For instance, harvesters were not allowed to reap to the edges of the field so that there was some left for the poor (Lev. 19:19). Therefore, the landowners—those who had the resources, took care of the poor.

If we look at the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew (Matt 25: 31-45), there is the freedom to choose whether to feed and clothe the hungry, but there is an implied obligation to act. An act of charity means that you have the power to give or withhold your support. An obligation to God’s justice takes away that choice by making it a righteous act of service to God’s mandate to care for the poor.

So, if God cares for the poor and he has chosen to work through believers to achieve his will on earth, then surely collectively we should use our resources to look after them. This switches from being a voluntary act to God giving us the responsibility to care for the poor.

Does charity need a partner?

But is giving to help the poor enough? Poverty is an injustice and one that is largely created by human beings. If poverty is human-made, (in other words we play a part in creating the inequity) this would imply a collective responsibility by those with the means to do something to rectify the situation. After all, our trade and economic systems are depriving the poor of access to the advantages we take for granted like sufficient food. When we buy cheap goods made by poorly paid workers or even slave labour, when we contribute to global pollution that is affecting the poor through climate change, we are part of this unjust human-made poverty trap. To not act against injustice is to allow injustice to continue. So as well as charity, we need to address the underlying causes of poverty from our place of privilege.

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"Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings...”
- Nelson Mandela
 

Voluntary acts of charity are therefore inadequate to tackle poverty. According to Nelson Mandela, this becomes a call to act justly—to take action to rectify the injustice, rather than just an act of charity where we give money to alleviate the situation. Micah 6:8 tells us what God requires of us: to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Isaiah 1:17 says:

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
 

Charity and Justice are a strong force

If we want to help those in poverty, we have to shift our thinking from charity alone—we also need to stand against injustice. We might do this by speaking out about injustice, changing our lifestyle to reduce our part in systematic injustices, giving to organisations that are taking action against injustice, and certainly by praying. If charity is giving to help the poor overcome the giant of poverty—justice is standing alongside them in the fight. Both are needed. Charity is fulfilling the obligation to God’s call to care for the poor. Justice is about standing against and addressing the causes and systematic injustices that keep them poor.

A comic drawing showing the difference between charity and justice.jpg

Perhaps the simplest definition of justice is ‘the world the way God intended it to be’. It is a world where all is equitable. Therefore, as part of bringing God’s Kingdom into this fallen world, those with the means can help redress the equity imbalance; where one-third of the world has too much and two-thirds live in deprivation. God blessed Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. In the same way, maybe we can consider redistributing our blessings to those in need. This is not a one-way street; as many verses like the one below show us, there is a blessing when we show mercy to the poor. The message here is simple: help the needy and stand up for the oppressed. It’s not hard to understand—it’s just hard to do.

Isaiah 58:10-11
“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.”

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