Charity vs. politics?

August 23, 2011

Marilyn Sewell raises a familiar subject:

Churches almost always
prefer charity to justice. Let's take, for example, the question of hunger.
Churches find it easier to open a soup kitchen, rather than lobby politicians
or put pressure on government to feed hungry people or help them get jobs. . .
. What's wrong with this picture? To effect change, churches must move beyond charity
to justice, changing the economic and political systems that keep people

with the fact that charity is simply easier, Sewell names three additional
reasons churches often avoid pursuing justice:

  • Charity is
    less controversial than politics.
  • People fear
    that political advocacy will threaten a church's tax-exempt status. (It won't,
    unless they're endorsing candidates.)
  • Politics
    strikes some people as too worldly a pursuit for the church.


add a fourth: charity often produces immediate, concrete results. It's more
satisfying to give a hungry person a healthful meal than it is to move the ball
an inch forward in the fight for better food policy--especially for people who
are new to advocacy work and not hardened to its realities.

importantly: All of these explanations take as given that working for justice
means working in the realm of politics. Certainly this is often the case. But
Sewell seems to be conflating the charity vs. justice binary with another one:
direct service vs. advocacy. The two subjects are intricately related, but
they're not the same thing.

is right that charity is often just "a Band-Aid" that primarily "allows donors
to feel good," but this applies not only to individuals and churches but also
to nations, whose aid efforts might have political support but aren't always helpful. On the other hand, the
direct-service efforts that so many churches excel at don't always amount to
just handouts and Band-Aids. Teaching 20 immigrants to speak English might not
effect large-scale systemic change, but its impact on those 20 people is deep,
permanent and empowering. Doesn't that count as justice work?

of which is to say that it's enough to get churches to move from just giving
people a fish to teaching them to fish as well. We also need the grueling,
abstract work of advocacy--to prevent polluters from killing all the fish in
the river, to stock the river when this fails, to subsidize child care so
people can get away long enough to catch anything. Sewell is right that it's
difficult but important to get churches involved with all this. The options for
churches, however, are more complex than Band-Aids on the one hand and politics
on the other.