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I hate charity: why justice matters

I hate charity.


Not when I’m giving: when I’m giving, I love charity. It makes me feel better about myself, because I have done something nice to help someone. I did something good that I wasn’t required to do, so I must be a wonderful person. But when I’m receiving, then I hate charity.


I hear many Christians extol the virtues of charity. Speaking as donors, they prefer the good feeling that charity gives them to the bad feeling they get from being taxed. They point to God’s love of charity, and they denounce big government as evil.


But they don’t talk about justice.


This is odd, because God talks about justice a lot. He describes himself as the defender of the poor and needy (Deut 10:18; Prov 22:22; Ps 68:5, 146:9; Jer 9:24). He describes his people as being those who care about justice for the poor (Prov 29:7), and says that to know him is to defend the cause of the poor and needy (Jer 22:16). Meanwhile, those who withhold justice are cursed (Deut 27:19). He even gave his people a multitude of laws for how to set up and run society in a just manner.


God commanded his people to be generous. He told his people to share openhandedly with those in need. Such a command does not specify the details: who; how; when; where; how much. This is charity. It is non-specific and it is up to the donor. It is a choice. But God also specified certain details that applied to all people everywhere all the time. These specific, universal laws represent justice. You don’t have a choice. And the reason you don’t have a choice is because, as far as God is concerned, certain things belong to certain people.


Both charity and justice can look like generosity – giving resources generously to those in need – but charity is at the discretion of the donor whilst justice is decreed by law. When the early Christians collected money to support those who were afflicted by famine, that was charity. But when the Ancient Israelites paid tithe for the sake of feeding the poor and needy, that was justice. It was also justice when landowners were commanded to give some of their harvest to the poor via gleaning; when property was to be redistributed every fiftieth year; and when lenders were forbidden to claim interest, take certain items in pledge, or carry the debt on past the seventh year. These and other laws represent justice. They were God decreeing to the Ancient Israelites that society was to be structured in certain ways; constraints and requirements were to be placed on people that represented the bare minimum of their duty towards those in need; and mechanisms were to be put in place that obligatorily transferred resources from the rich to the poor.


Charity is what happens when someone gives to me on a whim. They didn’t have to give to me; or give that amount; or give in that format; or give at that time. Charity may not happen again, so it cannot be relied upon. It makes my wellbeing dependent on another person having so much more than they need that they’re willing to give a little away, and that they know me and approve of me enough that they choose to give it to me rather than the next needy person. It means that I have to accept what they’re willing to give, even if it isn’t appropriate, because it’s all that I can get.


Charity creates in me an internal sense of obligation to the donor, that I don’t spend on something of which they disapprove, and that I guard my future income carefully for fear that ‘frivolous’ spending will create a future need for charity and then I’ll be blamed for not living a sparse, dreary life. It places me in a position of obligation; a form of debt; a feeling that I owe something back, such as in my future good behaviour. me acutely aware of my lowly position relative to the giver, It reduces my personhood and takes away my dignity.


Justice is what happens when I am given something as of right, such as social security. Social security is a justice that says that, as a human being, I have the right to live and participate in society even if my bodily illness means I can’t earn an income. Justice says that society should work together to support those who cannot work, to maintain us in life and in society. It is a form of love from society as a whole, to my community as a whole, in which society says that my people are worthy of support regardless of whether we are known and cared for by a rich person. It is stable (at least compared to charity), and it is dignified. It gives me the right to order my life as I see best, and even live a decent life.


Charity feels nice to the giver, because it is a freely-made gift that says something about their moral character; their kindness and selflessness. It creates a nice feeling inside that allows you to pat yourself on the back and consider yourself a good person who has done a good job. But justice pulls you up short and says that what you have is not your own to pick and choose what you do with. God says that some of it belongs to other people and you don’t get credit for giving it, any more than the servant gets to sit and eat at his master’s table after coming in from the field, but instead does nothing more than his basic duty when he prepares and serves his master’s food (Luke 17:7-10).


In our pride and selfishness, it is jarring to be told that the money we earned does not belong to us. It is unpleasant to have it taken from us and be told that it is to go to someone else. It doesn’t bring the feel-good factor of choosing to give. But that does not make it wrong for such redistribution to happen, and our discomfort at the experience says more about the state of our heart than it does about the merits of charity versus justice.


When we act justly, we tell people that our God is a just God. We tell people that God cares about the social and economic relationships subsisting in society; about how we treat one another; and about everyone’s place and value in community. We tell people that God cares about the dignity of each and every person he has made. We tell people that it matters to God not just whether each person has enough, but why they do or don’t have enough.


I don’t like charity when I’m on the receiving end; and I don’t like justice when I’m the one being called to give up what I think is mine. But God is far more concerned with the extent to which what I have belongs to a person in need than he is with my right to keep what I think belongs to me. If I want to be just and righteous, then I need to align my ideas with God’s.

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