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Marilyn Sewell Headshot

Churches Prefer Charity to Justice

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When I was a young adult in New Orleans, I attended a prestigious church which fronted on elegant St. Charles Avenue. One Sunday there was a call from the pulpit for used shoes to be donated to the forgotten souls in the parish prison, one of the worst prisons in Louisiana, and I suppose in the United States. I remember being appalled. After church I went to the minister and asked, "This is a large, powerful church. Why don't we demand that the authorities clothe the prisoners properly?" The minister looked at me and said, "All I know is that some prisoners need some shoes." I never forgot that moment.

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. I must confess at this point that I, too, give money to charity. But just this morning as I once again wrote a check to the food bank, I note that every year there are more hungry people in my state of Oregon. Last year 240,000 people used the food bank, compared to 200,000 the previous year. 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 impoverished.

I don't wish to say that all charitable giving is wrong. Certainly, if we have more than we need, we should give some of the excess away. And there is a sound argument for hands-on work by churches, for the act of serving soup to impoverished people gives middle-class people some sense of what the less fortunate are facing in their everyday lives. These experiences may very well motivate individuals to advocate for policy change. So yes, write the check, serve the soup, but don't stop there.

The problem with charity, including charitable deeds done by churches, is that it allows people to believe that a given social problem is being addressed, when actually there is only a Band-Aid being put on the wound. It allows donors to feel good because they think that they have "made a difference." Actually, charity may do more for the donors than for the institutions they purport to serve. The problems that people face in a country like ours, in which there is such a wide disparity of wealth, cannot be addressed comprehensively by charities, no matter how many people of good will donate or volunteer. Charities act unilaterally and piecemeal, and they tend to serve the sexy causes (i.e., anything to do with children), rather than those less emotionally compelling (e.g., homeless mentally ill men).

When I became a parish minister, I began to understand why almost universally churches will avoid political action in favor of charitable deeds. For one thing, churches are populated mostly by middle-class people, who are relatively comfortable. And ministers of these institutions value stability more than mission. We professional leaders are reluctant to do anything that would cause conflict or controversy in our churches, fearing an institutional split -- or at the very least, a reduction of gifts to the church.

Some church people wrongly believe that churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they take a stand on political matters. But the tax code is clear: churches and ministers may speak out at will on any issue, so long as they do not engage in partisan politics -- that is, advocate for one candidate over another.

Other people believe that politics is worldly and not therefore suitable for an institution given to spiritual endeavors. Realistically, however, we must understand that politics determines everything from assuring that we have clean drinking water to deciding when we go to war. And politics determines how the abundant resources of this country are shared -- or not shared. These issues, which are decided in the political arena, have moral dimensions which churches can hardly ignore, if we are to be taken seriously as a religious people.

Church is not just a place where good friends gather to support one another; it is not a place where people go to save their own souls, and ignore the very real pain of their neighbors; it is not a place to maintain nice, middle-class values. The Holy Spirit is not on the side of stability. Jesus did not say, "I have come that you might be comfortable." He said, "I have come that you may have life." Church is a place to take the demands of justice seriously, and to trouble the waters, when necessary. Will there be controversy? Maybe so. But there will be integrity, there will be mission, there will be life.