Charity and Justice: A Compelling Conceptualization

The other night, I came across a blog/sermon that I enjoyed quite a bit. It is from Roger Wolsey, an ordained pastor of the United Methodist Church. He writes about how dealing with injuries and injustices one case at a time, while good for the individuals benefited, is insufficient for truly committed Christians. Christ’s calling was not simply for individual righteousness, but also for a just society, Wolsey asserts.

One salient point he makes is a distinction between “charity” and “justice.” In the LDS community, we tend to view the two concepts as opposing forces. I think this makes perfect sense, especially in light of Alma the Younger’s counsel to his wayward son in the Book of Mormon–“What do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? Nay: not one whit” (Alma 42:25). Of course, I am using charity and mercy as synonyms here. Indeed, the two are theologically related in that charity, as Mormons usually talk about it, is the “pure love of Christ,” while mercy is the evidence of Christ’s love for people and, when exercised in inter-human relations, evidence of compassion toward others.

Alma’s point is that, on a cosmic scale, justice must be satisfied. Where a law, or commandment in theological language, is broken, the breaker must “pay” for that transgression. Mercy cannot stop the demands of justice. However, and herein lies the love/charity/mercy of Christ, the Redeemer has paid that price through the Atonement, through His great sacrifice. Thus, justice meted its price on the very body of Christ (to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bohnhoeffer), and if we commit ourselves to being faithful followers of Christ (which, of course, means an honest soul- and heartfelt commitment that necessarily influences our actions and not just our speech), then we can experience His mercy.

Wolsey, however, conceptualizes these two forces in a more symbiotic way, which I find compelling. Here is his statement:

Charity is like committing those “random acts of kindness.” It’s those isolated acts of mercy that respond to certain specific needs, things like giving a warm blanket to a homeless person on the street or serving a meal to a person [who’s] hungry. Justice is more of a systemic thing. It’s about reforming the societal context and conditions in order to more fairly correct things when the decks are stacked against certain kinds of people.

Metaphorically, charity is like giving Band-aids to people after they’ve had a trauma.

Justice is seeking to prevent those traumas from happening in the first place.

What a fantastic way to look at these two important concepts! Here, the two become complementary forces for good. One operating in specific instances, while the other operates in general instances. Wolsey points out that people like Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa would be good examples of charity and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were good examples of justice. It is utterly absurd to ask which is more important. For truly and deeply committed followers of Christ, both are necessary. As we try to become more Christ-like, we must clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, etc., and we should also work to address the root causes of these conditions. We should be committed to changing the conditions that allow people to suffer from nakedness, hunger, and ill health. To try and live after only charity, or individual cases, would be to allow injustice to overwhelm and bury us in needs we cannot satisfy, for there will always be more people in need than we can adequately help; on the other hand, to only seek for justice would be to loose the trees in the forest, to risk becoming so focused on socio-economic systems that we forget the individuals effected/injured by those systems.

The life and teachings of Christ tell us to consider both. Let us consider the story of the woman taken in adultery from the New Testament. Here was a woman who, by the “law” (a system), should have been put to death because of her actions–incidentally, whenever I read this story, I always ask myself why the Pharisees did not also drag the adulterating man out, as well. Christ, however, had a greater view and said simply, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). Of course, none of the accusers could cast a stone, having all sinned. There is a powerful statement about justice in this deceptively simple moment: the unjust (those who are still with sin) should not be too anxious to mete out justice which still holds a proverbial sword over their own heads.

I am always amazed at the quiet dignity with which the Savior disarms these ravenous, witch-hunting Pharisees. I can well imagine a lesser person over-zealously and self-righteously calling them to repentance; but, the Son of God simply reminded them in a very effective way, through appealing to their own consciences, that the system they invoked to punish a woman they had rejected was tied to a larger cosmic system of justice that stood to reject them too for their own sinfulness. If we focus too much on the “harsh” aspects of justice, we lose sight of the fact that we are also subject to it since each one of us has sinned (Romans 5:12…well, the whole chapter, really).

Wolsey’s conception, however, reminds us that there is a positive aspect to justice. If we truly work for a socio-economic system that tries to promote the health and well-being of everyone within the system, then we will eventually experience more joy and peace together since the sheer number and magnitude of needs will diminish. The system will then not be a hammer that factions can use to threaten others with; it will become a collection of tools that will address the needs of all.

What does this kind of just society look like? Well, in the Book of Mormon, we get a glimpse. After the resurrected Savior visited His followers and His immaculate gift was accepted, the whole social paradigm was changed for the better:

…and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.

And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.

I imagine these participants were not so much obsessed with what justice could do for them personally, but with what justice could do for their neighbors–remember the Good Samaratin? Poverty and bondage can be seen as miscarriages of justice in this sense, the result of unjust conditions. In fairness to more conservative points of view, they can also be the results of individual choices. But, having worked with impoverished communities, I reject that belief as a blanket statement. I cannot think of anyone I’ve met who has willfully set out to impoverish themselves and bring misery to themselves, their families, and their friends. There is always an important social context that must be considered. Wolsey reminds us that if we were sufficiently concerned about all people being treated fairly, then we would work to eliminate these two conditions.

Returning to the story of the woman taken in adultery, we find that once Christ was alone with the woman, her accusers having all left with burning consciences, he then treated her with charity. He did not condemn her, as He was perfectly able to do as a sinless man and the Son of God, but He released her with the admonition to sin no more. I wonder how I would react if I were in the woman’s shoes. I would hope that I would just brim with gratitude and love and would commit myself to this great teacher (remember, he was called “rabbi” on many occasions, so he was a publicly acknowledged teacher) and his precepts. Just as importantly, I hope when I am in a position to make a judgement about others that I act with the same wisdom and compassion as Christ in the story–I know I do so very imperfectly, but I try to allow the Spirit to work in me so that I will always come closer and closer to that ideal.

Of course, in a very real sense, we really are all in the position of the woman taken in adultery. We all offend the law to some degree or another and we all live with the cosmic sword of justice over our heads. For some, the sword has “pride” written on it; for others, it reads “wrath”; for others, it reads “lust,” etc. We all stand in need of mercy and charity. The real test of our commitment to Christ lies in whether we extend mercy and charity to others, in whether we think, speak, and act in a Christ-like manner. It seems only natural that if we do so, then we will strive to help create systems that treat each child of God with a Christ-like degree of dignity and compassion. Yes, it is a huge task, but it is not an untraveled road. The Savior is always before us, offering us his hands.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s