Giving to the Poor is Not Charity. It’s Justice.

Recently, I wrote over at US Catholic:

Many people struggle to understand the relationship between justice and charity. Are they opposites? Complementary? Is any form of care for the poor automatically charity? Should all such care be the sole obligation of the individual? How does the state fit in to all this?

It’s a real question we face often. For instance, the Biden administration recently proposed no longer cutting SSI monthly benefits for people who get additional help with meals or groceries from friends and family. Some complain that this is unfair, but the biblical tradition urges us to remember what the church calls the “preferential option for the poor.” The paradox of that option is expressed in Deuteronomy 10:17–19, which states that God is “not partial,” but that this divine impartiality manifests itself through justice and the righting of wrongs: God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” 

This is God from the perspective of the weakest, the outcast, the lowest, the poorest, and the most wretched. God takes their part because, while the rich may have battalions of lawyers, stockpiles of guns, and plenty of money, the weak and the poor have no one to defend them. We are called to imitate this divine impartiality, as Jesus did, when he took his place with the least of these and literally had no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). When Jesus was on trial for his life, he too had nobody to defend him. And he taught us that we do for (or to) the poor, we do for (or to) him.

It is commonly believed that all help given to the poor counts as charity. So, the argument goes, it is good for Christians to be personally generous to the poor. But what, many ask, is the sense of involving the state? If the state helps the poor, doesn’t that interfere with the individual doing so?

The trouble with this approach is that it takes the focus away from the poor or the outcast getting what they need and fixates instead on who gets the credit for helping them.

Read the whole thing here.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks Mark. I heard you talk about this in one of your lectures too. This absolutely makes sense. I’ve always liked how you talk about the Church as a both/and institution which occupies the normal middle ground. Jesus is both/and, so it follows the Church is too. You pointed out how extremes on either end of the political spectrum are attractive because of their grain of God’s truth (personal responsibility, care for the poor, etc.) but also repulsive because of their rejection of the rest of it.

    The Church and Christ call us to take our focus away from ourselves (die to ourselves) toward our neighbor (aka Christ), which oddly enough boomerangs back to make us MORE like true ourselves. The love of Christ may be the one investment that grows at several times the rate it’s given away and causes your portfolio to runneth over.

  2. An excellent reflection, Mark. I would add one point. The secular world often engages in a bipolar debate over individual actions vs. State action. CST reminds us there are other actors, namely intermediate entities. The friends and family of any person on the miserly low benefits SSI provides to the aged and disabled are mostly struggling people themselves. But the family takes care of other family members. And the one family member who is best able to help is likely the one with a good union job, thanks to the decent wages and benefits and predictable work hours labor unions provide their members.

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