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.