When I was done speaking, I walked back to my seat in one of the front pews. The conference broke for lunch a few minutes later and as I stuffed my spiral notebook into my backpack, the morning session’s first speaker came over and shook my hand. It was an honor to meet the director of a religiously-based international relief organization; it was even more an honor, to speak right after he had that morning.
As I shook his hand, I thanked him for his work and was about to say more when he posed a gentle challenge. “I listened with interest to your presentation,” he said, “especially the part about charity and justice. And I wondered: isn’t the work that we’re doing also justice work, even though it’s not legislative advocacy?”
Gulp. Had I just unintentionally diminished the good work of an international relief organization?
“Yes, of course it’s justice work,” I immediately said, and apologized if I’d made it seem as though it wasn’t. Absolutely, helping women around the world empower themselves and improve their situations in real and lasting ways through access to education, training and health care goes beyond simple charity.
As focused as I’ve been on encouraging people of faith to engage in legislative advocacy, I hadn’t ever considered what a broader understanding of justice work might be. I thanked the speaker for bringing the question. “The words we say are so important,” I said, “and this conversation will help me to be more clear next time.”
Often in presentations to religious groups, I highlight some of the differences between performing acts of charity and working for justice. It’s been my experience that too often, people in congregations (and everywhere else, for that matter) perform acts of charity—which is great, wonderful, and necessary—but tend to stop there and rest on their laurels, as though the work is done.
I sometimes quote the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who explained it this way: “Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.”
Other times, I might quote Dom Helder Camara, former Brazilian Archbishop, who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”
Both Coffin and Camara, in these quotes, highlight that engaging in justice work disturbs the status quo; shakes things up; challenges the systems and structures that perpetuate unjust conditions. On this particular morning, I’d quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “We are not to simply bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.”
“Bandaging the victims under the wheel is still important and necessary,” I said, “but if we don’t get at the root cause of those injuries—if we don’t jam the spoke in the wheel that’s creating victims—then people will continue to be injured.”
Then I moved on to say that, even though it might feel risky, people of faith should come out from behind safe congregational walls to engage in legislative advocacy—so that we might change some of the systems and structures that perpetuate the status quo and in so doing, help create a more just world. (I’ve written on this topic before: “Separation of Church & State? Why Religious Voices Matter.”)
The conversation that morning had given me a lot to think about, though. Words are reflections of thoughts. If my words aren’t clear, it’s because my thoughts aren’t clear. Luckily for me, I had a four-hour drive home—a good opportunity to consider how empowering women might fit into the charity-justice framework with which I’ve been working.
Moses Maimonides, 12th century Jewish scholar, organized different types of charity, or tzedakah, in order of lowest to highest. The highest form of charity, he maintained, is a kind of preventative act of giving that helps move a person toward self-sufficiency:
“The highest level of all is the one who supports the hand of a Jew who is falling and gives to him (1) a gift or (2) a loan or (3) creates a partnership with him or (4) creates (invents) work for him in order to strengthen his hand, before he becomes dependent on asking [for assistance]. Concerning this, it says, ‘And you shall strengthen him as a stranger and as a resident-settler that he should live among you’ (Leviticus 25:35) — that is, support him before he falls and becomes needy.”
-Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7
In the Jewish tradition, tzedakah is usually translated as “charity,” while tzedek is translated as “justice.” Both share the same root, though, and the distinction between the two is somewhat blurred; we could say that at some level, they blend into each other. Maimonides’s highest level of charity, or tzedakah, is one that brings us closer to a fairer, more justice-filled (or tzedek-filled) world.
As I reflected on international relief work that helps to lift up women in their communities—work that would be placed on the highest rung of Maimonides’s tzedakah list—I realized that a more expansive understanding of justice work is one that would include not just the changing of political systems and structures, but also the changing of human dynamics and power structures.
Everything always seems to come back to relationships. Legislation and policy focus on relationships, after all—they are civic forms of regulating the relationships that people have to each other, to environmental resources, and to government. When we engage in legislative advocacy in order to address an unjust condition, it is an imbalance in one of these relationships that we seek to change.
When women in many places around the world gain access to good education and health care, they are able to bring about changes in their own lives, families, and communities that, in turn, affect the larger systems in which they live.
I learned from the morning speaker that 80% of the world’s farmers are female, and yet only 2% of them own the land they farm. Changing the dynamic of the relationship between women and the patriarchal cultures in which they live, or changing the relationship between women and the land they farm, brings change to that system—and that is justice work.
I think William Sloane Coffin is right that, “charity in no way affects the status quo.” Charity helps meet an immediate need—which is good and important—but it doesn’t challenge the power dynamics of a system, amend its policies, or change relationships. That’s why we can’t stop with charity: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof!” “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deut. 16:20)
Thankfully, there are many ways to pursue justice.