Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charity and Justice

My friend Bob, in an attempt to expose what he believes to be liberal hypocrisy, inadvertently highlighted something that many conservatives don’t get: the difference between charity and justice.

Bob wants me to pay for his health insurance because I advocate for universal health care. He thinks that because I believe in justice (enacting social policy that is fair and humane) that I should be willing to take on any case of charity (a one-way act of benevolence).

This often comes up in arguments about social policy (not with Bob, necessarily, but in general): "If you want to help poor people so much, why don’t you give all your money to them?" This is only slightly more mature than the schoolyard taunt: “If you like poor people so much, why don’t you marry them?” Or, the conservative version: "If you hate government so much, then don’t drive on public roads and don’t call the fire department when your house is on fire."

Taunting aside, the answer is simple: One person giving away all their money doesn’t really help poor people all that much. It will temporarily help a few poor people, which is good. But without structural changes in how resources are distributed, its main effect will be to make the person who gave away their money less able to influence society in ways that would help everyone.

More importantly, it is charity, not justice. Charity is a good thing a lot of the time, but it is not an unmitigated good. Too often, it is demeaning to the receiver and provides the giver unwarranted feelings of superiority. Charity depends on the whims of those who have the money, and on one’s access to them, which is not a very effective way to provide justice in the world. Charity merely allows those with power to grant favors to those without power, without really challenging the basic inequity of power.

Charity is not a substitute for justice. In fact, it often gets in the way of justice, because it allows those in power to wipe their hands from larger problems, pointing out that, after all, they gave money to a friend of theirs. Justice is taking the decision out of the hands of the powerful, and guaranteeing that everyone be provided basic protections, rights, and material well-being. Justice needs a social policy that will require all people to abide by their social responsibilities. It does not depend on random and sporadic charity.

This is a good thing, because you don’t want justice to depend on charity being doled out by someone like me. I’m too biased. For example, if I decided to offer my benevolence to someone, like, say Bob for his healthcare, it would be according to my own criteria. The problem for Bob here is that I have a bias against giving my money to those who would advocate for conservative causes that give more money and power to those who already have it, as well as those who don't have much respect for multiculturalism. My biases matter when it is “my” money.

Back to health care: I believe that a supposedly great and civilized nation should provide basic, universal health care for all its citizens. But such a policy should not be subject to my own personal bias, because tax dollars come from everyone. So, public policy should dictate that you can’t discriminate against anyone based on political beliefs, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, personality defects, or even against those who don’t agree that they should be getting health care from tax dollars.

So, sorry Bob, I’m not going to personally pay for your healthcare. I suggest that you engage in some social justice action with your employer or with your congressperson. Doing so might even look good on your next application for The Minor Mennonite Benevolence Fund for Do-Gooders. :)

Epilogue: So, I thought I was being pretty clever just now by typing “Charity is not a substitute for justice.” That’s quite good, I thought. Suspiciously good. After a 5 second google search, yup, there it is, none other than St. Augustine himself, 1500 years earlier, and also better: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

Why can’t I think of anything new? It is almost as if there is nothing new under the sun, and while the truth will set me free, I have to be careful to not be an old dog learning new tricks.


Robert Sievers said...


Firstly, you and I disagree on the meaning of justice. Justice is about appropriate consequences for actions, not equal receipt of monetary reimbursement.

Secondly, you suggest that you are too biased to make good decisions regarding disbursement of your finances to help people. I disagree. Even though I have massive political disagreements with you, I believe you know better than our government how to care for people. As someone who has confidence in your ability to care for others, it would be difficult to convince me otherwise. If you insist the government is smarter than you, then I am only left to conclude you are right, in which case you need to quit advocating policy in the first place.

Finally, you suggest that one person cannot make a difference, where as many people held against their will can. This is not what Jesus taught. When the Samaritan finds the man beaten on the side of the road, he is not praised for calling the authorities and moving on. The only reason that this whole conversations is even happening is because more people like you and I are *NOT* just doing what we should. Rather, the church has relegated its authority to the world. This is not God’s economy, nor his command for our life. In the book of James, true religion is defined as caring for widows and orphans. It is not defined as trying to get others who have more money than us to do so against their will.

Your mission is to do what is right and lead by example, not cajole others into doing what might be right in a big anonymous, faceless, and arbitrary money redistribution scheme. Your life experience shows deep down you know this.

Fingtree said...

I just had the same conversation at work within the hour here with a co-worker. He to was coming from the conservative view of; "why should I" pay for someone else to have health care? Knowing that engaging upon this subject with a predictably narrow minded person, who hasn't researched beyond what they have been told (Rush Limbaugh), is futile and a waste of time for both of us. I still went ahead and attempted to converse with his "one up" you approach to the issue of health care. It was predictably, a waste of time.
The same in opposition could be asked; "Why should I pay for someone to be in the military"? ~OR~ "Why should I pay for another citizen to be a Policeman or Firefighter"? It's priority based. We don't value health as equally important and necessary as defense and protection. When in reality, if you don't have your health, you don't have anything. Neither defense or protection will save you. I have witnessed this first hand with both of my parents. Who worked all of their lives and had insurance, until they became a burden or a loss to their insurance companies. The insurance companies found ways to deny them coverage. The surviving family members end up picking up the tab or the debt. My parents lost both their lives and everything they worked for. This so called health care system, is set up to provide coverage to the healthy for profit. Then to deny health care to those in need of it. It would be so easy to improve on what we have already. I guess the fact that more people are talking about it now and the issue has jumped to the forefront more, only because it has become a crisis, is a good thing. Perhaps changes will come in the distant future. But as long as people keep swallowing the propaganda of the corporate wealthy and glutton riddled profit takers in the insurance industry, change will come to little to late. The irony is, these greedy entities are shooting themselves in the foot. When they should be at the cutting edge of change, where it is a win/win for everyone.

Fingtree said...

To Robert Sievers;

You need to listen to the song by Peter Tosh called; "Equal Rights and Justice".

Dan S said...

Hey Bob, good reply. Yes, we disagree on so many things, justice is just one of them :)

I don't think it is a question of whether I'm smarter than the government. It is whether I have the ability to treat everyone equally without resorting to my own biases. That's why we need policy - an organization as a whole is better at treating people equally than individuals are. It often fails, of course, but that is usually because individual people let their biases into the situation, often in direct opposition to a stated policy.

I'm also not sure why it matters whether people willingly own up to their social responsibilities or not, as long as they own up to them. People do not naturally follow many laws on the book, but do so because they have to, or they will get put in jail. It would be better if everyone followed laws because they agreed with them, but it isn't necessary to fulfill one's role as a responsible citizen.

Of course, more is expected of us as Christians than merely being good citizens. Sometimes it means being bad citizens when laws are unjust.

One of Jesus' primary social messages is that it is unjust for some people to be so wealthy while other people are so poor, and that to be faithful, we must work to balance this. Writing checks to individual poor people is somewhat faithful in this regard. But we live in a democracy, where we are able to freely advocate how to use governmental power. I think being faithful has a lot to do with whether we advocate policies that widen or narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Robert Sievers said...


It isn't about equality. Some people deserve health care more than others. If you want to argue this point, let's do so elsewhere.

Here is the main point, though. Jesus never taught it was unjust for some to be rich while others were poor. In fact, I can quote you scripture where He says this is how it is.

What He *DID* teach was that it was unjust for any of us who claim Him to be rich while others were poor.

That distinction is critical.

So, in order to follow Him, I contribute to the health care of others, at my own expense. I do so because He taught to do this. If you take away my ability to do this willingly, you take away my ability to love God by following His example, and thus a piece of my humanity.

Fingtree said...

What does Jesus have to do with health care? I already know what Robert Sievers answer to that will be. So Mr. Sievers; What health care plan would Jesus pay for?

Jesus said...

So, in order to follow Him, I contribute to the health care of others, at my own expense. I do so because He taught to do this. If you take away my ability to do this willingly, you take away my ability to love God by following His example, and thus a piece of my humanity.

You're unable to "love God" unless there are poor people to willingly give money to?

You don't care about solving poverty-- in fact, it's in your best interest to keep it around. Jesus tells me to care for poor people, ergo, there have to be poor people for me to care for. Wow! What amazing moral gymnastics! That's the most selfish interpretation of Jesus' teachings I think I've ever seen. That's like a police officer who's against preventing crime because then he wouldn't have anyone to arrest.

You've given me an amazing glimpse into the mind of the right-wing Christian. Your example of Christianity is the reason that I will never, ever call myself a Christian.

Robert Sievers said...


That is the most bizarre twist of logic I have ever seen. The goal is to eliminate poverty, not prolong it so that people can "earn points with God" by doing good. Don't be ridiculous.

The only way to do this is for every individual person to exert what level of help they are able.

The reason why you will never become a Christian is because you think it more morally acceptable to steal from someone else in order to give away something that isn't yours rather than to get your hands dirty to help others.

You cannot understand God unless you understand sacrifice, which it is quite evident you do not.

Robert Sievers said...

And, might I add, if I advocated for myself to do nothing, but stole from others to give away something that was not mine, you would call me a hyprocrite for not being willing to personally sacrifice. Jesus' words in Luke 7:31-36 ring so true today.

jesus said...

Don't be ridiculous.

Okay, so you tell me: how am I supposed to interpret your statement that you can't "love God" without "willingly" contributing to the health care of others? I only used your words to their logical extreme. It sounds to me like you need to volunteer to contribute to health care, and if it's not voluntary, then you've somehow lost your "humanity." Can you clear that up for me so that it doesn't sound ridiculous and self-serving?

The only way to do this is for every individual person to exert what level of help they are able.

EXACTLY!! So, how can we set up a system to make this happen? Maybe we organize ourselves into a political entity that collectively cares for the basic needs of all of its people? I know it sounds crazy, but it just might work!

You equate taxes with stealing? Wow. So when you drive on a highway, send your kids to school, enjoy the benefits of our legal system, or appreciate any of the security provided by police, firefighters, and armed forces, do you accuse them all of stealing from you?

Robert Sievers said...

The difference between highways and health care is the difference between individuals and systems.

An individual can, and should, help others. Individuals can assess needs and be much more involved in true caring than any system.

A system works great when there are not other people at the other side. For example, I can't build 100 feet of highway and make a difference. It needs to be collectively organized. I can however, help any number of people and make a positive impact.

But on to the more controversial topic. There will always be poor to help. There will always be hurting people in need. What the government does in no way will ever solve that. What I am saying is that Jesus taught it is our duy to help others, not to coerce others to do so.

You forcing me to help others would be no different than me forcing you to go to church. If I made you go, how much would it really mean?

Sure, you can spread money around, but that doesn't make people care. If people don't care, postive change will not happen.