By Nathan Brown … Some of the commands of the Bible seem straightforward. Consider “Do justice” (Micah 6:8); “Learn to do good. Seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17); or, more poetically, “Let justice roll down like waters” (see Amos 5:24)—among many other Bible verses we could cite that urge us in this same direction. Of course, this does not mean it is easy to do, but it seems we would need to squirm quite a bit to wriggle our way out of these direct commands. And so, we do—squirm and wriggle, duck and weave—to try to diminish this call on our lives of faith. Or we simply don’t know where to start, so we move on to a different Bible study.

But, giving us the benefit of the doubt for a moment, it seems our language can also let us down when we try to talk about justice. Author of Pursuing Justice, Ken Wytsma, points out that our first thoughts on hearing about justice often take us in one of two different directions, either thinking about criminal justice or charity. Unless we work in related fields, criminal justice is not something most of us have regular contact with, nor do we want to, nor would we know how to relate in a meaningful way if we wanted to. But our default to charity is easier.

Do Charity?

Charity is good. I do not want to discourage anyone from giving. Give generously, regularly, intentionally and maybe sometimes recklessly. When someone is hungry, they need to be fed. When disaster strikes, we need to respond and to help. It is one aspect of the other action of Micah 6:8, that God also requires us “to love mercy.”

Churches and church people tend to be good at charity. We give donations and raise funds, we hold bake sales and take up collections, we donate clothes and household goods, we praise those who volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters and tell stories of our mission trips and outreaches to neighborhoods across town. These are common markers of what it means to do good in our communities. I am old enough to remember when we used to mark Sabbath school attendance with recording “persons helped,” “food parcels delivered,” and “items of clothing given” as part of our reporting system for measuring our collective impact on those around us.

Again, much of this can be good. And many of these actions will be commended by Jesus, according to Matthew 25:31–46. But it can feel like we can never give enough. There are so many needs in the world and so many different causes we could support that we can despair of ever being able to give to the degree that feels like it truly makes a difference. While this might be because we don’t give enough—only rarely do we give in a way that actually costs us, rather than giving from our excess—it can also be because charity itself is not enough. If we only do charity, this brings two serious risks to fulfilling our justice calling as the people of God:

Charity does not always bring out our best.

Most of us like to be thought of as generous—and we like to be able to think of ourselves as generous. Our motives for doing good are always slippery and fickle. This was something that Jesus warned about (see Matthew 6:1–4). When our sense of generosity gets mixed up with our charity, it changes what we are doing and, according to Jesus, it changes how God views our supposed generosity. It can also change our relationship with those who might benefit from our giving. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned that charity could work to entrench the obvious power imbalances in our world: “philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 127).

Many of us have experienced the awkwardness that can arise in the donor–recipient relationship. Giving can create unstated or assumed expectations. It can be a way in which the relatively wealthy and powerful can flex their privilege, and economic disparity can be styled as a societal good—all with the veneer of generosity and benevolence. Even for those of us who do not consider ourselves among the super-wealthy, making occasional donations can be a way to salve our consciences and perpetually defer the call to justice.

Charity is not a substitute for justice.

Partly for the reasons above—no matter how large the donation, perhaps even exacerbated the larger the donations become—charity can undermine justice. It can make the status quo seem necessary and side-step the questions of why some are perennially marginalized and vulnerable. Feeding a hungry person today is necessary and important; feeding a hungry person—or a succession of hungry people—every day for months and years must prompt questions about the systems that make this necessary, while such generosity seems to make that system possible. “Charity is no substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth—even if they decide to help the less fortunate—while others are short-changed, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible” (Michael Eric Dyson, “Voice of the Day,” Sojourners, December 9, 2019).

Doing Justice

Charity is good—too often, it is necessary. Charity can be a contribution towards justice. But justice is more. Doing justice requires a deeper engagement with issues and people, as well as the systems that create and perpetuate injustice. Doing justice demands that we take action.

In the history of our church, we can see many good examples of this. We have been outspoken and led campaigns for freedom of conscience and religious liberty. We have championed broad access to education and health care. Early Adventists defied unjust laws in relation to fugitive slaves and campaigned for the abolition of slavery. At our best, we have advocated for peace, created inclusive communities, and spoken out against the evils of racism.

Today, we continue in all of these actions, as well as expanding our activism in new ways. As people of truth, we must find ways to confront and dismantle the disinformation that has come to blight our societies, risk our public health, and poison our politics. We must speak up to expand access to voting, making it easier rather than more difficult for as many people as possible to be engaged and heard in our political debates and in electing our leaders. We must use our choices as consumers to support companies and products that work in ways that are better for people and our environment. And there are so many more ways in which we can live justly and conscientiously, in our individual lives and through exercising our collective voices and influence.

Some will object that these actions and priorities will move us into the realm of politics. It will. Rather than being reluctant to do this, we need to learn to do it better. Yes, we must be careful and discerning in this engagement. We must also be careful not to be drawn into assuming that all “doing justice” is merely political. Politics is just one of the tools for doing justice, but when confronting systems that are unjust, racist, oppressive, and exclusionary, our political influence can be a key tool for changing these systems more for the benefit of the most vulnerable and marginalized. As people of faith, we need to get involved—or, as Proverbs 31:9 (NLT) puts it, “Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”

Writing about the ongoing and necessary work of antiracism—as compared to merely claiming to be “not racist”—Ibram X. Kendi urges that we should prioritize working to change unjust policies and systems: “To fight for mental and moral change as a prerequisite for policy changes is to fight against growing fears and apathy, making it almost impossible for antiracist power to succeed. . . . Critiquing racism is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist,” (How to Be an Antiracist, pp. 208–9).

Such a focus on policies and systems is not only about national politics, but also calls us to speak and act in the context of our cities and communities, where we should seek to cooperate with community leaders, other community groups and people of good will, working with and on behalf of those who most need our communities, policies, and systems to be different. This takes work, focus, listening and learning. Writing a check or submitting credit card details to make a generous donation can be helpful and important—it can even sometimes have an influence in larger justice causes—but we are also and always called to more, committing our energy, influence, and resources as we are able.

Most of the ancient Hebrew prophets urged their people to the faithful work of “doing justice.” To this, Jesus added a valuable promise: “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). As such, doing justice is a necessary expression of the hope we claim to live by and response to the goodness of the God we claim to serve, and it contributes to the necessary change in the world around us.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan is co-host of a new podcast series called “Moe and Nathan Go to School” as part of the Adventist Peace Radio podcast: Email him at: [email protected]