Friday, May 25, 2007

Charity v. Economic Justice

I had expected to take at least a little bit of heat for something I wrote in my last post:

...many who gladly give to Compassion International or World Vision are blind to the extent to which their daily economic activity exploits those whom their charity is designed to help.

After all, while evangelical Christians are among the most generous and socially concerned persons in the world, they are often characterized by people like me as being so interested in saving souls that they forget to save lives. I've heard many professors ignorantly declare that with their focus on the hereafter, evangelicals simply aren't interested in social justice. It isn't that simple. Evangelical Christians quite often are interested in the material well being of others. And many evangelical missions are at least as much about meeting present material needs as they are about saving souls. For many, many evangelicals, the two cannot be separated.

So, why would I say that many of them "are blind to the extent to which their daily economic activity exploits those whom their charity is designed to help”? And, perhaps more to the point, how have I gotten a free pass on that so far?

The second question is impossible to answer, so I'll tackle it first. Maybe my conservative friends have stopped reading this blog, or, at the very least, given up on trying to argue with me. Or, perhaps, they charitably granted my point, rightly noting that it is not their intentions or their charity that I am attacking, but rather their politics. They may disagree with my assault on their political and economic philosophies, but it might be refreshing to have at least one theological and social "liberal" grant to them at the very least good intentions. I've seen too many books come out this summer - riding, no doubt, a wave of anti-war sentiment for a more progressive politic - painting evangelical Christians as embodying everything that's going wrong in this culture.

But, in any event, the point remains: Evangelical Christians who mix conservative religion with conservative politics may indeed be quite charitable and quite generous, but their charitable generosity does not address the root causes of the desperate, grinding poverty whose pain their charity seeks to alleviate.

For my birthday (I turned 28 on Tuesday) my mother-in-law got me Michael Eric Dyson's newest book, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. OK, really she got me the gift certificate that I used to buy the book, but that was thoughtful enough. In it he makes some compelling points, many of which may appear in future posts here.

Some of you might remember the sermon that was the beginning of the end of my pastoral career, "God of Wrath or God of Mercy: A Christian Response to Katrina." In it I argued passionately and, I had hoped, persuasively, against the poisonous belief that had infected my church, that God had used Katrina to destroy New Orleans for its sins and wickedness. Not surprisingly, Dyson has a chapter in his book titled "Supernatural Disasters?: Theodicy and the Prophetic Faith." I haven't gotten that far in the book yet, but if that chapter is worth exploring, God knows I'll explore it in an upcoming post.

But what, you might ask, does that book have to do with this post?

I'm so glad you asked. In Chapter 9, titled "Frames of Reference: Class, Caste, Culture, and Cameras," Dyson critically engages the media's portrayal of the impoverished black victims of the hurricane. The poor, and especially the black poor (53% of whom had no access to automobiles) were disproportionately victimized by the storm and the shoddy relief efforts that followed. Instead, however, of engaging the socio-economic forces that rendered these people unable to flee from the coming wrath, too often the media portrayed these poor souls who had been abandoned by their governments as fools, thugs, looters, rapists, and murderers.

In his discussion of the combination of race, class, and economic reality that created the oppressive situation that conspired to strand so many in a crumbling dome, Dyson notes the distinction between charity and economic justice. Many were charitable in the aftermath of the storm, giving generous donations. But their charitable contributions did nothing to address the economic structures that give rise to poverty. Dyson quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Then Dyson writes:

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 shortchanged, 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.

Evangelical Christians, as a group, are generous and charitable, giving a higher percentage of their income to charity than any other group that I know of. But, when they mix that charity with support for a political and economic system that steals from the poor to give to the rich, they undermine the work that their charity seeks to do. This doesn't make them intentionally bad people, nor does it make them especially worthy of shame or ridicule. But it does mean that those of us who share their interest in helping the poor should appeal to that interest when addressing their politics.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Thanks for this. This distinction is missed far too often. I will link to your post, tomorrow.

PamBG said...

I confess that I find it difficult to understand why American conservative Christians think that the politics of promoting the individual person over the community is either 'conservative' or Godly.

As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I think that perhaps people have conflated 'the common good' with intentionally atheistic political-economic structures and it may take generations to overcome the idea that the rights of the individual are always and everywhere the supreme good, even if it means disadvantaged individuals not having the capacity to help themselves.

I think, also, that evangelicalism has classically valued the personal ('individual'?) relationship with Christ. Somehow, this has ended up meaning that Christianity is exclusively about 'me and God'. However, I think that being-in-relationship is an equal and important part of being Christian.

One final comment. As a theologically liberal Christian (by American standards) who believes that our social structures exploit the weak, I often feel powerless to know how to begin to address these issues. I give money to charity, I write to my MP (member of Parliament, not military police!), I go on protest walks, etc. etc. And I feel helpless to change things. I have to live here in the mess of my sinfulness and trust in God's forgiveness. It would be a lot easier to say 'I'm not sinning, so God can't hold this against me.' This is part of what I mean by being willing to live as a forgiven sinner.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Sandman. As for the baffling nature of American conservative Christians' politics of individual promotion, there's a LOT to say, starting with the fact that as the American Right becomes more authoritarian, American conservative Christians are proving themselves not even terribly committed to the idea of individual rights, much less any meaningful conception of human rights.

Part of what's going on is that American conservatives (Christian or not), when they can be troubled to provide a theory of rights, tend to make the right to private property fundamental, and to derive any and all other rights from that one. A wide conception of the property right yields correspondingly wide, capital-L Libertarian individual rights; a narrow conception of the property right yields correspondingly narrow individual rights.

What they share is an underlying theory of moral merit and desert as a way of justifying their right in their property. Thus, if I own something, I have earned it, and if I don't own something, obviously I must not have earned it. Here's where American conservative Christians get on the bus: They supply a very selective and moralistic account, loosely based on the Gospel, of what it means to deserve what one has. When one shares from one's (earned) bounty, one is thus engaging in charity, which (further) demonstrates one's virtue; but when one submits to involuntary redistribution of one's resources in the name of the common good, one is tolerating the violation of one's God-given right in one's own property, which is, after all, the fundamental right.

Part of the way forward from the sense of hopelessness is, I think, pinning down people who hold views like this and getting them to face questions. What we might find is that this sort of conservative ideology has very little to say for itself.

Liam said...

I agree with all these points and I have nothing much to add except "Happy Birthday, Chris."

Brian Beech said...

I haven't left (I'm sure I'm the main conservative you're speaking of)...Just busy, I'll get back to you soon...promise

PamBG said...

Thanks, Brian, for your interesting comments.

And Happy Birthday, Chris. :-) Hope you have a good one.

Amy said...

Happy Birthday! Enjoy your summer!