Charity ameliorates need; justice seeks to eliminate what causes the need. Charity seeks to comfort, accompany or lessen suffering in the moment. Justice tries to dig out and change circumstances or systems that tend to generate pain or unfairness. Some of us respond more naturally to immediate needs, others decry or try to eradicate the injustice of it. My first response to tragedy is comforting the hurt; it has been harder to develop the muscles for justice work. But regardless of what charitable action I attempt, the alternative of staying stuck in wailing or complaining only leads to depression or bitterness. That swamp of despondence keeps the focus on me, rather than extending my attention to those in need of charity. You might say that charity is practical, good mental health, and makes sense.
We know down deep, that charitable action leads eventually to awareness of injustice. And once we get to the injustice of it all, we are on the threshold of a different spiritual work. I say this as someone who would like to stay on the gentler side of the equation if she could. Take Hurricane Katrina. A charitable response of rebuilding houses, sending clothing, relocating families and pets doesn’t stop there. Getting in that far reveals the unjust policies and limited resources for disaster prevention and relief depending on race, class and economic resources. Every natural or human-made disaster tears the veils to reveal what we have not wanted to see.
My reflections on charity and justice were precipitated by my seven years as a pastor to two UCC churches in Vermont. I entered ministry late in life, just in time for Vermont’s legislation on civil unions, the September 11th attacks, Asia’s tsunami, Pakistan’s earthquake, Africa’s genocides, Hurricane Katrina, widespread flooding in New England, and the prolonged anguish of the war in Iraq. I had felt protected by the comfortable illusions of the little white church on the green. Now I was exposed; I felt personally inadequate and spiritually anemic. I was driven to a discipline of study, meditation and wrestling in order to go public every Sunday morning. In spite of myself, my thin thread of faith turned into a rope that swung me to places I would not have chosen to go.
There is a Biblical text that had become somewhat rote to me, from I Corinthians 13: Have faith, hope and charity, but the greatest of these is charity. I was distracted by connotations of patronizing giving, class differences, and better-than-thou givers staying separate from the unfortunates who just didn’t have the smarts, courage or drive to become fortunate. The other familiar translation is have faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. This gives me a sense of movement from interior experience to outward action, to charity as love made visible. The Judeao tradition cuts to the chase; the only true prayer is action. But is any well-intended action charitable? What really helps?
It turns out there is more to being charitable than throwing money at a cause or individual. Genuine charitable action requires three interior choices. First, I must enter into the suffering of another enough for my love for them to be ignited. This gives me the fuel to set aside my own needs long enough to focus on another. Second, I must let in their pain enough for it to inform my compassionate action. Genuine charity comes from the heart’s knowledge of what is longed for, not our mind’s evaluation of what would make the most sense. And third, I must tolerate the discomfort of knowing how fragile my life is. I have to live with the knowledge that in an instant, I could become the helped, not the helper; that I am not in total control of my safety, comfort and abundance; and that there is nothing I can do to protect myself in the long run.
Is it any wonder that we often teeter on the threshold of charitable action? We want to help, but what would really make a difference? Is it up to me, or could someone else do it better? I am incensed, mortified or despondent at what is happening… but what can I do without getting caught up in it, done in by it, losing what foothold I have on life? Is it really worth it when I might lose what little balance I have managed for myself? Perhaps the fundamental purpose of religion and spiritual practice is to hold the flag that says: “Take the risk. It’s worth it.”
Joan L. Smith, has offered vocational counseling, spiritual direction, pastoral care, group facilitation and consulting for thirty years in Vermont. In 2006, she moved to Maine as core staff for Greenfire Retreat, and has recently opened The Guest House, an in town retreat in Rockland, Maine. Joan is an ecumenical Christian shaped through Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington DC, the National Multicultural Training Institute, Power Equity Theory and ordination in the United Church of Christ. The Guest House offers guidance in creating unique hourly, daily or residential retreats that combines local landscape, media arts, healing support and reflective listening.