More than Charity, We Need Justice

Most of us get the importance of charity. But charity alone is not enough. And that’s become even clearer in the wake of this pandemic.

This week, I had the privilege of serving as a chaplain to low-income families while they came in to receive free meals & groceries through the CompassionNetwork. Upon receiving their groceries, I sat down to ask how I could pray for them. Most were polite, giving answers like they were just trying to get through the conversation. But two themes emerged:

  1. Most had lost their low-wage jobs as cooks or cleaners as result of sheltering-in-place and are now being evicted for not making rent. I suspect most were undocumented, which means they were ineligible for the $1000s of federal stimulus and unemployment checks.
  2. Once I began praying with them, nearly all of them began weeping. I was caught off guard, considering our masks and distance, but sometimes that happens when we feel God really is near. Their helplessness, though, was palpable. Who was I to receive these tears?

That afternoon, the bags of groceries we were offering felt insultingly small. Groceries don’t pay rent. And even if we wanted to help with rent, when rent in the Bay Area starts at $2,000/month, how many families could we reasonably help—and for how long? Our charity was needed, but it was woefully insufficient.

I also serve on the board of Missio Dei Oakland, a group of house churches dedicated to sharing Jesus with the poor. Recently, the pastor shared about being poor during COVID:

One of the biggest ways the poor live through this pandemic differently from those who have wealth is around employment and safety. Most of my friends outside of Oakland still have their jobs. Most of them also get to telecommute/work from home. And that’s really great. Truly. But I don’t know one family in our whole church who hasn’t had a family member fired, laid off, furloughed, or might have to close down their family business permanently right now. Not one.

And if you’re lucky enough to still have a job you often have this choice to make: Do you want to work in unsafe conditions or do you want to get fired? Many of our members work in supermarkets, warehouses, shipping, restaurant/food delivery, security guards, fast food, Walmart/Target. You’re around dozens or hundreds of people everyday during this pandemic. You probably don’t own a car so you’re taking the bus, BART, or an Uber to work for even more exposure. On top of that you’re probably living in a crowded apartment with others who are out everyday.

Clear reasons why the virus is infecting so many people of color and the poor. There’s nothing hopeful here, it’s just hard. 

This is from a Bloomberg article, and the chart was titled “Only The Rich Work From Home.” Which is, of course, not true. But it’s a good headline grabber. Doctors, nurses, and so many others who are middle-class/wealthy are out there working and serving like crazy. But in general, the more you make, the more likely you’re working at home and social distancing is pretty easy. If you’re at the bottom of the income percentile, you have really hard choices to make. If you have a choice at all.

The mantra I keep hearing these days is: We’re all in this together. But take a few minutes to sit with someone who’s poor or undocumented. And it’s hard to not to walk away thinking: If we’re all in this together, we are in vastly different parts of the ship.

And how much can your or my charity really do to relieve the disproportionate burden that the poor and undocumented bear because we are sheltering-in-place (an order which I happen to support)?

I’m reading through the Book of Deuteronomy right now. And one thing that stands out to me is how God was trying to build a society that was not only charitable, but just.

Now we usually think of justice as ‘being fair’. We like to say justice should be ‘cold’ or ‘blind.’ And those notions of justice were certainly part of God’s vision for Israel as just city on a hill:

  • You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. (Deut 16:19)
  • Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deut 19:21)

But in his book, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Chris Wright shines the light on aspects of God’s conception of justice that are larger than our ideas of mere fairness or ‘blind justice’. For example:

  • If you lent to the poor, you were allowed to take various forms of collateral.
    • But not his millstones, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security‘ (Deut 24:6).
    • If you took their cloak, you were required to return it by sunset ‘so that your neighbor may sleep in it…and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God’ (Deut 24:13).
    • And for foreigners, or fatherless, or widows—you weren’t allowed to take their cloaks as pledges in the first place (Deut 24:17)!
  • In the context of just treatment of the poor, God also says: ‘When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this’ (Deut 24:21-22).

In both cases, the stronger party had the ‘right’ to take their security or fully harvest their fields. Yet it would’ve been unrighteous and sinful to do so. A just—not just a charitable—society is one that protects the dignity and basic needs of the poor.

Moreover, Israel was commanded to provide a basic safety net for immigrants and the poor through the tithe (similar to our taxes): ‘When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied’ (Deut 26:12). If God only cared about charity, he would’ve encouraged almsgiving—voluntary charity to the poor. But this was more than charity. It about building a society that promised to never let the floor fall out from under the poor.

Friends, what we have done to the poor in the midst of this pandemic is UNJUST. They must risk their health to work as ‘essential workers’ so the rest of us can shelter-in-place—while making barely livable wages (and their CEOs get praised for donating to charity). And those who are losing their jobs? People working in restaurants, hospitality, and construction—industries that require the undocumented—who we then let fall through the federal government’s pandemic safety net. I still have my job AND I get to work from home—and I got a stimulus check. Heck, the entire airline industry’s barely working and got a stimulus check. But the laid off cooks and cleaners I met this week? They got nothing. Not only are we not holding up the floor for the poor, we are pulling it out from under them.

And what can our charity do for these people? Only so much. The solution to injustice isn’t more charity. The solution is justice. It’s making things right so charity is no longer needed in the first place.

If you’re reading this, then I presume that you not only have some money, but you also have some power. I urge you to give money to either of the charities I’ve shared about above, knowing it provides short-term relief. But I urge you to also use your voice to advocate for a more just society. In particular, a society that works for the poor and the undocumented.

Now what should we advocate for? Extend federal safety net to the undocumented? Improve PPP? Stop privatizing gains and socializing losses?Adjust SIP orders to balance public health and economic impacts on the poor? Ensure a living wage and health insurance for ‘essential workers’? Recruit contact tracers first from communities of color? I don’t know. But whether you’re a conservative or progressive, if you care about justice, we’re all ears…

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