Faith, Charity, and Justice

In her book Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt recounts a story in which Pope John XXIII asked one of the Vatican gardeners, "How are things going?" The worker replied, "Badly, badly, Your Eminence," telling Pope John what he earned and how many family members he had to support. "We'll have to do something about this," said the Pope, only to be told later that raising the wages would cut the funds available for charity. The Pope's response: "Then we'll have to cut them. For & justice comes before charity."

I was always taught that what is owed in justice should never be given in charity. Please don't misunderstand me: I think charity is sometimes required. People need to eat, and children need shoes and school supplies -- today. But charity only addresses the immediate needs. It does not lead to sustainable change, to self-sufficiency for families, to dignity in the workplace, or to justice. Charity does not reduce inequality. It does not lead to justice.

When Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, gives a speech in Omaha, Nebraska, about the danger that rising inequality poses to market capitalism, we know our nation has gone well past the need for churches to organize food pantries. If Chairman Bernanke is concerned about inequality, then banks (and I'm not talking about food banks) need to be concerned about inequality and what it means for our national economy in the global marketplace. This isn't about charity; it's about economics. If we're to compete, we can't sacrifice the talents of a single citizen.

However, given the massive deficits generated by the Bush administration's tax cuts, the financial markets are unlikely to allow any Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- to come to the rescue in any meaningful way anytime soon. To change that reality, we need to create powerful local and statewide constituencies for both programs at the community level and national policy changes to make possible the resurgence of a genuine middle class.

As just one example, consider the more than 10,000 people who have been trained and placed in high-wage jobs over the last decade through the labor-market intermediary institutions organized by the constituencies of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). On average, the wages of these graduates are more than three times their earnings prior to entering training (increasing their average annual wages from $9,960 to $31,975). Perhaps more importantly, the jobs they take after training include benefits and are connected to a career path, advantages rarely associated with positions paying less than $10,000 a year. Because participants are overwhelmingly the heads of young families, their increased earnings benefit at least two generations, and will accumulate over the 34 years, on average, remaining in their projected working life. That's not charity; that's an investment.

These labor-market intermediaries did not come about because the public sector decided to reform itself, nor because the private sector decided to invest in the training and development of its own workforce. Nor did they come about because of the charity that some "faith-based" antipoverty efforts advocate. These innovative labor strategies came to be because the broad-based organizations of the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation went about the business of developing the capacity of families to have conversations with one another about issues of work, education, and health care; to forge relationships of trust that cross lines of race and class; and to move into action in the political arena.

Notwithstanding the importance of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as we are challenged to do in Matthew 25, the church has a far more prophetic and transformative role to play in the larger social order today. Historically the role of congregation and church has been to create communities of obligation, participation, and transformation -- of konia (the formation of community and fellow feeling through participation).

Today that challenge has been accepted by the churches, synagogues, and mosques that are a part of Communities Organized for Public Service in San Antonio; by Valley Interfaith in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas; by the Pima County Interfaith Council in Tucson; by One-LA in Los Angeles; by The Metropolitan Organization in Houston; and by all of their sister organizations throughout the Southwest. Thanks to these citizen leadership development efforts, they have been able to fight for job-training programs, water and sewer infrastructure, funding for public schools and parks and playgrounds, and other issues of concern to families and communities.

The IAF's iron rule holds: never do for someone what he or she can do for him or herself. This credo does not rationalize social Darwinism, a philosophy that cuts away at the safety net and moves us toward a society of every man for himself -- and women and children last. Rather, the Iron Rule challenges us to create institutions that enable people to develop the capacity for effective advocacy and agency in their own voice and challenge the established order so that justice can pour forth.

The challenge of our faith traditions is to understand that our moral universe cannot include only those who look like us, talk like us, or live like us. When our institutions of faith are at their best, they help people get inside one another's moral universe by sharing stories and experiences -- and by so doing, beginning to develop political friendships, or philia.

Developing philia enables people to understand that developing and sustaining their own self-interest requires them to be concerned with the self-interest of others. This doesn't happen naturally, but only through institutions that develop the relational context in which people begin to understand that what's needed is a public-education system that enables their children and other people's children to succeed alike.

Those who would invoke the church as a reason for the government to abandon its responsibility to fight poverty and inequality understand neither Ezekiel nor Leviticus. In Leviticus, we are called to strengthen the hand of the poor, and in Ezekiel, the men of Sodom were condemned when they refused to do so. Using faith traditions to justify a mean-spirited strategy of abandoning people to their own private resources is neither charity nor justice, and it is a practice that has no place in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or any of the world's faith traditions.

The documents of Vatican II consistently remind us of the importance of subsidiarity -- the notion that decisions should be made at the most local level of capability in a society. This concept is close to the Tocquevillian understanding of the importance of intermediary institutions for effective democratic participation. We cannot afford to allow the prophetic visions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to be co-opted by the ideology of a radical consumeristic individualism. While it is important for congregations to collaborate with and challenge the state to bring about a just society, our communities of faith must maintain boundaries and distance from the government. It is imperative to challenge the established concentrations of power and wealth so that we can all have shared prosperity, and shalom, and justice at the gates of the city.