RonRolheiser,OMI

Justice and Charity – Revisited

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We’re all familiar, I suspect, with the difference between justice and charity. Charity is giving away some of your time, energy, resources, and person so as to help to others in need. And that’s an admirable virtue, the sign of a good heart. Justice, on the other hand, is less about directly giving something away than it is about looking to change the conditions and systems that put others in need.

No doubt, we’re all familiar with the little parable used to illustrate this difference. In brief, it goes like this: A town situated on the edge of a river finds itself confronted every day by a number of bodies floating downstream in the river. The townsfolk tend to the bodies, minister to those who are alive and respectfully bury the dead. They do this for years, with good hearts; but, through all those years, none of them ever journey up the river to look at why there are wounded and dead bodies floating in the river each day. The townsfolk are good-hearted and charitable, but that in itself isn’t changing the situation that’s bringing them wounded and dead bodies daily. As well, the charitable townsfolk aren’t even remotely aware that their manner of life, seemingly completely unconnected to the wounded and dead bodies they’re daily attending to, might in fact be contributing to the cause of those lost lives and dreams and that, good-hearted as they are, they may be complicit in something that’s harming others, even while it’s affording them the resources and wherewithal to be charitable.

The lesson here is not that we shouldn’t be charitable and good-hearted. One-to-one charity, as the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, is what’s demanded of us, both as humans and as Christians. The lesson is that being good-hearted alone is not enough. It’s a start, a good one, but more is asked of us. I suspect most of us already know this, but perhaps we’re less conscious of something less obvious, namely, that our very generosity itself might be contributing to a blindness that lets us support (and vote for) the exact political, economic, and cultural systems which are to blame for the wounded and dead bodies we’re attending to in our charity.

That our own good works of charity can help blind us to our complicity in injustice is something highlighted in a recent book by Anand Giridharada, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In a rather unsettling assertion, Giridharada submits that generosity can be, and often is, a substitute for and a means of avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and fairer distribution of power. Charity, wonderful as it is, is not yet justice; a good heart, wonderful as it is, in not yet good policy that serves the less-privileged; and philanthropy, wonderful as it is, can have us confuse the charity we’re doing with the justice that’s asked of us.  For this reason among others, Giridharada submits that public problems should not be privatized and relegated to the domain of private charity, as is now so often the case.

Christiana Zenner, reviewing his book in America, sums this up by saying: “Beware of the temptation to idealize a market or an individual who promises salvation without attending to the least among us and without addressing the conditions that facilitated the domination in the first place.”  Then she adds: When we see the direct violation of another person, a direct injustice, we’re taken aback, but the unfairness and the perpetrator are obvious. We see that something is wrong and we can see who is to blame. But, and this is her real point, when we live with unjust systems that violate others we can be blind to our own complicity because we can feel good about ourselves because our charity is helping those who have been violated.

For example: Imagine I’m a good-hearted man who feels a genuine sympathy for the homeless in my city. As the Christmas season approaches I make a large donation of food and money to the local food bank. Further still, on Christmas day itself, before I sit down to eat my own Christmas dinner, I spend several hours helping serve a Christmas meal to the homeless. My charity here is admirable, and I cannot help but feel good about what I just did. And what I did was a good thing! But then, when I support a politician or a policy that privileges the rich and is unfair to the poor, I can more easily rationalize that I’m doing my just part and that I have a heart for the poor, even as my vote itself helps ensure that there will always be homeless people to feed on Christmas day. 

Few virtues are as important as charity. It’s the sign of a good heart. But the deserved good feeling we get when we give of ourselves in charity shouldn’t be confused with the false feeling that we’re really doing our part.

Anchoring Ourselves within God’s Goodness

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What would Jesus do? For some Christians, that’s the easy answer to every question.  In every situation all we need to ask is: What would Jesus do? 

At a deep level, that’s actually true. Jesus is the ultimate criterion. He is the way, the truth, and the life and anything that contradicts him is not a way to God. Yet, I suspect, many of us find ourselves irritated in how that expression is often used in simplistic ways, as a fundamentalism difficult to digest. Sometimes, in our irritation at this, we spontaneously want to say: Jesus has nothing to do with this! But, of course, as soon as those words escape our mouths we realize how bad that sounds! Jesus has a lot to do with every theological, ecclesial, or liturgical question, no matter its complexity. Granted, there’s the danger of fundamentalism here; but it’s equally as dangerous to answer theological, ecclesial, and liturgical questions without considering what Jesus might do. He’s still, and forever, a non-negotiable criterion.

But while Jesus is a non-negotiable criterion, he’s not a simplistic one. What did Jesus do? Well, the answer isn’t simple. Looking at his life we see that sometimes he did things one way, sometimes another way, and sometimes he started out doing something one way and ended up changing his mind and doing it in a different way, as we see in his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman. That’s why, I suspect, within Christianity there are so many different denominations, spiritualities, and ways of worship, each with its own interpretation of Jesus. Jesus is complex.

Given Jesus’ complexity, it’s no accident then that theologians, preachers, and spiritualities often find in his person and his teachings ways that reflect more how they would handle a situation than how he would. We see this in our churches and spiritualities everywhere, and I say this with sympathy, not with judgment. None of us gets Jesus fully right.

So where does this leave us? Do we simply rely on our private interpretation of Jesus? Do we give ourselves over uncritically to some ecclesial or academic authority and trust that it will tell us what Jesus would do in every situation?  Is there a “third” way?

Well, there’s a “third” way, the way of most Christian denominations, wherein we submit our private interpretation to the canonical (“dogmatic”) tradition of our particular church and accept, though not in blind, uncritical, obedience, the interpretation of that larger community, its longer history, and its wider experience, humbly accepting that it can be naïve (and arrogant) to bracket 2000 years of Christian experience so as to believe that our insight into Jesus is a needed corrective to a vision that has inspired so many millions of people through so many centuries.  

Still, we’re not meant to park the dictates of our private conscience, our critical questions, our unease with certain things, and the wounds we carry, at our church door either. In the end, we all must be true to our own consciences, faithful to the particular insights that God graces us with, and mindful of the wounds we carry.  Both our graces and our wounds are meant to be listened to and they, along with the deepest voices within our conscience, need to be taken into account when ask ourselves: What would Jesus do?

We need to answer that for ourselves by faithfully holding and carrying within us the tension between being obedient to our churches and not betraying the critical voices within our own conscience. If we do that honestly, one thing will eventually constellate inside us as an absolute: God is good!  Everything Jesus taught and incarnated was predicated on that truth.Anything that jeopardizes or belies that, be it a church, a theology, a liturgical practice, or a spirituality is wrong. And any voice within dogma or private conscience that betrays that is also wrong.

How we conceive of God colors for good or for bad everything within our religious practice. And above all else, Jesus revealed this about God: God is good. That truth needs to ground everything else, our churches, our theologies, our spiritualities, our liturgies, and our understanding of everyone else. Sadly, often it doesn’t. The fear that God is not good disguises itself in subtle ways but is always manifest whenever our religious teachings or practices somehow make God in heaven not as understanding, merciful, and indiscriminate and unconditional in love as Jesus was on earth. It’s also manifest whenever we fear that we’re dispensing grace too cheaply and making God too accessible.

Sadly, the God who is met in our churches today is often too-narrow, too-merciless, too-tribal, too-petty, and too-untrustworthy to be worthy of Jesus … or the surrender of our soul.

What would Jesus do? Admittedly the question is complex. However we know we have the wrong answer whenever we make God anything less than fully good, whenever we set conditions for unconditional love, and whenever, however subtly, we block access to God and God’s mercy.

What Constitutes Fidelity?

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It’s becoming increasing difficult in today’s world to trust anything or anybody, for good reason. There’s little that’s stable, safe to lean on, trustworthy. We live in a world where everything is in flux, is flux, where everywhere we see distrust, abandoned values, debunked creeds, people moving on from where they used to be, contradictory information, and dishonesty and lying as socially and morally acceptable. There is little left of trust in our world.

What does this call us to? We’re called to many things, but perhaps nothing more important than fidelity, to be honest and persevering in who we are and what we stand for. Here’s an illustration.

One of our Oblate missionaries shares this story. He was sent to minister to a cluster of small Indigenous communities in Northern Canada.  The people were very nice to him but it didn’t take him long to notice something. Basically every time he scheduled an appointment the person wouldn’t show up. At first, he attributed this to miscommunication, but eventually he realized the pattern was too consistent for this to be an accident and so he approached an Elder in the community for some counsel. “Every time a make an appointment with someone,” he told the Elder, “they don’t show up.” The Elder smiled, knowingly, and replied: “Of course, they won’t show up, the last thing they need is to have an outsider like you organizing their lives for them!”  So the missionary asked: “What do I do?” The Elder replied: “Well, don’t make an appointment, just show up and talk to them! They’ll be nice to you. More importantly though, this is what you need to do: Stay here for a long time and then they will trust you. They want to see whether you’re a missionary or a tourist. Why should they trust you? They’ve been betrayed and lied to by most everyone who’s come through here. Stay for a long time and then they’ll trust you.”

Stay for a long time and then they’ll trust you. What does it mean to stay for a long time? We can hang around and not necessarily inspire trust, just as we can move on to other places and still inspire trust. In its essence, staying around for the duration, being faithful, has less to do with never moving from a given location than it has to do with staying worthy of trust, with staying faithful to who we are, to the creed we profess, to the commitments and promises we have made, and to what’s truest inside us so that our private lives do not belie our public persona.

The gift of fidelity is the gift of a life lived honestly. Our private honesty blesses the whole community, just as our private dishonesty hurts the whole community. “If you are here faithfully,” writes Parker Palmer, “you bring great blessing.” Conversely, writes Rumi, “If you are here unfaithfully, you bring great harm.” To the degree that we are true to the creed we profess, the family, friends, and communities we’ve committed to, and to the deepest moral imperatives within our private soul, to that degree we are faithfully with others, and to that degree we are “staying with them for a long time”.  The reverse is also true, to the degree that we are not true to the creed we profess, to the promises we’ve made to others, and to the honesty innate in our own soul, we are being unfaithful, moving away from others, being the tourist not the missionary.

In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us what it means to be with each other, to live with each other, beyond geographical distance and other contingencies in life that separate us. We are with each, faithfully, as brothers and sisters, when we are living in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, perseverance, and chastity. When we are living inside these, then we are “staying with each other” and not moving away, no matter any geographical distance between us. Conversely, when we are living outside of these we are not “staying with each other”, even when there is no geographical distance between us. Home, as poets have always told us, is a place inside the heart, not a place on a map. And home, as St. Paul tells us, in living inside the Spirit.

And it is this, I believe, that ultimately defines fidelity and perseverance, separates a moral missionary from a moral tourist, and indicates who’s staying and who’s moving away.

For each of us to stay faithful, we need each other. It takes more than a village, it takes all of us. One person’s fidelity makes everyone’s fidelity easier, just as one person’s infidelity makes everyone’s fidelity more difficult. So, inside a world that’s so highly individualistic and bewilderingly transient, when it can feel as if everyone is forever moving away from you, perhaps the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of our own fidelity, to stay for a long time.