Twenty Nine: The difference between Charity and Social Justice

It’s a story that I heard somewhere.  One that I certainly have not made up.  I’ve only heard it spoken before, but it goes something like this…

There is a guy walking on the bank of a massive, rushing river.  It’s a beautiful day, so he closes his eyes to enjoy the sun shining on his face and the wind blowing gently through his hair.  All of a sudden he hears a horrific scream.  He turns his head and to his surprise there is a person floating down this massive rushing river.  Without thinking the man jumps into the river, swims over to the person in need, grabs their arm and brings them to safety.  Just as he begins to catch his breath, he hears the screams of another person floating in the river in obvious need.  So, like before, he jumped in, swam over to the person in need and brought them to safety.  Then he hears the screams of another person in the river, and another , and another, and another.  He began pulling in people from the river, a lot of people.  It became obvious that their were always going to be people floating down the river.  So the man had an important idea, he was going to create something to consistently help the people who float down the river.  So he sets up shop, gets some volunteers to help, and begins pulling people out of the river with ease and regularity.  The months go by when a volunteer, a seemingly regular and unassuming person, asked the man an unintentionally pointed question; “why are these people ending up in the river in the first place?”

Charity is a really good thing.  It helps a lot of people who really need it.  Charity, while a wonderful thing, does not engage the tough questions in a way that social justice does.  Social justice asks and acts on the question “why?”

So when someone volunteers at a food bank, they are doing some wonderful charitable work.  They are helping people who need food.  But when people start inquiring  about why there is hunger, or why so many people live on the street, and bravely act on those wonderings it stops being work of charity and becomes the first steps in the pursuit of a social justice.

Charity is safe.  It can be done from a distance.

Social justices requires investment, commitment and even more importantly, relationships with those who are the most vulnerable of society.

Sometimes I wonder if churches get the two mixed up in vision statements, inspirational sermons or bulletin announcements.  When they say social justice, I wonder if churches really mean charity.

Imagine a world that does not need food banks, or homeless shelters…


  1. rlrobinson · March 26, 2012

    Great distinction. One really good quote I’ve heard on this: “when I feed the poor, people call me a saint; when I ask why there are poor, they call me a communist.” I think that’s at the root of it: there’s a lot more criticism when we try to actually fix the problem instead of band-aiding the solution, because too many people benefit from the problem. We feel good about charity because it is helping (in the short term) and everybody cheers us on. We don’t feel as good after doing social justice because we don’t necessarily see the change right away, and we live in a culture of instant gratification, and we have a lot more opposition.

  2. chris lenshyn · March 26, 2012

    Well said! I like that quote. It’s freightening how comfortable we’ve become with the charity mindset and forget to ask why the guy on the corner doesn’t have any food or a place to sleep. Charity isn’t bad, but asking why is waaaaay more important. And you’re right, our culture provides opposition.

    Why can be an uncomfortable question for many.


  3. Stan Olson · March 26, 2012

    I was going to post the same quote (from Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara, I think), but I see someone else already has.
    This always raises for me the question of why so many of the Mennonites I know would support addressing causes of poverty but would paradoxically shy away from the type of politics that would do the same. This I think is more than just a vestige of the early Anabaptist aversion to any political involvement. Lots of Mennonites openly support a certain political party that seems to have very little concern for either the plight of the poor or for many issues of social justice, ostensibly because it claims to support “Christian” values. E.g., lock up criminals (rather than address the roots of crime), etc.
    I sometimes think that the political loyalties of Canadian Mennonites of Russian background have been shaped more by the experience of their ancestors in the Ukraine than by the teachings of Jesus.
    What I mean is they will steadfastly vote for a party whose basic world view is in significant contrast to the world view of MCC (using MCC as conveniently representative of many justice-conscious Mennonites) and so on, while labelling as “communist” any political party with a world view I consider much closer to that of MCC.

    • chris lenshyn · March 26, 2012


      So much can be said with your contribution to this discussion… thanks!

      It is certainly an interesting dynamic when mixing politics and faith. Often times i have seen a complete disconnect between the faith values some faith groups hold and the political party for whom they vote for. I have seen this in some areas of Canada more than others.

      Asking “Why” is an intrusive question. Leaving it to charitable org’s who we can give $ to disconnects us from that reality a bit (Even MCC). When we get politically connected, that “why” has tremendous implications for my comfortable way of life. If I support a political cause for poverty it may impact my significant level of security, raise my taxes etc… An uncomfortable reality.

      I do find myself interested in your comment about Russian Mennonites being shaped more by their ancestoral experience than on the teachings of Jesus. Can you speak to this a bit more? I think I fell asleep in my Mennonite Studies class when we got to this point… 😉

  4. goodfridayblues · March 26, 2012

    i think it’s not an either/or conversation but a both/and conversation. if i was in need of food, i’d want someone to feed me, while they were asking me why i’m hungry. It’s why MCC does relief, development AND peace work – because they are all interconnected.

    • chris lenshyn · March 26, 2012

      I think the both/and is very helpful. But the distinction is still very important. Jesus fed people and looked for justice. Social justice then is not limited to charity which is what I have seen some churches do…

  5. Kathy · March 26, 2012

    This is definitely thought provoking. I have often thought about charity and how it fixes the symptoms but doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

  6. Stan Olson · March 27, 2012

    Chris, I did write a reply, somewhat lengthy, to your question to me, but somehow I didn’t post it properly, I didn’t have time to rewrite it, and now it doesn’t seem to gel in my thoughts. Sorry. Maybe later.

    • chris lenshyn · March 28, 2012

      No problem Stan. Sorry for the problems posting it!

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  8. Matt Carver · March 30, 2012

    Can you bring about justice in a society without control of a society? It seems that in the past when churches or other religious groups try to bring about social justice, it ends up in theocracy. Think John Calvin and Geneva, or current Islamic dictatorships. One might argue that those efforts weren’t real justice, that however brings about the real problem.

    We don’t all agree on what is just and how to enforce said “justice”. When I look in the Bible to see how I am to bring about justice I see things that suggest that we don’t work with the government to change society. I see that we are to work diligently to change the minds and hearts of individuals and beyond that we are to provide charity.

    While I don’t have a problem with trying to make the world a better place through voting and questioning authority. I don’t see that as something that the Bible asks me to do. It asks me work with individuals in understanding their personal relationship to God and how that moves them to individually help bring about his kingdom, a kingdom that I believe is totally just.

    • chris lenshyn · March 30, 2012

      Hi Matt.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I strongly affirm that it is God’s desire for relationship, and as a ministering person I work at facilitating the loving presence of God in the lives of the people in my community and beyond. Yet, I also hold firm that God cares when people are hungry etc… Because of my Christocentric interpretive lens I find it extremely important to pay attention to the way in which Jesus walked on this fine planet 2000+ years ago. When I see works of social justice associated with the Son of God, I am needing to pursue this Kingdom Jesus spoke of and participated in to be a disciple and follower. This includes significant acts of love and justice etc… Jesus was consistently provoking the social structure of 1st century Palestine, some say it had a hand in why he was killed.

      • Matt Carver · March 30, 2012

        I hope that you did not take my first post as suggesting that you’re words were somehow unchristian of ungodly. I completely agree that Jesus did some amazing things that pushed forward love and justice. My point was that in most cases the word “social” in “social justice” equates to political solutions to income inequality. This is what I do not see in the life or teachings of Jesus.

      • chris lenshyn · March 30, 2012

        I didn’t get that sense at all. Christendom is very much an example of the problems that you speak to!

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