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…