Charity, justice and the right response to this crisis

By Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace fieldworker

I have wrestled for years with the distinction between charity and justice, and have come to realise that we use the word ‘charity’ to mean very different things.

Its grandest use is to describe the love that God has for all of creation. This overwhelming, all-inclusive, all-forgiving love holds us secure in all trials and tribulations. It is the source of our existence and the goal of our lives. God is love. It ‘passes all understanding’ (Ephesians 3:19), in which sense, when we have a share in it, it is a theological virtue. Not just one of the great three virtues of faith, hope and charity but ‘the greatest of these’ (1 Corinthians 13:13) without which our lives are ‘hollow gongs’ (1 Corinthians 13:1).

This wondrous love/charity is the inspiration of the love we share with each other by ‘charitable’ works. Cafod is a charity because it cares for others. That is why we have ‘charity shops’ where the proceeds go towards looking after people. Yet we must be careful not to slip into thinking that our taking of unwanted items to charity shops is a replica of God’s unfailing love. It may be generous but it is also convenient for us to have a place to put our excess purchases.

So ‘charity’, which in its origins is our highest expression of selflessness, becomes the word we use to mean giving to those in need. And it gets worse. In its meanest sense, it is the pittance that we grudgingly give to the poor – even the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor – out of our generosity and our surplus. At this low point in the use of the word we have reached the expression ‘as cold as charity’.

The companion word, ‘justice’ has a similar track record, ranging from ’God’s justice’ – which demands that everyone has a dignified life – to the harsh justice that gives people only what they deserve, often in the form of punishment. The lowest form of justice protects the status quo, keeping the rich and powerful in their wealth, keeping oppressive systems safe from change, insisting that the way things are is the way things should be and must be. This is the mindset that maintains that people are poor because they deserve to be: they do not try hard enough, they are feckless and make bad life choices. 

Late 20th-century and early 21st-century British society is not the best model to benefit everybody. The experience of society during the lockdown has demonstrated that some of the ways in which society is organised are unjust, putting burdens on certain sectors while protecting others.

Is it just that some people have become better off merely by working at home whereas others have used up their savings and ended up relying on charity? Foodbanks have been life-savers but are they the best way to make sure people can lead dignified lives? How is it that suddenly all homeless people have been found a place to sleep? Should we not rise to the challenge of ‘building back better’ and ‘making all things new’? Dare we take the idea of furlough to its logical conclusion and suggest that there should be a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for everyone so that all people can live dignified lives?

There will be howls of protest from the rich if the redistribution of wealth were to start moving in the other direction.

The Pope has set up a Commission on COVID. It begins by looking at the immediate response, but is looking also to a different future. Pope Francis has called us all to ‘Prepare the Future’ not ‘Prepare for the Future’. He is asking us not to restart but to reset; to work for a transformed future not a return to the same old past. And who will do this? He is not asking cardinals and bishops, he is asking us!

These are questions that the J&P Annual Assembly will be raising in its four online sessions looking at our Christian response to the crisis, taking place between 28 June and 4 July. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, has been confirmed as a panel speaker for the final session and all four will be available to view on YouTube and Facebook after the event. Go to: https://jp.liverpoolcatholic.org.uk/events/assemblies/