Thinking Out Loud

December 29, 2009

A Different Kind of Charity

A couple of days ago I linked to a piece my wife wrote which is clearly worthy of more readers than the number who clicked on it.    So I’m reprinting it here in full.

There’s been some discussion around here (at my house and on the ‘net in general) about the hugely popular “shoebox” giving program.

If you’re not familiar with this, the system is that a charity organization distributes thousands upon thousands of cardboard “shoeboxes” to schools, churches and other groups. Members of those groups fill the boxes with small gifts, selected for a boy or girl in a particular age group. The boxes get collected and shipped to other parts of the world where needs are great, and handed out to children there.

The program is promoted by slick and very moving videos and glossy ads. Some critics point out the difference between “charity giving” and “the pursuit of justice” and question the relative value and importance of each.

I’m not going to get into the whole debate here, but on one of the church based websites engaging the discussion I found this:

It’s an interesting side by side comparison. “Charity” is limited, short-sighted. “Justice” is broad-scoped and forward looking.

And the title is provocative. “Moving from… to…”. Obviously, to the author, one is inferior to the other. One is where we are, the other is where we want to be.

Charity bad, justice good.

But what strikes me about this chart is its incompleteness. Something’s missing.

Charity and Justice are both good and necessary, but they’re both limited. Flawed. And, I think, in the same way.

Charity – giving goods to supply needs – and Justice – working among the powers that be to change the way society functions – both require an arm’s length approach.

It seems to me that for each of them to function the way they do, there has to be a positional disparity between the workers and those on whose behalf they work.

Charity stands face to face, giver and recipient, hands extended each toward the other across a lunch counter or a desk or just a gap.

Justice stands over the fallen, and speaks upward to the powers.

They both presume to decide what’s best for others and to dispense or pursue it in their own way and according to their own standards.

Which, granted, is all necessary. The world we find ourselves in requires these things.


For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, this Charity and this Justice are not enough. They don’t follow Jesus.

True, he performed acts of Charity while he was here – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, even raising the dead.

And true, in time he will perform the ultimate act of Justice – redeeming and restoring his world, including humanity, to the health and beauty and balance it was created for.

But to see only those two things is to miss out on so much. To focus on what he did, and to miss out on who he is and that the most amazing thing he ever was – was simply human.

Those of us who believe that Jesus was and is and will be God forget sometimes that he was a guy, too. “Just this guy, you know?” Subject to hunger and blisters and morning breath and people who got on his nerves. He learned to walk and to saw straight and to read and to swim.

He chose this life because it was necessary and because he could.

He saw oppression and called it what it was. Arrogance. Power brokering. Exploitation. Hypocrisy.

…Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used for His own advantage.
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

If I could, I’d add a third column to that chart up there.

I’d call it Presence. The Presence column would read:

Presence sits at the table and shares a meal from the Christmas hamper, or sits on the ground and shares the emergency food handout, and willingly goes hungry with the hungry.

Presence participates in the life of the poor finding beauty where it lives, knowing that there are greater evils than a lack of affluence.

Presence drives you to the hospital and sits for 3 hours in emerg until you’re taken care of, and makes sure you get home alright.

Presence walks with the wounded to where they need to go, as slowly as necessary, and waits with them for the healing.

Presence listens, doesn’t try to fix anything, holds your hand, lets you cry if you need to.

Presence is socially incomprehensible, largely powerless, heartbreaking, messy and the greatest risk.

Until the justice people get things fixed, charity people will be needed. Band-aids and all.

And as long as the charity people have work to do, justice people will be needed. Hollering and lobbying and raising money and changing the world.

But the church is called to Presence. To follow in Jesus’ steps in choosing to be human.

“The poor you will always have with you,” he said.

So where are they?

Where are you?

~Ruth Wilkinson

Related post:  My original post on this
Related post:  Reference to the comment wherein the chart was located.

1 Comment »

  1. Ha! Didn’t realize it was your wife. I reprinted it also at

    Comment by communitychaplain — December 29, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

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