While doing mission, justice is every bit as important as mercy
July 5, 2021
God’s mission clearly includes charity: a cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name; the Samaritan’s extraordinary care for the victim of highway robbery; the traditional “alms for the poor” that has characterized the institutional church through the millennia. Charity is clearly biblical and a hallmark of Christian faithfulness. After 35 years of working with Presbyterian congregations engaged in local and global mission, I have found that the overwhelming majority of congregations dedicate nearly 100% of their mission attention and budget to charity work. But a singular focus on charity can blind us to the larger issues behind the suffering we seek to alleviate. A Congolese proverb says, “It takes two hands to wash”: God’s mission consists of both charity to stop our neighbor’s bleeding and justice to prevent the wound in the first place.
This fact has caused me to reflect on the reasons behind this curiously singular focus. Charity can even anesthetize me into thinking I’ve done my part when in fact my neighbor is being exploited in ways that benefit me: when my insistence on lower taxes results in my neighbor not having access to desperately needed mental health services. If the “unbelievable price” I paid for my new shirt was only possible because of the unjust wages and dangerous working conditions of my global neighbor, I am profiting from my neighbor’s suffering. And so, I’m tempted to turn a blind eye, claiming “it’s just too complicated.” Mere charity can divert our attention from the other hand of mission: the struggle for justice to prevent the suffering before it begins to crush the life of our neighbors.
Confronted by the complexities of global poverty, maybe I feel better about myself and my own relative wealth when I share on my Facebook page the story of my church’s clothes closet for the poor. Now, I know for a fact that unjust structures condemn the poor to inadequate housing, education, health care and jobs. But I’m certain that to work with the oppressed in identifying and addressing the root causes of their plight would require something more costly to me. It would require a commitment to justice to prevent their suffering, rather than merely tending their wounds. Because changing the unjust laws and structures that keep the poor down would require a long-term relationship of accompaniment with the poor. And I’m certain that relationship would be very costly, because it would change me, too. It would change the products I buy, how I invest my money, how I vote. It would force me to choose between the worship of Mammon (my investment income) and Jesus (who overturned the money changers’ tables in his anger with injustice).
So, I have to wonder, has the American church’s almost singular focus on charity, as opposed to justice, become an idol that keeps us feeling good about ourselves, but ignorant of the causes of our neighbor’s suffering? Can I fully love my neighbors unless I’m willing to keep the wheel from crushing them?
I think these questions were in my mind 20 years ago when the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s former international coordinator, Lionel Derenoncourt, first explained to me a new model of mission, the Joining Hands initiative. The effort wisely saw that the American church was using only one hand of mission — charity — and invited our church into the slow, hard work of solidarity for justice — to creating spaces where mission partners from the churches and civil societies of the Global South could share their analyses of the root causes of injustice with partners from the Global North and work together to overcome them.
So, take a look at your own congregation’s mission work: what portion of your time, your budget, your prayer and your attention is dedicated to the important work of charity? And how much to justice — the preventive work of identifying and addressing the root causes of our neighbors’ suffering? Could it be that our need for the instant gratification that charity work generates has become an idol that keeps us from joining God and neighbor in the deeper work of justice? Maybe it’s time to use both hands in mission.
Hunter Farrell, Director of the World Mission Initiative, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Today’s Focus: Mission, Justice & Mercy
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we ask that you would give members and leaders creativity and patience as they move expectantly into the new way in the wilderness you are creating for them. Amen.