Far, far more than Charity!
Becky Roberts a student from Ipswich blogs a passionate plea to radically rethink Christian Charity as she honestly faces the personal challenge it presents
If somebody had asked me two months ago whether I considered charity to be an important part of the life of faith, I would have answered with a resounding yes. Perhaps in my head I would have briefly sifted through memories of ‘charitable’ acts I myself had recently done and inwardly congratulated myself. I would not have felt particularly challenged by the question and would easily have side-lined the thought, perhaps recalling it every now and then when a new opportunity to show ‘charity’ arose and I could tick that box once more.
Recently, I have been challenged reading what I consider ‘charity’ to be. It is undoubtedly a positive and celebrated thing which society promotes and is pursued by believers and non-believers alike. Whilst rejoicing that all members of our society, regardless of their beliefs, participate in the action of charity, I found myself questioning how it is that my understanding of charity did not require that the church be a leading and outstanding force, but rather one institution amongst the masses that stood for making a difference. Surely, I thought, the followers of the God of the Bible cannot settle for aiding the needy according to the societal norms.
In the Old Testament, the prophets cry out time and time again that God requires his people to reach out to the needy. Particular emphasis is on what Biblical Scholars refer to as the ‘vulnerable quartet’; that is the poor, the ‘alien’ resident in the land, the widow and the orphan. Not once is this referred to as charity. Rather, God demands this in order for justice to be present in society. Whilst today the general acceptance is that there will always be people at the bottom of the pile, so to speak, and that this is a natural order, the Old Testament writers clearly understood that this was not only unnatural, but an injustice.
In books such as Amos, God even warns that He will refuse the sacrifices that Israel brings to Him until justice has been established. It is so important to God that He is more concerned about how the people handle those who have suffered injustice in their society than their direct worship of God. Why? “For I, the Lord, love justice,” quotes Isaiah. God loves justice! Not in the way that I love music or food, but in the sense that part of God’s very nature as a God who is love means that he requires justice. Justice and love are intertwined and inseparable in God.
Some may argue that in the New Testament, the need for talk of justice is usurped by love. When Jesus gave the new commandment, that we should love one another, that seems to fulfil all the requirements that justice ought to achieve. This is undeniable, and yet I think that understanding the situation of those who find themselves in desperate situations within society as justice aids us in our response, and leads us to love them in the way that Jesus teaches us to. When we see the need to find shelter for the homeless and care for the orphan as a requirement of justice, it is no longer an optional extra in our Christian life. A charity mind-set tells us that reaching out to the needy is going above and beyond, and anything that is above and beyond need only be done on rare occasions for us to be satisfied.
A justice mind-set sees reaching out to the needy as the minimum requirements and, having understood that our justice must be inseparable from our love, we begin to look for ways to go even further. We begin asking not merely what justice requires, but what love requires.
I heard a talk recently in which the pastor pointed out that the idea of loving your neighbour as you love yourself is not unique to Christianity. What we do have unique to our faith is the command of one who stretched innocent arms out on the cross and said love one another as I have loved you. When we hear those words our response can surely not be the occasional act of charity. The more I am pushed to understand the meaning and power of the cross, the more uncomfortable I become about my simple acts of kindness. Does my love hurt? I would hesitate to say that it does. In fact, I am terribly good at finding excuses for my own apathy.
From a young age, I remember understanding that God had a special plan just for me, that I was uniquely gifted and that I had a purpose. That very easily blurred into me being convinced that I had a calling and that, if I waited, God would give me a calling and off I would go. What I didn’t remember, perhaps because it’s a hard truth to accept, is that I do not need to wait to be called to care for the needy of every sort. I have already been called. In an individualised culture, we want a personalised mission, and I believe firmly that God delights in giving them to us. However, I fear that we have become too concerned with individual callings and it stops us from being proactive in how we live out faith.
Jesus has already said that we, the church, are the ones who must clothe the naked and visit those in prison and feed the hungry. We can’t each do it all, perhaps, but we will do very little if we do not take seriously the call on our lives which has been there from the moment we had faith. By all means, pray that God will show you where He wants you, but don’t tell yourself that you don’t feel called to reach out to certain people if the opportunity is there. We are each called just from the very fact that we are called children of God. I am as guilty as any, but I can no longer content myself with waiting for the lightning bolt moment where God will send me out amongst the needy. I want to be someone who seeks out opportunities to lift them up.
Studying theology means I spend a lot of time looking at the cross. A lot of theologians talk about the significance of that event in history, but spend very little time thinking about the implications of taking up our own cross and following. I cannot look at the cross and only see what God has done for me, because not only did He shows His love for me, but He told me to go and do likewise. Is this charity that God asks of me? I don’t think that charity comes close to covering it! I think the cross teaches that God’s idea of justice is not something we need to fear. It shows us that God’s justice is totally other than the concept of justice we have today, where each receives according to the merit.
The cross teaches us that God’s justice is brought to full expression in love.
When God says that He loves justice, He does not mean that He loves inflicting punishment or seeing the scales balanced out. He is a God who loves to see those at the bottom lifted up and able to flourish and thrive. The call on the church is to be the ones to cry out for the poor and treat them with the dignity that justice requires. A charity mind-set can lead to us reaching out only with pity, rather than with a firm conviction that the position that a needy person is in makes them a victim of an injustice that God desires to see eradicated. The call on each of our lives is to seek out chances to lift people up in love, knowing that when we do so we bring about the kind of justice that the love of God requires.
Becky Roberts is a first year Biblical Studies and Theology student at the University of Nottingham. She grew up in Ipswich and attended St Matthews church, and recently has been very involved with The Forge in Debenham
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted in the forum below, upon the ideas expressed here.