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Charity is Not Enough

Committed Christians must move beyond personal charity to address economic and social conditions
 
 
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You don't have to be a prophet to see it coming – that is, the predictable response of some conservative Christians whenever a fellow Christian points to just how disconnected many of them are with the subversive social-political consciousness embedded in the Word.

The primary social issue discussed in the Bible, as I've touched on in previous columns, is not sexual morality but God's call for economic justice in relation to the poor.

The predictable conservative response? It's a variation on the don't-tell-me-I-don't-care-for-the-poor-when-I-do-charity theme: Individual acts of charity are commendable and the world is a better place than it would be because of their generous giving.

But I contend that the prophetic ethos of Christianity is like a voice crying in the wilderness, requiring committed Christians to go beyond "winning souls for Christ;" to move beyond emphasizing salvation at the expense of liberation this side of heaven; to go beyond making a fetish of personal holiness while disregarding social sin and institutional evil.

Martin Luther King Jr. articulates it better than I can. "A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man's social condition... It seeks to not only integrate men with God but to integrate men with men and each man with himself."

"Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a dry-as-dust religion."

The revered Catholic Msgr. Geno Baroni prayed: "Lord, O pray, help me to know that our limited charity is not enough; Lord, help me to know that our soup kitchens and second-hand clothes are not enough. Lord, help me to know that it is not enough for the Church to be the ambulance service that goes about picking up the broken pieces of humanity for American society. Lord, help us all to know that God's judgment demands justice from us as a rich and powerful nation."

Why is charity not enough? The Rev. William Sloan Coffin, long-time chaplain of Yale University (President Bush's and Senator Kerry's alma mater), offers this insight: "Charity is a matter of personal attribute, justice is a matter of public policy. Never can the first be a substitute for the second."

This is what Pope John Paul II is speaking of when he wrote in Centesimus Annus: "It is not a matter of the duty of charity alone... I am referring to the fact that even the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice."

(And we haven't even delved into the biblical concept of jubilee, which, in the theocratic society of biblical times, can only be seen as an institutional prerogative and not just a collection of individual charitable acts.)

The average non-churched American gives just 2.1 percent of their income to charity, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Church folk do better, but not much.

The most recent numbers I could find were in John and Sylvia Ronsvalle's study The State of Church Giving Through 1994. According to that study, church members gave 2.52 percent of their income to charity.

In his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger , Ron Sider, a theology professor and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, points out: "Even more disturbing is that the percentage (of church member charity giving) keeps falling even though our income (steadily increased) from 1968 to 1994... These statistics on church giving provide an accurate picture of total Christian giving. In fact, about 90 percent of all religious giving goes through local congregations.

"In evangelical circles today," Sider adds, "it is much easier to insist on an orthodox Christology than to insist that God has a special concern for the poor. We have allowed our theology to be shaped by the economic preferences of our materialistic contemporaries rather than by Scripture. (Ironically), that is to fall into theological liberalism. We are not nearly as orthodox as we claim."

Secular moderates, liberals and progressives don't need to fear authentic Bible-believing Christians.

They need to hook up with Christians like the old women in the church of my youth who used to say: "If the Kingdom of God is within us, as the Lord says, then we ought to leave a little heaven behind everywhere we go."

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.