The Bad News About Good Works

“The fact is, we cannot serve people out of poverty, no matter how much we may want to. That is a core concept of both my mission and this book. And the reason I am so passionate about broadcasting this bad news about the status quo is that I care deeply about charity’s goals and results: I want to move people out of poverty. That is my life’s work. – Robert Lupton in Charity Detox Chapter One

Is it okay to have charity just to have charity?

This question “Is it okay to have charity just to have charity?” was posed at our group discussion of the first chapter of Lupton’s bookI like the question because it opens up further lines of inquiry for followers of Christ: What is charity? How does charity relate to God’s mission for the church? And, ultimately, what is ours to do?

In the United Methodist Church, we are more likely to talk about mission than about charity. Even then, our language and the thinking behind it in the pews and pulpit runs fast and loose at times. Mission (or missions) is so much larger than donating socks to those experiencing homelessness or sending malaria nets to save African lives.  Our purpose, our mission, is to continue the work begun in Jesus Christ. mission triangle 2When we get this right, when we put mission into the cosmic terms of what God was and is doing in the world through Jesus, then we can begin to build a framework for answering the question, “Is okay to have charity just to have charity?”

The Mission Triangle

United Methodists understand our faith through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Drawing on this matrix, I have found it useful over time to think about the church living out God’s mission for us through the three corners, the three dimensions, of this mission triangle. mission triangle

In the mission triangle, mercy and charity are interchangeable terms.

Mercy is helping individuals in need. We give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, and tutor the at-risk child. We might think about Matthew 25 as we think about mercy.

Justice is ensuring the human rights and dignity of all, especially the  most vulnerable. Justice tackles the systemic and societal reasons why an individual is in need in the first place. Justice means working to solve problems at their root cause, fighting against injustices like hunger, homelessness, and unemployment that impact large numbers of people. In the Bible, justice often involves holding the king and other officials accountable for the fair treatment of all people, especially the poor: the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, the least of these.

Relationships are built as we interact as equals with all people.  Relationships are defined by our understanding of our common humanity and common needs rather than our differences, particularly differences of power and privilege.

What kind of charity?

So, “Is it okay to have charity just to have charity?” There is nothing wrong with charity in and of itself. Charity, or mercy, is an integral part of God’s mission for the church as we share the love of God in Jesus. But it is always only a part, and it is not the same thing as justice, even though mercy and justice are often conflated and confused. God’s mission always involves mercy and justice.

Perhaps most important in this discussion, however, is the dimension of relationships. Charity that dishonors, shames, or disempowers is not worthy of the name of Jesus. Charity that listens, respects, and responds to the needs of others is a remarkable testament to God’s grace and love. The only way we will know if we have hit that high mark is through genuine relationships with those we seek to love.

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