These past few weeks I have been writing about John Haught’s book What Is Religion? in which he examines five major religious traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and from them comes up with four “ways” of being religious: sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and action. While certain religious traditions emphasize one of the four ways over the others (e.g. Buddhism emphasizes the way of silence), Haught argues that a balance of the four elements is important for authentic religious practice. In this final post on the topic, I consider the fourth way of being religious: the way of action.
While the major religions of the world may look very different in practice, one thing that they all agree on is the importance of love and compassion toward our fellow human beings. In other words, religious persons are called to act with love and compassion. Within a Catholic Christian framework, there are two components that make up loving and compassionate action: charity and justice.
Charity, what is sometimes called outreach, responds to an immediate need, often a need for food, shelter, or clothing. When people donate food to a food shelf or serve a meal at a soup kitchen, they engage in an act of charity, providing a direct service to someone in need. Acts of charity are one way to live in response to God’s call to care for the oppressed, the poor, and the vulnerable. Often doing charity brings a sense of satisfaction to the one doing the action; it feels good to help people.
While charity addresses immediate needs, justice addresses long-term conditions. Justice demands that we ask questions, such as “Why is it that there are so many people who do not have homes and healthy, sustaining meals to eat?” and “What institutions, systems, and policies contribute to this problem of homelessness and hunger?” and “What changes can we make to our institutions, systems, and policies to help eradicate the problem of homelessness and hunger?” Working for justice is often public, political work, as it is oriented to collective action for change. At times it can be controversial work, since people may disagree on what to do in the face of challenging problems like hunger and homelessness. People doing the work of justice may coordinate a letter writing campaign to law makers, help to educate people in their neighborhood about important issues, or organize a community self-help project to meet a need they see around them.
As I think about the place of religious action in my life this Lent, I realize that I do a lot more charity than justice work. Part of it is because it is easier to do charity. It is not hard to go through my closet and give away a few coats that I no longer wear or to donate the money I would spend on one latte a week to the food shelf. But admittedly, another part of it is that charity does not demand the same sort of investment in or relationship with those I am helping. Haught writes that the biblical sense of justice carries a much deeper meaning than our common understanding of justice as fairness. In the biblical witness, justice is about “fidelity to the demands of a relationship” (page 135). Justice involves recognizing the relationship and responsibility we have to all humanity. Justice calls us not to stand idly by as our sisters and brothers face dehumanizing conditions. Justice also means getting to know those that we categorize as the oppressed, poor, and vulnerable, not so that we can save them but so that we come to know God by seeing God in them.
Even as I write this about justice, I can feel myself shrinking back away from it. This is a lot. Maybe a good place to start is with this prayer, that uses the words from the prophet Micah: “Lord, this Lenten season, please show me what is good. Please help me to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you, my God.”
What acts of charity have you been involved in? How does participating in charity make you feel?
What acts of justice have you been involved in? How does participating in justice make you feel?
As you look at your school, your church, your neighborhood, and your community, what programs are you aware of that do the work of charity and justice? What needs do you see that are not being addressed, particularly the needs of the oppressed, the poor, and the vulnerable? Is there anything that you, along with your friends, family, neighbors, and church members could do to help address these needs?