Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thomas Merton on charity and justice

Too often Christian charity is understood in an entirely superficial way, as though it were no more than gentleness, kindness, and affability. It certainly includes all these things, but it goes far beyond them. When charity is regarded as merely "being nice to" other people, this is generally because our outlook is narrow and takes in only our immediate neighbors, who share the same advantages and comforts as we. This conception tacitly excludes those who most need our love--those who are unfortunate, who suffer, who are poor, destitute, or who have nothing in this world and who therefore have a claim upon everyone else who has more than he himself strictly needs.

There is no charity without justice. Too often we think of charity as a kind of moral luxury, as something which we choose to practice, and which gives us merit in God's sight, and at the same time satisfying a certain interior need to "do good." Such charity is immature and even in some cases completely unreal. True charity is love, and love implies deep concern for the needs of another. It is not a matter of moral self-indulgence, but of strict obligation. I am obliged by the law of Christ and of the Spirit to be concerned with my brother's need, above all with his greatest need, the need for love. How many terrible problems in relations between classes, nations, and races in the modern world arise from the sad deficiency of love! Worst of all, this deficiency has manifested itself very clearly among those who claim to be Christians! Indeed Christianity has repeatedly been called upon to justify injustice and hate!

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. . . Christian charity is meaningless without concrete and exterior acts of love. The Christian is not worthy of his name unless he gives from his possessions, his time, or at least his concern in order to help those less fortunate than himself. The sacrifice must be real, not just a gesture of lordly paternalism which inflates his own ego while patronizing "the poor." The sharing of material goods must also be a sharing of the heart, a recognition of common misery and poverty and of brotherhood in Christ. Such charity is impossible without an interior poverty of spirit which identifies us with the unfortunate, the underprivileged, the dispossessed. In some cases this can and should go to the extent of leaving all that we have in order to share the lot of the unfortunate.

Moreover, a shortsighted and perverse notion of charity leads Christians simply to perform token acts of mercy, merely symbolic acts expressing good will. This kind of charity has no real effect in helping the poor: all it does is tacitly to condone social injustice and to help to keep conditions as they are--to help to keep people poor. In our day, the problem of poverty and suffering has become everybody's concern. It is no longer possible to close our eyes to the misery that exists everywhere in the world, even in the richest nations. A Christian has to face the fact that this unutterable disgrace is by no means "the will of God," but the effect of incompetence, injustice, and the economic and social confusion of our rapidly developing world. It is not enough for us to ignore such things on the ground that we are helpless, and can do nothing constructive about the situation. It is a duty of charity and of justice for every Christian to take an active concern in trying to improve man's condition in the world. At the very least, this obligation consists in becoming aware of the situation and of forming one's own conscience in regard to the problems it offers. One is not expected to solve all the problems of the world; but one should know when one can do something to help alleviate suffering and poverty, and realize when one is implicitly cooperating in evils which prolong or intensify suffering and poverty. In other words, Christian charity is no longer real unless it is accompanied by a concern with social justice.

(Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness [Image Books, 1964], 88-90)


Sammie said...

:-) I just found the best website which has global statistics on poverty, health, wealth, population, etc. and their correlations. I'm diving into that stuff as my statistics for my Algebra 1 classes, and making them discuss causes and effects as we plot points. Awareness is the first step toward action.

chip said...

Awesome! One of our math teachers here at OC had her students do something like that last year -- great stuff! Please send the website link when you get a chance.

chip said...

Lindsey Prugh -- that's the math teacher. Couldn't think of her name right away.

Brian said...

We made two trips to Ethiopia during the adoption process. After returning, a Christian friend of mine told me that he'd like to take his kids to Africa some time so they would have a better understanding of how blessed they are. I had a bit of an epiphany at that moment: we basically use the poor as a teaching tool. Work hard in school or.... In this instance, the poor are to help us be appreciative towards God. I like what Merton write about charity as moral luxury. Though I was offended by my friend's statement, there is little difference between he and I in this regard (I just have enough sense to be ashamed of it).