Linking Generosity and Justice in the Church
Early spring to summer is a transition time in the church—Holy Week is over, programs are lighter, congregants are preparing for vacations and enjoying warmer weather. But it is also a time when significant activity is happening below the surface, the spring planting of new ministry opportunities and new directions to be “harvested” in the fall.
The Bible has a lot to say about planting, fields, gardens and how God’s people are to tend them. This focus is not surprising as the Hebrew books were written within an agrarian context, ordered by the seasons of sowing and harvesting. What might be surprising, though, is the emphasis on caring for and protecting the poor and vulnerable within God’s direction for farming practices. God clarifies to the people that they are to steward the land that ultimately belongs to him (Leviticus 25:23), directs them to allow the poor and foreigners among them to access the land at certain times (Exodus 23:11) and instructs them to leave a portion of their harvests to be gleaned by those in need (Deuteronomy 24:19). These understandings and practices point to a much larger idea—that God sees generosity and justice as intricately linked.
Justice is understood as many things in our society—treating people fairly, seeking retribution for crime, ensuring equal opportunity. But what does it mean for individual Christians and the Church as a collective to “do justice,” as God exhorts through Micah (Micah 6:8)? And how, for us as Christians living in the world today, does justice connect to generosity?
Paul Metzger gives us a place to start in this article, noting that “Biblical justice involves making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality.” From a variety of scriptural references, this wholeness encompasses all parts of a person, including physical needs. Most importantly, we are called to join God in bringing wholeness to those who are the most vulnerable, the most powerless in our world.
At the Boston Faith & Justice Network, we contend that generosity is at the center of doing justice, or, in other words, working toward the wholeness that God intends by caring for and defending the poor and powerless. God calls us as individuals and churches to three different kinds of radical generosity with the goal of pursuing justice:
Giving out of our provision. “John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:10). God asks us to use our various resources—resources that already belong to God—to provide for the basic needs of those around us and across the globe. Moving along the path of this type of generosity involves asking the question, both within ourselves and within our communities, of “what is enough?” What do we need to live joyfully in the world and respond to God’s purpose for our lives, and what could we live without so that someone else could have basic medical care, access to education, or nourishing food?
Giving up some of our privilege. “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns” (Deuteronomy 24:14) We all have various levels of privilege related to where we live, our backgrounds and educations, our race or ethnicity, our incomes, and other factors. Some certainly have more and others have less. And with any kind of privilege comes the potential to exploit others. God requires of us that we do not take advantage of people even when we have privilege that allows us to do so. At BFJN, we often talk about this idea in relation to the things we buy. In the U.S., we have the privilege to consume many products made by people all over the world, sometimes under terrible conditions. To give you just one example, children as young as seven are sold into slavery to work on cocoa plantations in West Africa, plantations that supply large chocolate companies such as Nestle and Hershey. Part of living generously to do justice is intentionally checking our own buying habits to stop knowingly contributing to exploitation.
Giving our power. “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). We also all have varying degrees of power connected to our places in society, and areas where we have some influence over others. God asks us to make use of whatever power we have to defend the cause of the poor, of those who are not heard. As Christians, we must not only provide for the needs of those who are suffering, but also “loose the chains of injustice and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Breaking chains means first raising our voices to ask real questions about the systemic causes of hunger and poverty, and then to advocate on behalf of those caught in the dynamics of unjust systems. Using our power requires intentional, disciplined generosity—it can be difficult, unrewarding, and even dangerous.