When Charity is just a Band-Aid
Imagine you are a kind-hearted slave owner back in the days when white people could buy black people in a slave market. You’re a good guy, or a kind woman. And you want to do right by your slaves.
You feel bad about their poor living conditions. So, being an ethical person, a good Christian, you begin to offer some relief.
You pay for new roofing materials to fix up the leaking roof of their shelter.
You arrange for them to see a doctor free of charge when they fall sick.
And you even make sure their children have adequate clothing, shoes and access to books.
When one of your slaves turns out to have a surprising musical gift, you buy him a violin.
You’re a kind-hearted slave owner, and you have just engaged in the age-old practice of charity without justice.
The film 12 Years a Slave, recounts the true story of Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the man who purchased Northup for $1000 at a New Orleans slave market.
“There never was a more kind, noble, candid Christian man than William Ford,” says Solomon Northup, in his memoir on being enslaved. Ford’s own great-grandchildren venerate him as one of the most principled and generous of slave-owners during a brutal period of time.
Yet, for all his kindness and generosity to his slaves, Ford never challenged the racist system that allowed him to purchase another human being. He never even questioned his own participation in that dirty rotten system of white supremacy.
Charity is a good place to start. It's where most of us begin our engagement. But it's not enough.
In a striking Biblical contrast, Moses didn’t bother asking Pharaoh for more food and medicines for the enslaved Hebrews, but rather insisted on their complete freedom, saying, “Let my people go!” Then he led his people out of their enslavement and into the Promised Land.
“Band-Aid Charity” never questions an unjust system, but settles for treating the symptoms of injustice instead. Slap a Band-Aid on the cancer of injustice. Offer just enough treatment to cover up the festering wound, and allow the stricken to hobble along for another day.
If charity offers crumbs from the table, justice offers - not a place at the table – but to take a hammer to the table, and in the meantime build a whole new kind of table in its place.
This is a little of our story…
When I first moved to Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, I spent time sleeping on the streets with my homeless friends.
I knew I needed to understand the “bad news” of their particular context before I could figure out what Jesus meant when he claimed to offer “Good News to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
And I saw a whole lot of Band-Aid Charity.
Homeless shelters sufficed where affordable housing was needed. Emergency clinics patched up the sick. Food banks and soup kitchens filled the gap where livable wages could have bought nutritious food and ensured healthy bodies.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
As a family, we began to ask ourselves what it might look like to undergo such a restructuring of our own lives - to live lives of justice that would go deeper than mere Band-Aid Charity. We found the answers in the surprisingly subversive teachings and lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth.
We discovered that Jesus advocates a just society whenever he declares that His Kingdom must come on earth as it is in heaven. He says that a just society – his upside-down Kingdom - will include the poor, and will never exclude or exploit them (Matthew 25:35-40).
To subvert the status quo, Jesus suggests the simple act of inviting the poor over for a meal and welcoming them at our celebrations (Luke 14:13). What looks like charity on the surface, is actually a subversive act of justice that can’t be outsourced to the Salvation Army. Radical hospitality on a household level reflects the kind of radical hospitality we need to see throughout our society.
So, along with our friends we began to open our home for dinner several times a week for our homeless friends and others struggling with addictions or just plain loneliness. Our motto? Cook too much food, invite too many people. Everyone was invited to cook, contribute food, and help clean up, because mutuality undermines one-way philanthropy.
As we began this personal journey towards justice, outlined in my book Subversive Jesus, it rippled out beyond our home. We cut off rusty padlocks and took over empty lots in our inner city neighborhood for growing nutritious food. We challenged local churches to welcome the poor into their buildings, not just on a Sunday morning, but overnight in the winter. We fought for refugees and asylum seekers to be welcomed inside our borders – radical hospitality on a national level.
Frankly, radical hospitality is just one front in the fight for justice. There are many more.
But of one thing I am certain, Jesus calls us to a radical and subversively different way of living. He wants to transform everything, not just tweak things around the edges. We can never be satisfied with mere Band-Aid Charity again. Sure, it’s a fine place to start, but the wrong place to finish up.
We will never settle for being kind-hearted slave owners. For we have tasted his upside-down Kingdom.