The Difference between Charity and Social Justice

The great difference, I’m learning, between charity and social justice is that one is done personally while the other is done on a large scale to effect changes in whole systems of life. As Ronald Rolheiser defines it in The Holy Longing:

“Charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, while justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none; charity is about treating your neighbors with respect, while justice is about trying to get at the deeper roots of racism; and charity is about helping specific victims of war, while justice is about trying to change the things in the world that ultimately lead to war. Charity is appeased when some rich person gives money to the poor while justice asks why one person can be that rich when so many are poor.”

Richard Foster expresses a similar view. In a chapter on the social justice tradition of the Christian faith in Streams of Living Water, Foster shares the story of John Woolman, a Quaker living in the 1700s who took a personal stand against slavery in several significant ways. He told his employer that he believed slavery to be in direct opposition to the Christian faith. He refused to use the products of slave labor in his personal life. He insisted upon paying slaves for their work when he stayed in other people’s homes. And he converted a friend from continuing the practice of slavery through the transmission of his last will and testament. Woolman’s example even led other friends to willingly give up their slaves.

But as Foster puts it, “These incidents, however, were at best successful personal encounters. While important, they were not sufficient in themselves, and John knew it.” So Woolman then worked to end slaveholding among all those living within the Quaker denomination by speaking and writing pamphlets and traveling far and wide to accomplish it — and, amazingly, he was successful in this endeavor.

Over 100 years before the Civil War took place, John Woolman brought about the nationwide eradication of slaveholding within the entire Quaker denomination. This is the difference between a compassion that effects acts of personal charity and a commitment to social justice that effects change at the institutional, systemic level.