My friend, Jessie Schut, combines her love – and gifts – of quilting and writing in a weekly blog she calls, “Crow Day One”. In a recent post, she expanded on a well-known phrase: “Charity begins at home; … justice begins next door.” Thanks, Jessie, for drawing my attention to the full quotation.
Many of us have heard the first half but few of us remember that the phrase has this very important second half. Actually the first and more familiar half has several sources but the full phrase in this particular form comes from the nineteenth century British writer, Charles Dickens, whose passionate social consciousness informed all his novels.
Remembering the second half jars us out of our common mis-use of the first half. For so many, “charity begins at home” is used precisely to avoid the challenges of justice-making. “Why should we be concerned about others? Don’t we have enough concerns of our own to occupy us and spend our hard-earned money on?” Put in its fuller context, the phrase perhaps means something like this; “It is the lessons of compassion, generosity, and selflessness that we learn in our own intimate relationships that instil in us a passionate desire that no one near or far lacks what we cherish and take for granted.”
The full quotation reminds us that, when it comes to social action and social change, there is a progression – a progression I call “the good, the better, and the best.” Charity … justice-making … personal transformation.
Charity is good, so far as it goes. It is pretty hard to look away when someone right in front of us is in need or when the plight of a particular group of people tugs at our heart and conscience. When we help someone in desperate straits, that person’s immediate situation is improved, at least for a moment, and that is good. But that is also the deficiency with charity: the improvement is just for the moment. The circumstances that led that person or that group of people to need charity have not changed. After that handout or that bag of groceries is used up, the person is right back where she or he started from. After that tax-deductible cheque is spent, the fund-raising committee has to get back on the phone to solicit the next one. As important as acts of charity are in the moment, charitable activity is a bottomless pit that money and good intentions can never fill. Charity is a temporary fix that does not change the societal arrangement that leads some to have enough left over to give a bit to those who have little. And it keeps the objects of our charitable gestures comfortably (for us) in their place.
That is why justice is better. Seeking justice is to work away at changing the structures in society that lead to inequity. It seeks to empower, rather than to perpetuate dependency. The option of justice-making is caught up in this more inclusive version of a proverb variously attributed to the ancient Chinese, the twelfth century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, and the nineteenth century British writer, Anne Isabella Ritchie: “Give a family a fish and they will eat for a day; teach them to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime.” We might even extend the image, in the twenty-first century, to include cleaning up the river polluted by the industry whose practices are condoned by the government. But, even though justice-making is better than charity alone, it is still insufficient. The task of reordering society is so onerous that it often leads to burnout and disillusionment. When the motivation to get involved in social change derives from anger or self-righteousness, as it too often does, then the negative energy we feed into the system perpetuates the problems. And, if we are honest, we may have a personal investment in not changing society too much because we might end up losing our own favoured position or at least some of its perks.
That is why personal transformation is best. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” is a piece of wise advice attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. As we attend to our own inner healing on the path towards wholeness, our integrity bears witness to our dream for a peaceful and just world. Our motivations are gradually purified so that they reflect our goals. Our energies are, at once, gentled and strengthened so that they work with not against our intentions. Our consciousness is raised and our values are clarified so that our work for justice is less likely to be self-sabotaged. We become part of a growing advance party that models within the larger society another way of being in community that benefits each and every neighbour, not just a preferred sector. We move beyond both dependency and empowerment to a new relationship where “us’s and them’s” give way in a community of mutual servant-leaders.
There is a time and a place for all three – charity, justice, and personal transformation. Depending upon our personalities, circumstances, and experiences, each one of us will probably tend to specialize in one or another of the three. But, hopefully, across the whole movement all three will be represented, while each one of us will be intentional about developing within ourselves those parts of the continuum that we tend to neglect.
In the end, maybe both charity and justice do begin at home – with ourselves, as we open to becoming increasingly charitable, just, and transformed persons.
Ted Hicks is a spiritual director, workshop & retreat leader, hospital chaplain, and minister who seeks the connection between personal spiritual formation and social transformation.