Who are the poor? What is Justice?

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Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 20, Pentecost 2001

by Bill Quigley

How do we define justice? While I hope our churches will help, we are often busy with religious services and outreach and building committees, and in our busyness we have often lost sight of what justice and faith are all about.

Isaiah, a prophet in the seventh century BC, essentially disrespected our traditional church ideas about what God wants. Isaiah spoke about God and justice to the people in a time when his country was powerful, well armed, and well off. The country was satisfied. It felt it was doing well, and it honoured its vision of God in sacred liturgies and rituals.

Isaiah said that God does not really want church services, God does not want fasting, God does not want holy hoping. ‘This, rather, is what I wish,’ Isaiah proclaimed:

‘releasing those bound unjustly,

untying the thongs of the yoke,

setting free the oppressed,

breaking every yoke,

sharing your bread with the hungry,

sheltering the oppressed and the homeless,

clothing the naked when you see them,

and not turning your back on your own.’ (Isaiah 58)

What does this text say about justice for the poor? What does it mean to ‘release those [poor] bound unjustly?’ What does it mean to ‘set free the oppressed [poor]?’ What does it mean to ‘share your bread with the hungry [poor]?’ What does it mean to ‘break every yoke [of the poor]?’

This is not charity we are talking about. Many of us work in soup kitchens. We give our old clothes to be recycled for the poor. We even give some money to those who shelter and feed the poor. That is charity, and charity is vitally important, but it is not justice.

What is the difference between charity and justice? I think the difference is best illustrated by another story, well known to many of you.

Villagers living at the bottom of a mountain stream see an infant floating down the stream by their town. The villagers rescue the child, warm her up, feed her, and find her clothes and a good home. The next day the villagers see another child in the stream, and they rescue her as well. In the coming days they find many more babies in the river, and they decide they must really get organised to develop a rescue system. They get volunteers to watch the water, collect clothes, cook, and find homes for the children. After some days, however, one woman who has been helping just gets up and walks away. The other volunteers see her and yell at her ‘Where are you going? You can’t leave! There is so much to do!’ The woman, as she keeps walking, turns back and says, ‘I am going up the river to see who is putting these babies in the river and to see if I can stop them.’

Charity for the poor is praised. Not so justice for the poor. Being committed to justice for the poor is tough work. Justice for the poor is controversial.

Going on the quest to see if we can reduce the need for charity is justice for the poor.

Isaiah challenges us to ‘release those bound unjustly, set free the oppressed, share your bread with the hungry, and break every yoke.’ Can we follow Isaiah without getting involved in controversy or politics? Why not more food pantries and soup kitchens? Why don’t we all do a better job of helping out the poor? Why not act more like Mother Theresa?

As one church leader, Dom Helder Camara, commented, ‘I praise the Mother Theresas of the world, those who minister to the poor and oppressed, they do so much for the poor. But a much more difficult and misunderstood vocation is carried out by those who ask, “Why are the Mother Theresas of the world necessary?”’

So, what should be done? We have to get involved in politics and controversy. That is justice for the poor. As many of you know, the same Dom Helder Camara remarked, ‘When I feed the poor, people call me a saint. When I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist.’ As writer Shane Claiborne has said, ‘People are not crucified for performing acts of charity. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.’

If, as Isaiah tells us, we must fight oppression, release the unjustly bound, and share our bread with the hungry, we have to seek justice for the poor. In this work, the spiritual and the political are not opposites, but partners—flip sides of the same coin. Our churches must be willing to provoke us to be involved in controversial issues.

Our history teaches that social change does not come easily and is not without risk. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this new century, let us recommit to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Let us embrace our responsibility to help create a more just world. Let us continue to reflect and organise for action within our congregations and beyond our doors. Let us not concede that economic injustice, poverty, and racism are tolerable.

Condensed from Hospitality, May 2001, vol 20, no 5 (newsletter of the Open Door Community, Atlanta, Georgia).

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