Book: Explorations in Women, Rights, and Religions
Chapter: Charity and Justice: A Conversation with Evangelical Christian Women Serving Marginalized Populations in British Columbia
Charity and justice are central concepts in most religious and ethical traditions. However, the precise meaning of each concept, and the nature of their interrelationship, has varied between cultures and through time. Contemporary liberal societies tend to associate “justice” with duty, with our collective moral obligation to ensure that all members of a society have a fair share of social goods (Kymlicka 2004). The discourse of “rights” has been prominent in this conception of justice. “Charity,” on the other hand, is associated with voluntariness, with individual choices to act generously that materially improve the situation of a stranger in need. Charity and justice are thus portrayed as dichotomous concepts within a liberal paradigm, with justice being ascribed significantly more normative weight (Kymlicka 2004).
The normative universes of many religious traditions paint a more complex picture of the relationship between justice and charity. Islamic law, for example, counts zakat (obligatory alms-giving) among the five pillars of Islam, and instructs the Muslim in great detail about the circumstances in which zakat is payable, the rate at which zakat is payable, and the categories of needy persons who are entitled to receive it (de Zayas 2003). Judaism, for its part, situates the act of giving to the needy within a broader jurisprudence of mitzvot or obligations, and ranks different forms of almsgiving in accordance with a particular vision of economic justice. The narratives of charity and justice vary within as well as between religious traditions: indeed, the meaning and relative importance of charity and justice may be subject to contestation even within a particular faith community. This exploratory study examined how a group of evangelical Christian women are seeking to define and live out these concepts in the various contexts of their work with marginalized populations in British Columbia.
The evangelical tradition in North America has tended to either adopt an individualistic notion of justice that is closer to liberal conceptions of charity, or to relegate justice to a sphere outside the church’s core concerns. Evangelical institutions have supported “charitable” projects that are aimed at alleviating the needs of individuals, but have not traditionally supported “justice” projects aimed at addressing systemic inequalities (Offutt et al. 2016). Previous research has shown that while mainstream evangelical churches are engaged in supporting certain political causes (e.g., opposing abortion and promoting socially conservative candidates), they have been reluctant to engage in social analysis or political activism aimed at fixing structural injustices (Conradson 2008; Delahanty 2016; Offutt et al. 2016; Thacker 2015). Delahanty (2016) argues that this tendency is the result of “a highly individualistic political theology” (p. 43) in which social issues and religious obligations are understood in individualistic terms. The “comfortable church culture” that is associated with this theological position both reinforces and is reinforced by the wider cultural context. Within this culture, “charity and volunteering [are considered to be] appropriate activities for church life… [but] collective analysis of systemic social problems [is] something to do elsewhere, if at all” (Delahanty 2016, p. 43). “Justice” efforts are considered to be, at best, outside of the purview of religion, and, at worst, a direct (possibly Communist) threat to Christianity (Delahanty 2016; Offutt et al. 2016).
The evangelical church is not univocal, however, and there is an important counter-current within the evangelical community that considers advocacy efforts aimed at changing unjust systems and structures to be central to the Christian faith. In North America, this counter-current has been sustained most consistently by the Black evangelical church in the United States, which has long married a concern with social justice issues with more traditional evangelical concerns such as personal conversion, discipleship, and service provision (McNeil 2011; Berk 1989). This counter-current has also made small inroads into mainstream white evangelical churches and non-profit organizations in recent years. For example, Conradson (2008) describes how four mainstream faith-based organizations in New Zealand adopted a more explicit social justice orientation between 1996 and 2006. These four large organizations – Anglican Care, Methodist Mission, Presbyterian Support and the Salvation Army – transitioned from engaging primarily in social support and provision activities to engaging in social analysis and advocacy, in a very intentional way. This transition was, in part, a response to the increased social inequality the leaders of these organizations recognized as resulting from the neoliberal turn in politics during the 1990s in New Zealand.
As Delahanty’s (2016) paper illustrates, there are also activist clergy and community organizers embedded within evangelical churches in the United States. Delahanty describes leaders in the American faith-based community organizing (FBCO) movement who endeavour to establish social justice activism as “an essential part of the mission to which God calls followers” (p. 49). These FBCO leaders have two aims: they aspire to achieve political and social change but also to achieve “a deeper cultural change in what church and religion mean to religious Americans” (p. 53, italics in original). One of the leaders sums up the challenge in this way: “We must no longer be chaplains to an empire. We must be the prophets of resistance” (pp. 53–54).
Evangelicals who privilege justice efforts in their work are very clear that they are motivated by theological frameworks that understand correcting socioeconomic injustices to be a central tenet of the Christian faith. There are several of these justice-privileging frameworks, including liberation theology (e.g., see Thacker 2015), Anabaptist theology (e.g., see Finger 2004), kingdom theology (e.g., see Wright 2012) and the social gospel movement (e.g., see Deichmann 2015; Marsh 2008). Recently, there also have been efforts to develop a uniquely evangelical theology that places activism and advocacy at the centre of Christian life (e.g., see Offutt et al. 2016). For evangelicals who embrace these theologies, issues of social justice are primary, not tangential, issues for the church (Conradson 2008; Delahanty 2016). Nonetheless, leaders with a commitment to social justice and political advocacy still represent a minority or “counter-current” within the evangelical tradition.
In British Columbia, these evangelical counter-currents are identifiable among female evangelicals who work with marginalized populations and are committed to addressing both the individual and systemic dimensions of the challenges faced by those populations. This study sought to explore these counter-currents, engaging with a group of female evangelicals who are actively pursuing “justice-oriented” models of non-profit service provision in spite of the dominant “charity-oriented” paradigm of evangelical charitable organizations. The researchers wanted to document the experiences and perspectives of these individuals – as service providers, as women, and as persons of faith – as they swim against a number of powerful institutional currents.