Charity and Justice

While in Washington DC, USA, in February 2006 for the National Prayer Breakfast, I met two men (one from Europe, the other from Africa) who got me thinking about charity and justice. The breakfast is an annual two-day meeting first held during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. The purpose of the National Prayer Breakfast is more than a national call for prayer. It is a call for humility, peace and justice in the world. The men and women who spoke and prayed were eloquent, and as far as I could discern, sincere.

However, two specific men got me thinking deeply and praying passionately. The first was an Irishman named Bono. He is best known as lead singer and lyricist for the rock band U2. He has also become a global spokesperson and lobbyist for the poor and AIDS stricken in Africa. His keynote address impacted the four thousand attendees at the breakfast deeply. He challenged our idea of charity by stating it was inadequate for healing the world. Charity, he argued, is too easy. It is, in his own words, “give and go.” It meets the immediate need but avoids the deeper issues that cause the need. According to Bono,

“Justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment. 6,500 Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.”

He later added, “Where you live should no longer determine whether you live.”

Bono was right. Most readers of Lausanne World Pulse would agree. While we must provide immediate charity or relief for those in acute need, we must never be content to stop there. We must rally our considerable forces in the global Church to resource, argue for and instigate justice in the institutions of every place we journey. Justice is more than charity. It is a clear mandate of Jesus. I spent much of the day pondering and praying over Bono’s call to justice over charity. I wanted to find ways to unleash my ministry organization to pursue justice, to make it happen all over the world.

Later that night another speaker pushed me even further. This speaker was a lawyer and pastor in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations. He challenged our ability to bring justice to any place or any land. He argued that “unjust people” cannot bring justice. He used his own testimony of previously hating all white people to prove his point. He had started a movement to remove Jesus and Jesus’ followers from his country. Instead of seeing the blessings of Christianity, he had seen its abuses, and it hardened his hatred for all people in power. For him, the abuse of power appeared as white versus black, foreigner versus indigenous, indigenous wealthy versus indigenous poor. His country was poor because people in power made it poor for their own gain. 

The irony is that his rage only led him to perpetrate what he despised. As he found success in his own life, he used it to abuse others in order to gain power. It was then that he met a humble white man, a missionary, who spoke of another man named Jesus. Through time and friendship the soft-spoken missionary helped his Malawi friend release his rage and hatred to a living Jesus. He described Jesus as antithetical to a man of power. He spoke of him as a servant and a man of deep charity (love). In Jesus he found the model of “servant power” that changes society through love (charity). 

This powerful and angry Malawi man was faced with his own depravity and saw in Jesus his need to be made “just” on the inside. This need was more than institutional; it was personal. He was made new in the newness of the risen Christ. And once he received Christ’s presence and inner justice, he became free to bring charity (love) to Malawi and Africa. This man needed a personal conversion before he could convert his land. 

Bono calls us to justice over charity (relief). This pastor from Malawi calls us to charity (the love of Christ) before we can make life just. It is not one way or the other; it is always both.

I find myself wishing I could have brought the two leaders together. They needed to hear each other. I fear that Bono believes that if we provide enough resources to Africa, it will get to the people who need it. History and human nature say differently. Unless we are first made just in Christ, we will not make just societies.

As an evangelist leading an organization that “stimulates global evangelism,” I want to make sure my team and those we train understand that “saving souls” is not enough. We are to encourage justice and support those in the kingdom who are pursuing justice while also reminding them that hearts must be changed. We have all heard that it is possible to be so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good. Souls and societies for now and for ever should be our kingdom cry.

Dr. Lon Allison is executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He also serves as director for the Institute for Strategic Evangelism at Wheaton College. He is co-publisher of Lausanne World Pulse.