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Benevolence is not Justice

I often learn from reader feedback. Friend Pat shared with me the four-word title of today’s blog. It’s a very good mantra for those of us interested in ending poverty. *** Benevolence is not justice *** Giving is not a substitute for dismantling systems that block people from having reasonable lives. The phrase reminds us that much of what we do is a band-aid in the lives of the poor. We feed the poor, but they become hungry again and must be fed over and over. Nothing about feeding the poor, in itself, brings justice. Some other activity must be undertaken to finally end hunger. The reason experts suggest that it takes a dozen or more years to exit poverty (with everything going right) is that there is so much structural oppression. Those structures only yield to the political activity of millions.


We should continue to give, but sometimes our giving doesn’t go as planned. A Holland local tells of being in charge of major aid initiatives around the world. She learned that ships filled with grain would turn around, still full of grain, because the designated port was too shallow. Elsewhere, grain could sit on the docks and spoil for lack of trucking. She saw rusting tractors in fields because of inadequate distribution of fuel. Another memorable scenario was the man who called her from the Equator, begging her not to send any more black, wool trousers. Even making shorts from them proved unsatisfactory.


Benevolence is not justice. We have to be politically active in order for the marginalized to receive the justice they deserve. Confusion may arise when faith meets politics. The founding fathers knew that they wanted to be free of government influence on faith, so they provided for the separation of church and state. But the reverse is not necessarily true. Faith can inform governmental policy, especially if it is focused on the common good. Jesus scholars write convincingly about Jesus being political. He created a compelling alternative to Rome, The Kingdom of God, that still influences us today. And he taught his followers non-violent resistance. Go the extra mile…. Turn the other cheek….



If we don’t use our faith politically for the common good, suspect values from oppressive ideologies, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, marketplace myths of the rich and other forms of evil will fill the void. Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, “the nun on the bus,” writes that the civil rights movement has created fear in white men of privilege, as if there is a limited amount of civil rights and those rights are being transferred away from them. Her suggestion to calm the fears of whites is to emphasize “civil obligations” that ask us to become active for the common good. Civil obligations require us to be active participants in the political process. We must hold ourselves accountable and our representatives. We must take responsibility for our nation and, especially, for the most vulnerable.


If everyone had civil rights, it follows that everyone would also have civil obligations. One such obligation is dialog, entering into discussion with people who have opinions different than ours. Talking to each other seems nearly impossible these days, but it isn’t. I discovered the key while talking with Quakers.


I visited a rare place called Pendle Hill just outside of Philadelphia and interviewed some of its residents. These Quakers had held their community together for over 75 years, unlike some experiments in living together that blew apart. I drove from Michigan to Pendle Hill to discover what the glue was. What was the secret sauce?


These Quakers valued someone else giving them a “kick in the pants” or having their “socks knocked off.” They valued truth. They respected each, requiring them to listen to each other. They were open to change. Which one of us is not longing right now to be part of a national conversation about the future of our country?


We the People are called to form a more perfect union. “We the People” means everyone. A “perfect union” would mean everyone as well. If all of us practiced our civil obligations, the downward direction of our nation would reverse. Our country would become more just and its people less in need of benevolence.


I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

Frederick Douglass

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© 2019  Jack H. Bender