Charity: no substitute for justice

By Bernadette Meaden
November 7, 2014

Imagine if all the foodbanks in the UK closed tomorrow. The result would be pretty dreadful. Shoplifting for food, already on the rise, would no doubt increase further. Hospital admissions due to malnutrition and related illnesses would surely increase even more, as would begging. Some people, like diabetic David Clapson, would simply die quietly at home, in a house with no food.

These are the consequences of welfare reform and an increasingly draconian benefits system, where people who are too ill or disabled to work can have their income stopped for missing an appointment at the Jobcentre. People really are dying and suffering immensely, but their stories, for some reason, rarely make national headlines. They can be found every week in local newspapers around the UK.

So we have to be grateful for the foodbanks, which are the last line of defence against hunger, and grateful for the people who generously give up their time, or donate food and money, to ensure that in the UK in the 21st century, people don’t starve in larger numbers.

Foodbanks are just the most high-profile aspect of a vast range of social action projects in which churches are involved, and on November 12th at Lambeth Palace, the Christian Funders Forum, will be holding an awards ceremony to recognise the best projects which are making a difference to people’s lives. There will be inspiring examples of Christianity in action, and every award will be richly deserved.

One has to wonder though: by picking up the pieces of welfare reform, are Christians in danger of letting the government off the hook, and preventing the public from understanding just how bad things have got? Are they papering over the cracks of a drastically weakened system which now leaves the poorest section of the population with a frightening sense of social insecurity, aware that if they make a mistake on a form they could tip their children into hunger and even homelessness?

To ensure that they are not, by their kindness enabling a scandal to continue, the Christian community needs to make sure that alongside projects which deal with the consequences of political decisions, it bears witness to what is happening, and speaks truth to power. For no matter how compassionate, or how hard they work, Christians cannot reach everybody in need, and cannot take the place of the welfare state and adequate public services.

The restrictions of the Lobbying Bill, and fears surrounding this, may make many charities reluctant to speak out (which is why it was referred to by many as the Gagging Law). This makes it all the more important for church figures to challenge politicians when they see measures being taken that harm the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

This will not be popular with the powerful: as Dom Helder Camara said, "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they have no food they call me a Communist."

But in the words of Saint Augustine, "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld."

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.