Response: September 2014 Issue

Responsively Yours: Love = Charity and Justice

Responsively Yours: Love = Charity and Justice

Experts tell us over and over again that we humans are not really able to multitask, that we delude ourselves when we think that we can stay focused on the meeting or conversation and respond to a text or an email at the same time. Sometimes I feel as if our organization experiences the same sort of effect when we try to address human needs around us and address the systems that have produced those needs.

But Jesus and the prophets don't seem to be in an either/or mode. In fact, Micah explicitly says to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). We must act to feed hungry people, support people who are homeless and provide networks of care around people who need our support. We must also ask, "Why are these people hungry? Why are these people homeless? Why are these people coming here?" And we must not accept easy answers.

While each of us has responsibility for our actions, none of us operates in a vacuum. We exist in family systems, which exist in housing systems, which relate to education, transportation and all sorts of other systems. Policy choices like the "War on Drugs," mandatory minimum sentencing and the 1996 amendments to our immigration laws have sent U.S. prison populations soaring. Free trade agreements, the concentration of farm subsidies among the largest farms, and the impacts of technology and globalization have radically changed employment opportunities in the United States and elsewhere.

What is our responsibility as a society toward people who are left behind by changes in laws or technology? When we have great disruptions, we call them "revolutions": the Industrial Revolution, the anti-colonial revolutions and now the Digital Revolution. What have we learned from these revolutions? One thing we know: the most vulnerable are the most desperately hurt during any disruption or crisis. Further, when the vulnerable are largely "other" people- other in race, other in class, other in region- we may not even see the connection between their pain and our own actions. If a seemingly evenhanded policy has disproportionate impact on a group or region, it might appear that the results are the "fault" of that group or region. What we miss is that this group was already vulnerable and has borne the brunt of the disruption- and that we are the ones who find it hard to identify with them and understand the role of power and systems in their harm.

United Methodist Women's connection to direct service is very important. For one thing, people are in desperate need of support. But secondarily, being with people whose situations have collapsed has the potential to open our eyes and to break open our categories so that "they" are not "other" and "we" are not blind to our role in the system. Engaging in what we call "charity" shouldn't make us feel as if we have discharged our responsibility in some way, even though we do have a duty toward persons in need. Engaging in this work should help us identify with people who it would be easy to view as "other" and to ask the hard questions of "why?"

Love is the root of both "charity" and work for justice, and our efforts must include both. Organizations, unlike human beings, can engage in more than one thing at a time. United Methodist Women has always been involved in direct service and in advocacy for justice; it is part of our strength. So let us persist in doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.

Harriett Jane Olson
General Secretary
United Methodist Women

Posted or updated: 8/31/2014 11:00:00 PM