Understanding Charity and Social Justice, and Practical Ways to do Both


As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This quote speaks to the action of social justice. Most of us have heard this saying and even quoted it a time or two, but how does one take part in the work of “teaching a man to fish”?

To answer this question, we must first define charity and social justice. The grid below, courtesy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minneapolis, delineates the difference between the two.


Charity = social service. Charity provides direct services like food, clothing, and shelter. Justice = social change. Justice promotes social change in institutions or political structures.
Charity responds to immediate needs. Justice responds to long-term needs.
Charity is directed at the effects of injustice, its symptoms. Charity addresses problems that already exist. Otherwise put: LOVE MOPS UP. Justice is directed at the root causes of social problems. Justice addresses the underlying structures or causes of these problems. Otherwise put: JUSTICE TRIES TO MAKE SURE THE MESS ISN’T MADE TO BEGIN WITH.
Charity is private, individual acts. Justice is public, collective actions.
Examples of charity: homeless shelters, food shelves, clothing drives, emergency services. Examples of justice: legislative advocacy, changing policies and practices, political action.


It’s important to note that charity is needed, and probably always will be, but we will fail in our efforts if we focus on charity alone. When we work from a holistic approach we help individuals who are in crisis by providing charity, but we also need to help change the systems that have contributed to the crisis (poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, etc.).


One tangible way to work toward social justice is to take the “Oath for Helpers” (R. Lupton, Toxic Charity, 2011). The effectiveness of our efforts to empower the poor could be significantly enhanced if, prior to launch, would-be helpers would take the following pledge:


1. I will never do for others what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

2. I will limit my one-way giving to emergency situations and seek always to find ways and means for legitimate exchange.

3. I will seek ways empower the poor through hiring, lending and investing, and use grants sparingly as incentives that reinforce achievements.

4. I will put the interests of the poor above my own (or organizational) self-interest even when it may be costly.

5. I will take time to listen and carefully assess both expressed and unspoken needs so that my actions will ultimately strengthen rather than weaken the hand of those I would serve.

6. Above all, to the best of my ability, I will do no harm. 

While giving may seem like the kind and Christian thing to do, it often ends up undermining the very relationship a helper is attempting to build. Next time you are looking for ways to help, remember to take a holistic approach.