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The Difference Between Charity and Justice

Text: Isaiah 59
Weatherly Heights Baptist Church
August 4, 2012

Introduction of the text.

It may be helpful before I read the text from Isaiah to give a bit of background. Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet which means he had a gift for pulling back the curtain that covers reality in order to expose truth. The larger backdrop has to do with the rise and fall of Near Eastern empires. He was a Judean of some importance who had access to Kings and the Temple–to major political, military, and religious figures seeking a way out of continual threats from the Assyrians. In other words, Isaiah’s prophetic words are about real-time salvation. About being saved from war. From chaos. From domination. From death. And his theme is that justice is the straight path to a kingdom characterized by a peace so radical, so unexperienced that it passes all our understanding.

This is what Isaiah wrote:

1-8 Look! Listen! God’s arm is not amputated—he can still save. God’s ears are not stopped up—he can still hear. There’s nothing wrong with God; the wrong is in you. Your wrongheaded lives caused the split between you and God. Your sins got between you so that he doesn’t hear. Your hands are drenched in blood, your fingers dripping with guilt, Your lips smeared with lies, your tongue swollen from muttering obscenities. No one speaks up for the right, no one deals fairly. They trust in illusion, they tell lies, they get pregnant with mischief and have sin-babies. They hatch snake eggs and weave spider webs. Eat an egg and die; break an egg and get a snake! The spider webs are no good for shirts or shawls. No one can wear these weavings! They weave wickedness, they hatch violence. They compete in the race to do evil and run to be the first to murder. They plan and plot evil, think and breathe evil, and leave a trail of wrecked lives behind them. They know nothing about peace and less than nothing about justice. They make tortuously twisted roads. No peace for the wretch who walks down those roads!

9-11 Which means that we’re a far cry from fair dealing, and we’re not even close to right living. We long for light but sink into darkness, long for brightness but stumble through the night. Like the blind, we inch along a wall, groping eyeless in the dark. We shuffle our way in broad daylight, like the dead, but somehow walking. We’re no better off than bears, groaning, and no worse off than doves, moaning. We look for justice—not a sign of it; for salvation—not so much as a hint.

12-15 Our wrongdoings pile up before you, God, our sins stand up and accuse us. Our wrongdoings stare us down; we know in detail what we’ve done: Mocking and denying God, not following our God, Spreading false rumors, inciting sedition, pregnant with lies, muttering malice. Justice is beaten back, Righteousness is banished to the sidelines, Truth staggers down the street, Honesty is nowhere to be found, Good is missing in action. Anyone renouncing evil is beaten and robbed.

16-19 God looked and saw evil looming on the horizon— so much evil and no sign of Justice. He couldn’t believe what he saw: not a soul around to correct this awful situation. So he did it himself, took on the work of Salvation, fueled by his own Righteousness. He dressed in Righteousness, put it on like a suit of armor, with Salvation on his head like a helmet, Put on Judgment like an overcoat, and threw a cloak of Passion across his shoulders. He’ll make everyone pay for what they’ve done: fury for his foes, just deserts for his enemies. Even the far-off islands will get paid off in full. In the west they’ll fear the name of God, in the east they’ll fear the glory of God, For he’ll arrive like a river in flood stage, whipped to a torrent by the wind of God.

20 “I’ll arrive in Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who leave their sins.” God’s Decree.

21 “As for me,” God says, “this is my covenant with them: My Spirit that I’ve placed upon you and the words that I’ve given you to speak, they’re not going to leave your mouths nor the mouths of your children nor the mouths of your grandchildren. You will keep repeating these words and won’t ever stop.” God’s orders.


On my first trip to the US / Mexico border, I was challenged to come to grips with the distinction between charity and justice.

I was in a town called Agua Prieta which is just across the border wall from Douglas, Arizona. I was visiting a shelter for migrants who were about to cross the border illegally or who had just been deported to Agua Prieta. The shelter was run by Catholics. When I walked in the dining hall, I could smell chickens simmering and freshly cut cilantro and corn tortillas. What a blessing that good food must have been to the man who came in as we were beginning to eat. I remember that he had been in the desert for days and had been bothered by coyotes. I remember asking him whether he meant the human kind or the animal kind and noticing that he had on the cowboy boots of the experienced illegal migrant who anticipates thorns and snakes.

The volunteers offered charity. Much-needed charity that came right on time.

After our meal, we began to talk with the nun who had accompanied us to the Center for Attention to Migrants in Exodus as the shelter was called. And as we talked, other Mexican volunteers began to gather. And I remember asking the nun, whose name was Noemí, what she thought about the North American Free Trade Agreement. Had it had any impact on the lives of the migrants they encountered? And she began to get visibly angry. So passionate she had to compose herself. Then she and the other volunteers began to talk. And what they talked about was tariffs, and subsidies, and aquifers, and patents, and the Mexican Constitution. And I, who had never heard clergy or church volunteers speak about such things, stopped them at one point and said, “I’m confused. Are you economists?” And they laughed and said, “we’re volunteers but our priest insisted that we could not minister to migrants though charity alone. We had to understand what caused them to be here in the first place.” Their priest had charged them to do charity but also to do justice. And I began to ponder this new-to-me kind of church.

A few months ago my friend, Kate, who is married to Stephanie, told me a fairy tale. It seems there was a small community located on a flowing river. And one day someone saw a baby floating down the river. And she jumped up and scooped the baby out of the river and handed the baby off to someone who dried the baby and found clothes for it and baby food. And then another baby floated down the river and another and another. So the community got organized; they formed committees which gathered all the things a baby needs and, later on, they raised money for orphanages. And the babies grew up healthy and as happy as anyone ever has been who grew up in orphanages. And they put pictures of those smiling, happy babies on the cover of the slick magazine they started to raise money to build more happy orphanages.

And this is a story–a trick story–all about the difference between charity and justice. And the trick has to do with whether you caught what did not happen. Because nowhere in this story did anyone ask the justice question: “Who’s putting all these babies in the river and what do we need to do to make them stop?”

And so I’ve been thinking about charity and justice and the difference between the two. And I want to nail this down right here and now: I think charity is a good thing. You wouldn’t want a situation in which dozens of babies are floating down the river, hitting their heads on rocks or drowning, while everyone sits on the bank of the river pondering where they all were coming from. And if I saw a church focused on justice with no interest in charity, I’d spin this sermon differently. But what I see is a church–and I’m not talking about Weatherly Heights Baptist Church per se, I’m talking about the Church generally–which has put most of its eggs in the charity basket and very few in the justice basket.

At the most basic level, charity involves meeting an immediate need. Justice involves changing the system that creates the need. Charity is about the person in distress at the “now” point in time. Justice is about the persons who will come after the one at the “now” point in time.

Our Church and our culture value charity. There is no question about that. But we’re terribly afraid of justice. Because somehow we understand that charity works from within the system, accepting the system as it is, while justice challenges the system.

Here is an example of two heroes of the Christian faith. One is Mother Teresa, one of the Catholic Churches’ Missionaries of Charity, who tended the desperately poor people of Calcutta as well as those with HIV/AIDS. I think its significant for our purpose to know that in 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize and later died of old age.

Another hero of the Christian faith is Óscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador in the 1970s. Like Mother Teresa, he lived and worked among the abjectly poor people of El Salvador. But unlike her, he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, and El Salvador’s military dictatorship which was responsible for widespread human rights abuses. He criticized the United States for giving military aid to the government and pleaded with President Jimmy Carter to stop the aid, saying that it would “undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression on people whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights.” Carter ignored his pleas. Romero, who had a devotion to the Mother of Peace, was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor did he die of old age. Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, one day after he preached a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, Christians, to obey God’s higher order and, in words over the radio that rang throughout El Salvador, “Stop the repression!”

Let’s get back to the Bible. If you look through a concordance, or a guide to key words in the Bible, you’ll discover that “justice” is often associated with “judgment.” And by judgment, the Bible is not talking about being harsh in our criticism of other people. Its not about intuition or feelings or fears passed on to us by our friends, family, and churches. Its about discernment, about investigation, about analysis. About getting the facts straight. And its about analysis that leads to taking a stand. The kind of stand that a good judge takes when he weighs the facts of a case and makes a decision that will affect human lives. It is about taking a stand that is consistent with worshiping the Lord of Life rather than the idols of death.

Its about recognizing that the stands we take and the God or idols that we worship have everything to do with whether we’ll ever experience salvation. They have everything to do with whether we’ll ever experience the full-blown arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, of the Realm of Peace, in real-time, on earth.

Isaiah reminds us that its our massive stock-pile of sin that stands between us and God. And he associates this stock-piling of sin with the decision to do injustice. And Isaiah associates injustice more than anything else with the spoken word: “lips smeared with lies, tongues swollen from muttering obscenities, failing to speak up for right, telling lies, planning and plotting evil, mocking, spreading false rumors, muttering malice.” And what are the consequences of injustice? “A trail of wrecked lives” and “not so much as a hint of salvation. Justice: beaten back, righteousness: banished, truth: staggering down the street, honesty: nowhere to be found, good: missing in action.”

God hears so many lies. And not even a whisper of Justice.

And what does God want? Isaiah says God wants Justice / Salvation so much that He takes it on himself. He suits up to fight for Justice / Salvation as though He were going into war. Not with baby food. Not with orphanages. Instead, God covers God’s self in Righteousness, Analysis, Passion, and Verdict in order to realize Justice / Salvation that will blow through the Kingdom of Injustice like a hurricane through New Orleans. That will dismantle the Kingdom of Injustice like an earthquake in Haiti. That will wash over the Kingdom of Injustice like a tsunami in Japan. So that we can realize the Kingdom of Peace right now. Right today. And what are our orders from this God on a Justice mission? “To repeat Justice words over and over and over without stopping.”

Right then. Let’s see if we can follow orders.

A couple of weeks ago, I shared with you that a Mexican friend had lost 14 immediate family members and 8 more distant relatives in an horrendous bus crash in Mexico that took over 30 lives. Many of them were young children. The details, as they began to unfold, were horrifying. Days going by not knowing who had died and who had lived. A scarcity of coffins.

I wondered: how will this family survive? How will they bear the burden of funeral expenses for multiple members of one family who died all at one time? How will they bear the burden of the loss of multiple wage earners in one family? How will they survive the publicity? The strains that such a calamity necessarily causes a family?

And so let me be emphatic about this: if you feel called upon to pick up some of their expenses, please do it. I’ll facilitate it. That would be a wonderful charity thing.

But would that be a justice thing? Not at all, because it would do nothing to keep such an event from happening in the future. How could we do justice in this situation? First of all, we would have to do some investigation, some analysis, spend some serious money, and we’d have to take a stand. And I suspect that once we began investigating it would not be too long before we would have to think about the bus driver who had been driving for 20 hours and fell asleep at the wheel. Are there no unions in Mexico which oversee the conditions under which bus drivers work?

Does the idea of getting involved in protections for Mexican bus drivers seem far fetched? Well, that is often the problem with doing justice. The problems are complicated, the fixes not at all clear, the research time-consuming and expensive, the passion can be hard to sustain over the long-haul, and often, as many assassinated Mexican labor organizers know, justice can be very dangerous.

So maybe we could tackle an issue closer to home. When I was in Nashville last weekend, I got to talking with Stephanie, my friend who is married to Kate, about food and farmers’ markets. And Stephanie, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky, is as passionate as I am about heirloom tomatoes, locally produced non-homogenized milk, and cage-free eggs. And our discussion wandered into the issue of the precariousness of local farmers’ economic positions. And we talked about those sign-up programs where you buy produce or meat in advance to help stabilize farmers’ incomes. And high-end restaurants which specialize in local food sources. And the difficulty of getting good, fresh food into poor neighborhoods.

Not a Thursday goes by, during the season, which I’m not at the Greene Street Market buying up Cherokee Purples, eggs from a chicken named Rosie, and October beans.

But is this Justice? Not at all, because it doesn’t help change the system which causes real farmers, and real food, to be so scarce. Because the usefulness of sign up programs and farmers’ markets for farmers, at the end of the day, is dependent on the whims of the consumer. I say I go every Thursday to the Greene Street Market, but not if its raining, or if I have a nail appointment, or I’m just not in the mood. As with Mexican bus drivers, to do Justice we would have to do some investigation, some analysis, we’d have to spend some serious money, we’d have to sustain our passion over a long period of time, and we’d have to take a stand. And I suspect that once we began investigating it would not be too long before we were looking at a system which involves subsidized factory farms, powerful corporations like Monsanto which has made it illegal for so many farmers to save their own seeds, putting many of them out of business, causing an epidemic of suicides among farmers in India, and those pesky free trade agreements.

So maybe there is an easier Justice project we could take on. What about putting on our Justice suit of armor–Righteousness, Judgment, and Passion and joining the troops fighting the Chik-Fil-A War? And I’m not kidding when I say that the war is crucial to Salvation–mine, yours, everybody’s.

If you don’t know, the Chik-Fil-A War began when owner Dan Cathy said he was “guilty as charged” when it came out in the press that he had donated a great deal of money to organizations which oppose homosexuality and homosexuals. And when homosexuals and their friends complained, members of the predominantly Christian right staged a buy-in at Chik-Fil-A restaurants all over the country on this past Wednesday.

When the first shots were fired in the Chik-Fil-A War, I admit I wasn’t sure what I thought. I am in favor of gay rights and always have been. But, some said, this is a free-speech issue and didn’t Mr. Cathy have the right to say that he is opposed to gay rights?

But then I began to investigate and I began to remember and I began to analyze.

I discovered that one of the organizations that Mr. Cathy gives his money to is Exodus International, an organization of Christian counselors who advise their homosexual clients that homosexual behavior is sinful and label “same sex attraction” (SSA) in capital letters within parentheses, as though homosexuality were a disease to be cured. Another of the organizations is the Family Research Council which opposes any legislative, executive, or judicial action that seeks to protect homosexuals and their relationships. In particular, it opposes legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, the kind of recognition, for example, that would allow a gay man to visit his partner in the hospital. Peter Sprigg, its Senior Researcher for Policy Studies, officially stated that gay behavior should be outlawed and that “criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior” should be enforced. And I discovered that the Southern Poverty Law Center has called the Family Research Council a “hate group” because of its insistence, its lie really, that homosexuals have a tendency to sexually abuse children. No protections? Outlawed? Criminalized? Paedophiles? No wonder Stephanie was so upset.

Stephanie and Kate who so long for a baby that I wish one would float down a river and they could scoop it up and take it into one of the warmest, sweetest homes I’ve ever been invited into.

I began to remember one of the reasons why gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and all the queer people, some of whom are straight, have always been so dear to my heart. And that is because I can relate to what it means to be closeted because of who you are, because of things about yourself that you cannot change, and to live in constant fear of exposure.

I remembered the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was in the 7th grade in Albany, Georgia, a hotbed of the most vicious racism when we got word that President Kennedy had been shot. And we children, who had been taking a math test, remained very silent. A few minutes later we were told the President was dead. My classroom and the one next to us, erupted in applause, foot-stomping, and cheers: “The nigger-lover is dead!” And I sat mute, stunned by the President’s death and the applause and I wondered whether, if they knew my integrationist mind and my integrationist heart and I were shot dead, would they cheer?

I remembered, too, that among the victims of the Holocaust were thousands of homosexuals, put in the ovens because Hitler deemed them unfit to live. And I remembered the Lavender Scare of the 1950s when 91 homosexual members of the US State Department lost their jobs because they were seen as risks to national security. And I remembered the Mariel boat lifts from Cuba in the 1980s when Cuban homosexuals were exiled to the US because Castro believed that homosexuality was a threat to national security. And I remembered Matthew Shepherd, tortured, murdered, and strung up on a Montana fence in such a way that he resembled the crucified Christ. And the signs at his funeral which said “Fag Matt in Hell” and “No Tears for Queers.” To paraphrase Isaiah, “No peace for the wretch that walks down the twisted road of homophobia,” a road built on lies, obscenities, and crucifying plots.

I began to analyze. Now, you might say that those kids in Albany, Georgia on the afternoon of the murder of the President had a constitutional right to express their opinion, and about that you might be correct. But I felt then and I feel now that God thought they were wrong and was on my side. And you might say that Dan Cathy has a constitutional right to give his money to any organization he wants. And you might be correct. But I feel that God thinks he’s wrong and is on the side of homosexuals. And, following the free speech logic, you might say that Caesar had a right to ridicule the already humiliated, already suffering, already dying Christ by pressing a mocking crown of thorns onto his brow and posting “King of Jews” over his head in three languages. And undoubtedly you would be correct. Caesar had that imperial right. But God was not on Caesar’s side. God was on the side of the humiliated One, the spat-upon One, the mocked One, the crucified One. God reached a conclusion and took a stand by resurrecting the One who Caesar so feared and so mocked.

Here is what I think is Isaiah’s point: until we pursue Justice as thought it were a war on which everything was riding, until we believe that our very Salvation is dependent upon the systemic safety of Mexican bus drivers and farmers in India and lesbian couples with babies, we will never realize the real-time Realm of Peace. And my prayer is that today be the day when we begin to speak Justice words over and over and over and we never stop. Because we worship the Lord of Life and not the idols of death.


Gracious God,

We love you. Help calm our fears. Help us to speak words of Justice.






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