My Confession

A few words from “The Limits of Charity,” by David Hilfiker, included below:

“Charity is necessary, but especially when extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are receivers, charity “acts out” inequality.”

I read this piece (included below) late last night, just before going to sleep.  Today I awoke in tears. Tears of shame, tears that it took me so long to understand.  Tears of fear that even now, when I speak, I don’t articulate what I’ve learned well enough to inch anything forward.  David Hilfiker’s words speak my confession: that I too, have offered charity, and have done precious little to work for justice.

I am asking you to please take ten minutes to read his words, the words of a doctor who has worked with folks living in poverty since 1983.  In a way, these are also the words of his confession.  As well as his call to action.

The Limits of Charity** by David Hilfiker

The words of the prophet Micah are familiar:

What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God, (6:8)
But what if our love of mercy chokes out our ability to act justly?

Since 1983, I have worked as a doctor with poor people in the inner city of Washington, D.C. I began at Community of Hope Health Services, a small church-sponsored clinic, and at Christ House, a thirty-fourbed medical recovery shelter for homeless men. In 1990, I founded Joseph’s House, a ten-bed community for homeless men with AIDS where I work now. I intend to continue working there. But I’ve been having misgivings.

I have begun to see some “side effects” to the kind of work I do, and they concern the important difference between justice and charity. Justice has to do with fairness, with what people deserve. It results from social structures that guarantee moral rights. Charity has to do with benevolence or generosity. It results from people’s good will and can be withdrawn whenever they choose.

To put the question most bluntly: Do our works of charity impede the realization of justice in our society?

This is not a question of our personal commitment to justice. Throughout all of my years in Washington, I have yearned for justice and felt ready to sacrifice for it. I have hoped that my work brings attention to the plight of the poor and thus contributes to justice.

What I actually do, however, is offer help to poor people. Though I believe God calls me to do this, I could leave at any time. The poor people I have served over the past seventeen years have had no “right” to what I was giving them. While I believe in justice for the poor and in challenging the structures of our society that deprive them of that justice, in fact I have offered charity.

My overall concern is this: Charitable endeavors such as Joseph’s House serve to relieve the pressure for more fundamental societal changes. In her book Sweet Charity, sociologist Janet Poppendieck writes that charity acts as “a sort of a ‘moral safety valve”; it reduces the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it. It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to [injustice].”

I was reminded of this recently when I attended a Walk for the Homeless in Washington, one of those many good and important efforts to raise money for Joseph’s House and similar organizations. Before we began to walk, a nationally known sports star gave a little pep talk, exhorting the walkers to “go out and do your part to end homelessness.” I have nothing against the walk, and I suspect the sports star did not really intend the implication, but walking five kilometers on a beautiful Saturday morning is not “doing your part to end homelessness.”

Something similar happens at Joseph’s House itself. How many of our contributors and volunteers end up feeling that their participation with us fulfills their responsibilities to the poor? It will not be a conscious thought, of course. But you come down and volunteer for a while, or you write a check, and it feels good. Perhaps you develop a close relationship with a formerly homeless man with AIDS, and you realize your common humanity. You feel a real satisfaction in that. You bring your children. But in the process you risk forgetting what a scandal it is that Joseph’s House or your local soup kitchen is needed in the first place, forgetting that it is no coincidence that your new friend is black, poor, illiterate, and unskilled. It is easy to lose an appropriate sense of outrage.

Several factors to consider: [The following section in italics has been edited significantly. It contains the initial thoughts and many of the words of David Hilfiker. But many sentences have been summarized, reworded or deleted. For the full, unedited article, see: Michael Smith 8/19/2014]

  • Places like Joseph’s House may give voters and policy makers the impression that the problem is being taken care of. A little publicity may create the illusion that the issue of AIDS and homelessness has been addressed.
  • It is the same with soup kitchens and shelters. They started as emergency responses to terrible problems–to help ensure that people do not starve or die from the elements. No one ever considered these services as permanent solutions. But soup kitchens and food pantries are now our standard response to hunger; cities see shelters as adequate housing for the homeless. Our shelters can divert attention from the fact that everyone has a right to decent housing. Our soup kitchens can mask the reality that everyone has a right to eat.
  • While we do charity, we also need to engage in advocacy to change the systems. But who has time for that demanding work? It takes lots of “people power” to run non-profits like Joseph’s House: board members, staff, and volunteers. Even those who understand that charity does not create a just society have little time or energy left for advocacy work.
  • And, the work of advocacy is less rewarding than day-to-day contact with needy people. It is less direct. As an advocate, the change I see may come slowly. Because direct service is more appealing, the desperately needed work of advocacy is often left undone.
  • A more subtle problem is that many social ministries may unwittingly contribute to the perception that governmental programs for the poor are inefficient and wasteful, and are better “privatized.” The last twenty years have seen a harsh turn against government. People in our society who oppose justice for the poor have used the inevitable organizational problems within some government programs to harshly judge any kind of governmental action. They point to the “efficiency” of nonprofit organizations.
  • It is not surprising that most nonprofits can do things with relatively little money. Volunteered hours, donated goods, low or non-existent salaries, and space donated by churches are the norm for many. Government programs do not get enormous infusions of free time and materials, so of course they are more expensive than ours. But “expensive” is different from “inefficient.”
  • Only the government–that is, “we the people,” acting in concert locally, state-wide, or nationally– can guarantee rights, can create or oversee programs that assure everyone adequate access to what they need. Only government can establish the policies by which business, nonprofit and faith communities can work together to resolve social problems. Government is often the best convener for those collaborative conversations.
  • Rebecca Blank was a government economist during the Bush administration and author of It Takes A Nation, an excellent, balanced look at U.S. poverty. She points out that if we asked churches to pay the costs of only three government programs–welfare for families, disability payments for the poor, and food stamps–every single church, synagogue, mosque, and other religious congregation would have to come up with $300,000 a year. Add in Medicaid, and the need for additional funding more than doubles!
  • Charity is necessary, but especially when extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are receivers, charity “acts out” inequality. Poppendieck writes that charity excuses the recipient from the usual socially required obligation to repay, which means sacrificing some piece of that person’s dignity.

Our charitable works simply cannot provide care for all who need these services. Yet our projects can give the illusion that charity is the solution.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we abandon charity. As an adjunct to justice, charity is both necessary in our current situation and a requirement of our faith. But we must acknowledge the broader implications of our charity and recognize that it alone is not enough. That done, we need to start thinking about ways for our charitable organizations to support those who work for justice.

Our promotional materials, for example, must at least refer to systemic factors, recognizing that charity is not the solution.

We must be careful about comparing our work to, or even alluding to, the “inefficiency” of government programs.

We must offer our volunteers reading materials, seminars, and discussion opportunities about the systemic issues. By putting themselves into face-to-face contact with the poor, they have taken an important first step. We need to encourage them to continue the journey.

We must include education as part of our mission. This can mean talking about larger issues in our newsletters and donor appeals. Perhaps it will result in a few people dropping their financial support, but that is the type of risk our organizations need to take.

We must engage in political advocacy. By law, tax-exempt organizations are able to use portions of their budget for advocacy. What if every social ministry dedicated 5 percent of its budget to advocacy, freeing up time for staff to preach sermons, to speak on justice issues in small groups at our churches, to testify before government commissions, to write letters to their newspaper, to call or write our elected representatives?

We must get behind the effort to drastically change campaign financing. Though barred from supporting individual candidates, nonprofits can use this election year to emphasize that the United States will not be an effective democracy until the enormous influence of money on government decisions is reduced. “We the people” currently have little power to persuade our representatives to vote for justice.

Working for justice is messier and far less rewarding than charity. There are no quick fixes, and the most common reason for quitting is discouragement. But we have little choice. Within an unjust society, there are limitations to our charity; we need to join others in the struggle for justice as well. It is a fundamental requirement of our faith.


**This piece is adapted from an abbreviated version of an article that first appeared under the title ”When Charity Chokes Justice” in The Other Side in the September-October, 2000 issue on pp 10 and following. © David Hilfiker 2000.


Post Note: In a June 2013 Bread for the World meeting in Washington, DC, Bread board member, Sharon Thornberry summarized well how these issues impact hunger in the United States: Rather than working to change the complex web of factors that perpetuate hunger and poverty, we have developed a parallel and second-class food distribution system that rivals the size and complexity of the retail food industry. This system also has the effect of subsidizing the profitability of many employers who pay their workers such low wages that they cannot afford to feed their families. Those employees thus are dependent on assistance from government and volunteer programs. We have chosen charity over justice. And yet we have the power to create a more just society.

5 thoughts on “My Confession

  1. Wow!

    I am sorry that charity seems hostile to justice in some people’s minds. I think that is a shame, and I have seen how books promoting similar concerns has functioned to shut down some services and justify certain political agendas that neglect or abuse the poor, and I have seen it among my own church brothers and in my very conservative religious town.

    Quoting Micah is good, but posing the unbiblical question subtly hijacks it (and the whole Bible really). And the question itself suggests that charity or LOVE of Mercy is chokes justice. The Bible makes no such case and makes no warning against such. I would take care not to put blame on mercy, but on criminals. Criminals are the ones thwarting justice, not the merciful and those who love mercy.

    On the other hand, I would question “equality”. That sounds more Constitutional than biblical. An ideal for the utopian dreams of people who actually separate church and state also as an ideal. On the contrary, sheep need shepherds and if you read about shepherds either sociologically, historically, or biblically, you find they have LOVE for the sheep, sacrifice for the sheep, and in one famous case lay his life down for the sheep. But in none of that does he make the sheep into … what? Pigs? Wolves? Dogs? No. Just trusting sheep who know nothing of equality, but who do know something of trust and love – things which at the end of the day characterize a world familiar with justice.

    I hope my words resonate.



  2. Yes, Amy. A thousand times “yes.” As urgent as the need is, often charity seems to have the unintended consequence of maintaining the status quo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Let’s discuss Saturday evening, Ned

    Sent with Mailtrack

    On Sun, Oct 30, 2016 at 8:01 PM, The Miracles I See wrote:

    > Amy Murphy posted: “A few words from “The Limits of Charity,” by David > Hilfiker, included below: “Charity is necessary, but especially when > extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth > of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are re” >


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