As a United Methodist, I am rooted in my faith tradition’s dual emphasis on “personal and social holiness.” Going back to our 18th century founder, John Wesley, Methodists have always regarded as inseparable the practice of personal piety and the commitment to social justice.
While at Oxford in 1729, Wesley began meeting with “The Holy Club” — a group of students who gathered for prayer, devotional study and religious conversation. The seriousness with which they pursued their spiritual disciplines made them targets of ridicule. (In fact, “Methodists” was originally a term of derision.) But they were equally passionate about obeying the unmistakable biblical mandate to care for the needs of the poor and oppressed, and to advocate for justice.
Those first Methodists began ministering to people living in abject poverty in the streets of London. They raised money to provide food, clothing and medical aid. But they also worked to alleviate the conditions that perpetuated poverty, such as predatory lending practices and the lack of access to jobs that would provide a livable wage. The early Methodists understood that, without justice, the need for charity would be endless.
It can be difficult to understand the difference between justice and charity, and many contemporary faith communities routinely confuse the two.
A well-known parable offers a helpful distinction: There was once a small village on a river. One day a group of villagers was working in the fields when suddenly someone noticed a baby floating downstream. The villagers rushed out and rescued the baby, brought it to shore and cared for it. During the next several days, more babies were found floating downstream, and the villagers rescued them as well. But before long there was a steady stream of babies coming every day.
Soon the whole village was involved in the many tasks of rescue work: pulling the children out of the water and ensuring they were properly fed, clothed and housed. Before long, however, the village became exhausted with all the rescue work, and its resources were becoming scarce. Still the babies kept coming. Finally one day some of the villagers decided to go upstream to try to prevent the babies from being placed in the river in the first place.
Most well-intentioned faith communities do charity well but fall short where justice-making is concerned. They are correct in believing that it is critical to care for the immediate needs of those who find themselves “in the river” (i.e., offering charity). But we must also investigate upstream to determine what unjust structures and systems may be causing the need in the first place (i.e., doing justice).
That is why a local network of justice-seeking faith communities has come together as a group called Faith Linking in Action. Bound by a common commitment to justice, people of faith from a broad range of traditions are working together to address the root causes of poverty in Greater Bangor.
Methodist tradition informs my conviction that personal piety and social holiness are two sides of the same coin that is the authentic life of faith. I am equally convinced that social holiness requires both charity and justice.
And so it is my hope and prayer that all persons of every faith will be unwilling to settle for acts of mercy alone, but instead will also respond to the universal call to “go upstream.”
Rev. Arlene M. Tully is senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Bangor.
This piece is part of a contributor series about the difference between charity and justice. Through Faith Linking in Action, an initiative of Brewer-based Food AND Medicine, leaders and lay people alike are sharing their insights. How do various beliefs and backgrounds relate to the needs of people in poverty? What do charity and justice mean in today’s world? If you’re interested in joining the conversation, submit a piece that’s no longer than 700 words to BDN editor Erin Rhoda at firstname.lastname@example.org.