Finding Justice in the "Giving Season"

Tis the season of giving. Right? From "Giving Tuesday" to Salvation Army bell ringers to frantic online donations or checks postmarked by Dec. 31, charitable giving spikes in December. The Network for Good estimates that 30 percent of annual giving occurs in December and 10 percent in the last three days of the year. Not surprisingly, non-profits that address direct service needs like clothing and food also see a spike in volunteerism during the holidays. It's a good feeling to share our own bounty at Christmas -- to help a family buy presents, or serve a meal at a soup kitchen. I do these things with my own family, its part of how we teach our children to love and serve others.

Charity is one of the foundations of Christianity (along with faith and hope it is considered one of the three theological virtues). The word comes from the Latin "caritas" and is used in Christian theology as a way of describing the nature of God, often translated as "love." Because it is meant to represent an altruistic love that symbolizes the love people have for others (as in love thy neighbor), we often think about charity as how we act towards others, particularly those who need help. Charity is also foundational to Judaism in the form of tzedakah and to Islam as zakat, or almsgiving.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 25 percent of Americans volunteered at least once for an organization in 2013. Through our money and our time we tutor children, work in soup kitchens, offer up our houses of worship and community centers for people to shower and sleep. We feed people, cloth people, visit them when they are sick, and do our best to help care for and express of our love, caritas, for our neighbors.

Charity, however, is not enough to address the deep economic and social problems that face our communities. In addition to giving people clothes and food and helping them find shelter, we need to address the root problems that are causing poverty. We need to focus not just on charity but also on justice. Why? We've all heard the story about teaching people to fish instead of giving them a fish and that begins to get at justice. But what if the pond is polluted and all the fish have died? Or what if there are giant trawlers that have cleaned out all the fish and sold them at a profit, leaving none behind for our fisher to catch and feed his or her family? A justice approach is interested in figuring out why all the fish died and how to make sure that our fisherperson is able to take care of their own needs and the needs of their family. Addressing the root causes of poverty is an essential aspect of effective social change.

The crisis of inequality that we face in our country rivals the days of the Robber Barons and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A serious job and income crisis faces increasing numbers of poor and low-income families in our country. Work that pays a living wage has slowly evaporated from our economy over the last twenty years. Many poor and low-income people are eager and ready for work but their skills are obsolete or their industries have collapsed and the work that they can find doesn't feed their families, or pay their rent, or keep the lights on.

The number of prime-age men (25-54 years old) not working stands at 16 percent , that's triple the number since the late '60s. Two-thirds of low-wage workers are women (defined as $10.10 an hour or less) and one-third of these women are mothers of children under 18.

Charity is an important and necessary part of a caring society. Charity helps people make it through the hard times and get back on their feet. So, by all means, keep giving food, money and clothes to help folks make through the tough times.

But don't stop there.

We need to develop justice responses to the social and economic crises that threaten the well being of our communities. During this Giving Season, think about where you are giving your time and money. In addition to the organizations that offer charity, find and give (time and money) to organizations in your community that are working toward social change. Community development organizations that work in partnership with people from poor and marginalized communities to create innovative justice-oriented solutions to their problems need and deserve your support -- year round. Find these organizations in your local community and give generously. After all, it's the Giving Season.