For Great Lent: Charity Alone Is Not Enough; Justice Is Required
Great Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. These three evangelical practices, taught by Our Lord Jesus Christ and highlighted in the Gospel readings for Cheesefare Saturday (Matthew 6:1-13) and Cheesefare Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21), are the foundational practices for Christian discipleship, not just for Great Lent.
When it comes to charity, Christians are often content to give to the poor, but do not question unjust structures and systems of oppression embedded in society. Yet the Word of God will have us go beyond charity, that is, if we understand charity only in terms of giving. The Bible and the Greek Fathers understand charity to extend to social justice as well. As our reading from Isaiah for the first Monday in Lent (Is. 1:1-20) clearly demonstrates, our Lord calls us to do social justice: "seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. (verse 17)." In this passage from Isaiah, the Lord criticizes the worship of Israel, because their worship is meaningless if they do practice justice. In the same way, it is not enough for us to attend Divine Liturgy and to abstain from meat and dairy during lent, if we neglect love of neighbor and tolerate social injustice.
People often find the Church and Christians useless because we appear to support the status quo, and even side with oppression in our society.
In the 20th century, Archbishop Iakovos, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his civil rights movement for African Americans. Iakovos' stance was controversial, and some people considered him a traitor to his southern heritage. Others considered his actions political, outside the proper role for a bishop of the Church. But the Archbishop knew that he had to be on the right side of history, that he had to as a bishop of the Holy Church be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed.
America is in a depression. Unemployment is high, and the days and weeks ahead do not look promising. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have seemed willing to bail out big banks and insurance companies, but have done little to support the poor, the unemployed, the working class, and the vanishing middle class.
The Church has to decide which side of history she is going to be on. Christians must decide where their loyalties lie. Do we hear the sacred words of Holy Scripture today calling us to correct oppression? Will our practice of ascesis lead us to to prophetic witness and solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed? Or will it only lead to an individualistic, pious, private practice, which in the end is simply a form of narcissism?
Perhaps there is a limit to what we can accomplish politically. Change has not come; progressive hopes for justice and equality have been dashed on the stony wall of disappointment. At very least, Christians and the Church must be willing to be an alternative community, which refuses cooperation with the ruling powers and system. We must be a community that is in solidarity with the oppressed, not only by our personal giving, but by our advocacy on their behalf, our political action, and our own modest life-style.
Let us in this time of Great Lent not only practice prayer, fasting and alms-giving, but place ourselves in solidarity with the poor and oppressed of our society and speak out for them (Proverbs 31:8-9). Let us not only practice charity but work for social justice. Our death to self- to greed, lust and selfishness- must go deeper. We must seek a simpler lifestyle, and consider our privileged state in relation to the oppressed in our nation and in the world. Let us seek not only to give to the poor, but to seek justice and correct oppression as Isaiah enjoins us in today's reading.