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If we didn’t withhold justice, they wouldn’t need our charity

February 5, 2012

This article as first posted on State of Formation

Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. – Augustine of Hippo

About a month ago, I was driving home from work when I heard a news story about the hurricane that ravaged the

Typhoon Washi and the flooding that followed killed more than 1000 people in Mindanao, Philippines

Southern Philippines. I turned up the volume on the radio. I’d already heard about the storm and flooding that left thousands dead in around the city of Cagayan de Oro. But I so rarely hear about the Philippines on mainstream news– most international coverage is relegated to the “Asia” section of major news sites like that of the BBC or The New York Times.

The radio report was brief. It said that the number of dead was rising, and it included a few grisly details about bodies washing up on shore. The broadcaster also mentioned that international aid was starting to arrive. I turned off the radio in disgust.

There is no doubt that flood victims desperately needed (and still need) aid. I support international aid organizations, like the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Many such NGOs support the work already being done by Filipino organizations, and their work can be incredibly noble. But the international community’s place in the story of this hurricane cannot simply be as the wealthy beneficiaries.

Thorough reporting requires understanding the context. It dares to ask the question, “Why?” Why are hurricanes now hitting the southern Philippines, a place that was once free of such natural disasters? And how is it that so many people died in landslides? To answer the first question may require some explanation of the science behind global warming. I’ll assume that most of us are familiar with the phenomenon that is changing the climate of our earth, but for those of you who aren’t, it’s not too late to catch up. This interview with author Elizabeth Kolbert is a good place to start.

Answering the question “How is it that so many people died in landslides?” is more simple, so I’ll tackle it myself. Internationally owned companies are mining the hell out of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. When they cut down all the trees, there is nothing to absorb the water, let alone hold up the hillsides. When a storm comes, the mountains turn to mud and bury the people who live nearby.

What bothers me most about foreign aid to the Philippines is this: Filipinos wouldn’t need foreign aid if foreigners weren’t stealing Filipino resources in bulk.

As a seminarian, I frequently assess service work from a justice/charity perspective. Classically defined, charity is “the voluntary giving of help,” while justice is “fair and reasonable treatment in relationships and systems.”

Both can be done in a spirit of love and kindness. The difference is that charity tends to empower the person in power, making that person feel good about giving away their excess. Justice works to rectify the system that gives a privileged few all of that excess to begin with, and seeks to create a world where all will have enough.

Simply put, in a just world where society operates to benefit the masses, charity will be unnecessary. As people of faith and goodwill, we will still be called to do acts of loving kindness for one another, but it will no longer be that a privileged minority gains moral superiority by doing charity for the unjustly treated.

Certainly, we do not live in a just world right now, and so for the time being, charity is necessary.  But it is not the sum total of the news. Those reporting about “natural” disasters must dare to answer the “why” and “how” questions of journalism. They must rigorously engage issues of science and systemic abuse.

Justice, then, will speak for itself.


One Comment leave one →
  1. kimgerly permalink
    October 18, 2012 12:35 pm


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