Charity is about being good-hearted, but justice is about something more. Individual sympathy is good and virtuous, but it doesn’t necessarily change the social, economic and political structures that unfairly victimise some people and unduly privilege others. We need to be fair and good of heart, but we also need to have fair and good policies.

Jim Wallis, speaking more specifically about racism, puts it in the following way. When we protest that we are not implicated in unjust systems by saying things like: “I have black friends,” we need to challenge ourselves. It’s not just what’s in our hearts that’s at issue; it’s also what’s at the heart of public policy. We can have black friends but if our policies are racist there’s still no justice. Individual goodwill alone doesn’t always make for a system that’s fair to everyone.

And it’s precisely on this point where we see the crucial distinction between charity and justice, between being good-hearted as individuals and trying as a community to ensure that our social, economic and political systems are not themselves the cause of the very things we are trying to respond to in charity. What causes poverty, racism, economic disparity, lack of fair access to education and healthcare, and the irresponsibility with which we often treat nature? Individual attitudes, true. But injustice is also the result of social, economic and political policies that, whatever their other merits, help produce the conditions that spawn poverty, inequality, racism, privilege and the lack of conscientious concern for the air we breathe.

Most of us, I suspect, are familiar with a story that’s often used to distinguish between charity and justice. It runs this way: there was a town built alongside a river, but situated around a bend so that the townsfolk could see only that part of the river that bordered their town. One day a few of the children were playing by the river when they saw five bodies floating in the water. They quickly ran for help and the townspeople they alerted did what any responsible people would do in that situation. They took care of the bodies. Pulling them from the river, they found that two were dead and they buried them. Three were still alive. One was a child for whom they quickly found a foster home. Another was a severely ill woman whom they put in a hospital. The last was a young man and, for him, they found a job and a place to live.

But the story didn’t end there. The next day more bodies appeared and, again, the townsfolk responded as before. They took care of the bodies. They buried the dead, placed the sick in hospitals, found foster homes for the children, and jobs and places to live for the adults. And so it went on for years, so that taking care of the bodies that they found each day became a normal feature of their lives and part of the life of their churches and their community. A few altruistically motivated people even made it their life’s work to take care of those bodies.

But – and this is the point – nobody ever went up the river to see from where and for what reasons those bodies kept appearing each day in the river. They just remained good-hearted and generous in their response to the bodies that found their way to their town.

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