I am writing this post in response to a post on Jim Shultz's "Blog from Bolivia," found here.
Apologies in advance for a long post - this is an area I've thought a lot about.
First, while I can surely relate to Jim's acccount of the choque one experiences when crossing the gap from Bolivia to the US or Western Europe, it was my experience living in Bolivia that the gap was experienced more on a daily basis within the country.
North Americans who were in Bolivia in the 70s and 80s often tell stories of empty store shelves and a more omnipresent, visible poverty, and of returning to the US after a few years away and, to use a common example, walking into a supermarket and just bursting into tears. I never had quite that experience.
What was shocking - but frequent - for me was taking the bus from my neighborhood in La Paz (Alto Chijini - a poor, mainly Aymara barrio just beneath the 'rim of the bowl' near El Alto) to the Zona Sur, which looked amazingly like a US suburb. I could even see those wealthy neighborhoods from my window high above in Alto Chijini. I always invited visitors to take exactly that bus ride for a quick and striking glimpse into The Gap.
This is, I think, a typical characteristic of the globalized world in recent years. The gap between rich and poor within countries has widened. And the visibility of the gap has increased, with greater availability of goods for those with wealth (and some growth in the middle class - although not the growth promised by many 'free-traders'), and through media messages that tell people they are somehow less whole if they don't consume said goods. It is not uncommon for increased violence to accompany these changes in a society - a biproduct of the alienation the gap produces. I think Bolivia is seeing this, too.
Next, I think I am coming full circle (perhaps a spiral is a more accurate image) with regard to the appropriate response to the gap, and the relative merits of "justice" and "charity." To the extent that it is appropriate to distinguish between the two, I think we need both. And to a large extent, I doubt how distinct they are.
First of all, much "justice" work is aimed at creating "sustainable development," or increased self-sufficiency and wealth (not Richy Rich wealth, but the material wellbeing necessary for a dignified life) in poor societies. But I believe those societies' poverty has much to do with their historic and ongoing relationships to wealthier socieities; I believe the wealth of the latter is historically and presently subsidized in many ways by poorer societies; I believe wealthy societies can offer little in the way of proven models for sustainable development, since they themselves 'developed' on the backs of slaves, colonies, and other relationships that today's 'developing' societies cannot and should not recreate. In sum, I think a) that wealthy societies do owe something to poorer societies, and b)that it is doubtful whether poorer societies can develop economically without some payback.
So, to the extent that this constitutes "charity," I'm all for it. But obviously I'm also talkign about justice. So, they are somewhat bound up with one another.
Also, political programs and structural change are often talked about in utopian terms, as if they will solve all social ills (they won't). Also, those who promote them often denigrate the charity work that aims to address the real human suffering of the present moment even as we wait for the full or partial fruits of 'social justice' work, or structural change. Ironically, the justice camp also accuses the charity camp of allowing problems to perpetuate, while patting themselves on the back for their charity work. I say 'ironically' because at the end of the day, I've admittedly patted myself on the back for both kinds of work, but in one case it's been for feeding someone who came to me hungry and left full, and in the other it's been for writing a letter to a senator who never read it. Which did more good?
In my work with college students (Social Justice Minister in Campus Ministry at Seattle University), we often use a teachng tool called "the two feet of social justice." One foot is direct service ("charity"). The other is work for systemic change ("social justice"). We need both feet to walk forward. An important thing to note about the Dom Helder Camara quote is that he did feed the poor as well as asking why they were poor.
Structural change is crucial. So is direct service/charity. The latter is often done in ways that are condescending, self-congratulatory, and inadvertently serve to maintain unjust structures. We must be vigilant against all of this. But neither must we abandon being charitable.
A Catholic Worker once told me the difference between a liberal and a radical: a liberal sees a man starving and forms a committee to organize a campaign to lobby congress to pass legislation to address hunger. A radical sees a man starving and feeds him. While it's not as pithy, I would add that in the process, perhaps the radical asks the man how he came to be hungry, and together they determine how they can most effectively advocate for a situation that reflects his dignity (including but not limited to his need for food) in a sustainable way.
A couple more quotes by wiser folks:
"When life is dripping away from men, it is not the time for speculation or self-satisfying theory-applications. This is the time to stop the flow, to heal the wounds, to bathe the sores." –John Cogley, Catholic Worker
"The great masses of the poor in all countries are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get out of that state of themselves… It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for." -Thomas Paine
And if you feel like reading about 35 pages more on this, check out the papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Note that "Caritas" is latin for both "charity" and "love," so that while the title refers to charity (and the encyclical addresses its relationship to justice), the title is translated as "God is Love."