Charity and Social Justice: “Distinct but Complementary”

Alan Watts
credited to Alan Watts

The difference between charity and social justice often confounds me.

My good friend, Carol Brownson, devotes much of her life to charity while saying social justice is at the heart of her public health work.

“Social justice efforts get at underlying causes of inequities and fix them structurally,” she said.

Like Carol, the Catholic campaign, “Put Two Feet in Love in Action” advocates attention to both social justice and charity.

They say they are “two distinct, but complementary ways we can respond . . .”

Charity, as they define it, is an answer to “immediate needs and specific situations.”

Another source explains the complexity of social justice by saying it “involves many processes which may be against established rules existing in society.”

I think of the distinction this way:  as charity addresses present needs, social justice is taking the long view by tackling underlying causes of present needs.

And isn’t our big, blue planet crying for both?

For example, it’s a fact that more than half of American school children are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches.38

Which, in turn, means more than half of American children live at or close to the poverty line.

Consider that in 2018 that means a family of four earning even a penny over $24,600 a year isn’t considered poor.39

So doesn’t it follow we need to offer assistance — charity — to the children in those families so they are nourished enough to learn?

And at the same time we could use all-hands-on-deck to fix the underlying problems of poverty, income inequality, educational privilege, etc. etc. etc.

. . . the people featured in each week’s posts are role models for both charity and social justice.

Another Perspective on Charity and Social Justice

Mary Lupien
Mary Lupien

Mary Lupien’s TedXRochester talk takes an unambiguous look at charity and social justice.

“Charity is easier and makes us feel good,” she said.

“Justice requires us to ask the tough questions of why — ‘Why do the inequities exist that create the need for charity?’”

“Justice,” she says, “can make us feel uncomfortable, defensive, even angry as we’re forced to question our way of thinking — our way of life.

“Charity doesn’t really require us to change anything about ourselves or the way we live.

“But justice requires us to think hard about our systems and our choices.

“And not everyone is ready to acknowledge how their choices affect others.”

She says that America’s decisions regarding Native Americans, the slave trade and other heinous aspects of history must be part of the discussion.

“I often think that the fundamental divide in this country . . .  is our unjust and ugly past and the direct relationship [it has] to inequities that exist today . . .

“And although the U.S. may be one of the most charitable countries, that charity does nothing to undo the forces that keep people poor.”

“Justice requires us to ask the tough questions of why — ‘Why do the inequities exist that create the need for charity?’”

“I challenge you to look justice in the face; you can’t change what you don’t see,” she said.

Another Lens on Charity and Social Justice

Tanya Krummriech, co-founder of Gillette Against Hate, recently wrote me.

“When I’m engaged in case management and there are hungry clients in my office, they’re going to have little interest in learning about my long-term goals for them until they are fed.

“I am passionate about addressing systems and disrupting cycles of poverty that have trapped people,” she said.

“Yet, I am just as passionate about meeting my clients where they are and fulfilling their basic human needs.”

•   •   •

So, you might wonder, how willing am I — Ellen — to change my own life?

To give up comforts? Time? To take a stand when it’s not popular or easy?

I don’t yet know.

But it’s a discomfort I’m prepared to sit with.

What I do know is that the people featured in these posts are role models for both charity and social justice.

They’re the company I want to keep along the way.

Care to join me?

Social Justice and Charity Role Models

Lisa Robertson on charity and animal rights
Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson with Wyoming Untrapped



Ali Dunford on food charity and the need for social justice
Ali Dunford

Ali Dunford with Hole Food Rescue




Tanya Krummriech on social justice and charity
Tanya Krummriech

Tanya Krummriech with Gillette Against Hate



. . . and so many more.

Take Action!

•  Read The Barefood Mommy, a website by Rebekah Gienapp about,  “. . . raising little global citizens who are ready to change the world.”

•  Look at Mary Lupien‘s website to see how she promoted social justice in her nearly-successful run for Rochester city council.

•  Treat yourself to this gentle version of Man in the Mirror sung by Angela Watson.




Archbishop Helder Camara on charity and social justice
quote by Archbishop Helder Camara

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is


“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West




5 thoughts on “Charity and Social Justice: “Distinct but Complementary””

  1. Thanks for mentioning our beloved DC Books to Prisons, Ellen! We, too, are working on social justice. Currently, for example, we are campaigning to overturn Maryland’s new rules that greatly restrict how prisoners buy books. But in a larger sense, we believe that the ability of prisoners to choose what they read is fundamental to their dignity and development. Charity is putting books in the hands of people behind bars. Social justice is what they can do with what they find between the covers.

  2. Thank you, Ellen, for writing about these challenging issues with clarity and honesty. I’m going to use this blog as a devotional at a church meeting. Charity may be the entry point for many of us who want to focus on something bigger than ourselves, and that’s a great place to start. Justice work requires the courage to examine ourselves, our beliefs, and the choices we make, while working for systemic, sustainable change that exposes and roots out past wrongdoings.

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