JUSTICE AND GENEROSITY
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, December 15, 2019
This morning we’re going to take a look at the paired words “Justice and Generosity” that come from this congregation’s Vision Statement. This is the fourth in this year’s sermon series on the ways we here have formally chosen to state our shared values, to say what we are here for. We began back in August with a sermon called “Why Are We Here?” In it we looked at the statement of purpose included in our bylaws, which reads:
The purpose of this Fellowship shall be to provide a liberal religious community for children, youth and adults through worship, study, service and fellowship. We are devoted to individual freedom of belief, social justice and caring for each other, all humankind and the planet on which we live.
In September, we moved on to the first of three sermons based on our Vision Statement, beginning with “Diverse and Vibrant.” In November we explored the part of our Vision Statement that refers to “The Practice of Lovingkindness.” Today we take up the third and final topic in the statement, which taken as a whole says:
We envision the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro as a diverse and vibrant spiritual community. Rooted in the practice of loving-kindness we are moved to act with justice and generosity in our Fellowship and beyond.
“We are moved to act with justice and generosity in our Fellowship and beyond.” And so today, let’s contemplate justice and generosity for a bit.
- What is Justice? What does “justice” mean to you? […]
- And what does “generosity” mean to you? […]
Justice is one of those slippery words that means lots of different things to lots of different people. So let’s start with what feel like an easier concept – generosity – and come back to justice in a bit. We feel a certain solidity in the concept of generosity, but like a lot of social ideas, it has changed greatly over time. The word comes from a Latin root word meaning “of noble birth.” Those of us born in and to a republic have a hard time connecting that idea with generosity, even though we have the borrowed French concept of “noblesse oblige,” that sense if you are born to a position you have obligations to those who were born without that privilege. It is an idea that often devolved into a code of behavior that was about appearance rather than substance. And in a country that, without a hereditary nobility, substituted the privilege of crass wealth, it sometimes took the form of money and reputation laundering. Look closely at the great charitable works of the nouveau riche of the 19th and 20th centuries, and you will have to look at how the money so generously and admirably given was acquired and accumulated to begin with. It was often not a pretty picture because we live in a society that rewards ruthlessness in business.
Yet, by the 1800s, the English word “generosity” had departed from its noble origins to solidly mean what it is generally understood to mean now: the virtue of giving what is good to others freely and abundantly. It is a social and moral good that is not a requirement, unlike the social and legal demand of all not to steal or, at least in legal settings, not to lie. It is a virtue not a commandment.
In this Fellowship, we practice generosity of spirit through our Caring Network, sending cards and visiting our members who are sick or who have lost a loved one, providing meals to people whose own energies are consumed dealing with emergent personal and family realities, driving our members to medical appointments, providing transportation to our services for members unable to drive themselves here… There are many ways the Caring Network organizes the generosity of members of the Fellowship in taking care of each other’s temporary needs and a few kinds of longer-term needs. This is mostly prompted by a desire to build and maintain a strong community. And we trust that what is provided for another’s benefit in time of need will also be offered to us when we face that need.
We practice generosity when we participate in the life of this Fellowship by volunteering, stepping up to lead and participate in the many, many activities that keep us up and running. When we lead a service or pick weeds or clean or participate in our potlucks, and so much more.
Beyond our Fellowship, we practice generosity by taking special collection for local and denominational charitable organizations. Occasionally we take a collection for an effort farther from home that is not organized by the Unitarian Universalist Association or its affiliated organizations. But the intention is to support the effort of a worthy cause with our dollars. To give freely as we are able for the benefit of people mostly beyond our doors. You practice generosity when you give your time or expertise or elbow grease or sweat or money to participate in the community service activities that have, over time, accumulated as actions of this congregation.
- When you provide a hot meal for those in need through taking a turn at Disciples Kitchen at Second Presbyterian Church.
- When you provide a meal for the workers at the free clinic.
- When you bring non-perishable food items and toiletries to contribute to the food pantry at First Presbyterian Church here in Waynesboro.
- When you work in the Verona Food Pantry.
- When you give blood or help with the logistics of the annual Red Cross blood drive here.
- When you volunteer for Riverfest, which raises ecological awareness in relation to South River, which runs through Waynesboro and which is not yet fully recovered from industrial contamination.
- When you walk in the CROP Walk.
- When you participate in the cleanup of a stretch of local highway.
In all of these ways and more, this congregation expresses our generosity, individually and as a congregation. Generosity is, essentially, that fundamental moral outlook on how we interact with each other and the world. Let’s be clear: generosity is not altruism. In almost every case, generosity gives benefits to the giver as great as those the recipient enjoys. These benefits include a sense of moral satisfaction on a good action taken or a sense of pride in doing one’s part and giving back or a sense of connection and belonging in our congregation and our community. Make no mistake, we are the beneficiaries of our own generosity within the Fellowship and beyond. And as a congregation, we understand our generosity to be not just an individual virtue but a communal one. It is important what we do together, as well as what we do separately as individuals.
Now I said earlier that justice is slippier. Depending who is talking, it can refer to the effort to make the world better tomorrow than it is today or to an umbrella concept that takes in both charity and changing the world. For our purposes, since we have already covered the charity angle through the lens of generosity, I will focus here on changing the world. But for clarity, let’s compare the concepts of charity and justice:
- Charity, or service, consists largely of personal acts, whether done together or alone, while justice, or social change, always requires significant collective action.
- Charity responds to immediate needs while justice aims to improve the long-term experience of life.
- Charity requires perpetual engagement without solving the underlying problem, while justice aims to alter the pattern that produced the need that charity responds to.
- Charity works to alleviate symptoms of injustice without dislodging the that injustice, while justice aims at eliminating the systems of injustice that result in those symptoms.
- Charity is satisfying, is non-controversial, and provides the giver immediate gratification while justice can be very controversial and political and risky with results often seeming distant in the future.
As a past recipient of charity, who got by with the help of generous people and the organizations they operated, I am very much aware that the generous work of charity has to continue alongside justice work. We need to change systems, but while that work continues, people still have to eat and stay warm. AND. While it is hard to see what could go wrong with this kind of emergency assistance, charity coupled with a lack of deep understanding of larger realities causes problems in the giving. Take this example:
In the 1990s, Haiti was going through one of those perennial crises which beset the tragic history of that small nation. Now the Clinton administration, working from the best of motives, that is, charitable motives, decided that the best way to help would be to provide highly subsidized American rice to the Haitians, thereby lowering the cost of a food that was a Haitian dietary staple. And as an added bonus, it would also be a boon to the rice farmers of Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. From the standpoint of the Clinton administration, this was surely a ‘win-win’ policy.
There was one slight problem with this plan, however. Rice was a staple in Haiti because the Haitians already grew the rice that they ate. But the influx of cheap American rice destroyed the Haitian farmer, who simply could not compete with the highly subsidized produce of a rich and technologically advanced nation. The farmers lost their land and livelihoods, and became dependent on cheap American imported food. And the plan changed the dietary habits of the Haitians. Rice was a staple, yes, but something they had three or four times a week. But with the increase in poverty, it was the cheapest food, and now they have it three times a day. If they can get three meals.
Sometimes providing the meal brings unintended social and economic consequences. This kind of reality is much more the norm that you would ever expect. Sending a truckload of supplies and materials to a flood zone? The best of intentions often collide with what the particularities of the assistance means within complex local realities. Are local businesses knocked out of operation by our loving generosity? Sometimes that is true. It is this reality that has prompted the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s policy of devising plans with partner organizations already operating holistically within affected communities. Sometimes, our generosity needs to take other forms than what first occurs to our generous hearts. And it requires humility to know that just because we have resources does not mean we have all the answers we need.
The interdependent systems that make up a total economy and society are extremely complex. The changes that are needed to make tomorrow better than today are opposed by many people and corporations with wealth and power to protect. The problems endemic in our world can feel overwhelming: racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, the wealth gap, the growing number of people whose employment does not provide a living wage, the needs of refugees and the right of migration, climate change (which is the result of cumulative policy decisions)… All of these problems cannot be wished away or changed by resolution. Nor are they made better by our generosity. It requires a long and difficult process, but justice is our common human obligation. We must play our part in reaching for long-term solutions, systemic solutions, policy solutions.
Our vision of ourselves places these great values in front of us: justice and generosity. We are doing alright in the generosity department. We have organized opportunities to participate and help people get through what our system has put on them. We can feel good as we act. We are our own greatest beneficiaries. But our vision also calls on us, together, to work for justice. For changed law and regulation and policy and practice. Our vision calls on us to do something political, something that stands against the powers that be. Something uncomfortable and risky. And right now, we do not even have a team whose purpose is to lead this congregation into these waters. What changes within this congregation would better enable us to act justly in our own space? How can we best include disabled people in waysw that honor their inherent dignity? How can we best live out our welcome to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and non-binary people? What do we need to change to do this? Are you willing that this congregation joins generosity and charity to movement toward social and systemic justice through change in policy and law? Are you willing, together, to work for an increase of justice in the world?
The ancient Chinese wisdom of Guan Zhong holds that, “The best investment for one year is to grow grains; the best investment for ten years is to grow trees; the best investment for a lifetime is to educate people.” Similarly, for short-term, immediate need, the charitable channeling of our generosity, humbly applied, is the best plan. People literally survive because of it. For mid-range need, we would do well to change customs and practices that work against our common well-being. But for the long haul, for the benefit of future generations, the only meaningful approach is to change policies and laws, to get down in the weeds, to engage in political action and community organizing for systemic change.
Amen and Blessed Be.