I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.
– Leo Tolstoy, from What Then Must We Do?
Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.
– Nelson Mandela
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words on April 4, 1967 at New York City’s Riverside Church—a year to the day before his assassination in Memphis—he was describing something my friend Dr. David Hilfiker shared in a thoughtful Sunday sermon at The Church of the Saviour called “Justice and the Limits of Charity.”
In his speech the night before his murder Dr. King repeated the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped the desperate traveler who had been beaten, robbed, and left half dead as he journeyed along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Good Samaritan is traditionally considered a model of charity for his willingness to treat a stranger as a neighbor and friend. Dr. King agreed that we are all called to follow his example and serve those around us who need help. But he reminded us that true compassion—true justice—requires also attacking the forces that leave others in need in the first place.
If travelers are being assaulted on the Jericho Road, we should help bind their wounds, but also work to make the road a safe passageway. If our communities have poor, homeless, and hungry children and families and we volunteer at homeless shelters or donate to food pantries and think we’ve done our part, we are only half right. We have done an important part. But we are not finished if we are not also fighting to prevent and eliminate the violence of joblessness, poor education, poverty, and hunger and the inequalities and injustices that feed and accompany them and unjust systems that create them.
Our great prophet Dr. King understood this. Many of the cracks in America’s edifice he identified over a half century ago are deeper today. CEO compensation and corporate greed and welfare have skyrocketed to morally obscene levels while middle class and minimum wage workers and people seeking work were left behind even before the pandemic. In Fiscal Year 2018 3.8 million American households, including 1.2 million with children, had no cash income, relying only on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to stave off the wolves of hunger—a program the Trump Administration has fought to shred while increasing government welfare to the wealthiest individuals and corporations. Countless Black, Latino, and Native American youths see no hope for the future because there are no jobs for them and our schools are not preparing the majority of them for the jobs of the future. Racially unjust profiling and sentencing policies feed Black and other non-White youths and adults into a mass incarceration system too often driven by profit. Government safety net programs have lifted many millions but not all children out of poverty. Additional investments in nine federal programs that help make work pay, increase employment, and meet children’s basic needs could lift 57 percent of our poor children out of poverty now; instead these programs have been under systematic attack. Even those who are lucky enough to get a job now might not be lucky enough to be paid a fair or living wage. And we have the unbelievable spectacle of 12 states denying their citizens tens of billions of dollars in desperately needed health care and jobs under the Affordable Care Act by rejecting the Medicaid expansion even in the middle of the pandemic.
With true structural change there would be far less need for charity; without it the very best charitable efforts will never be enough. How many private foundations could make up for the denial of Medicaid or gaps in safety net programs? Yet like so many other prophets, Dr. King’s voice was often at odds with leaders or conveniently left unheard by citizens in his own land.
During Dr. King’s lifetime, President Lyndon Johnson’s great War on Poverty attempted to address some of the inequalities in the United States that needed redressing and restructuring. But Richard Nixon sent a very different message as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in August 1968 already criticizing President Johnson’s new anti-poverty efforts, saying: “For the past five years we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed, programs for the cities, programs for the poor…America is a great nation today not because of what government did for people, but because of what people did for themselves.” Candidate Nixon had a different vision for government’s role: “Let government use its tax and credit policies to enlist in this battle the greatest engine of progress ever developed in the history of man—American private enterprise. Let us enlist in this great cause the millions of Americans in volunteer organizations who will bring a dedication to this task that no amount of money can ever buy.” Instead of worrying about restructuring the edifice that had produced America’s beggars, he thought giving the edifice more power would help; instead of worrying about transforming the Jericho Road, he recommended relying on millions more Good Samaritans.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he gave a similar message about letting people take care of themselves—all the more charged because he chose to deliver it at an appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the county where three young civil rights workers–James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner–were murdered in June 1964 while seeking to ensure the right to vote for Black citizens in Mississippi’s closed society. It was a shameful signal to the White Jim Crow, states’ rights South. Shockingly he did not say a word about the racist violence that took these three young lives but rather told his Southern audience he believed in states’ rights and “in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.”
Like Nixon, Reagan said he thought we needed to recognize “that the people of this country can solve the problems, that we don’t have anything to be afraid of as long as we have the people of America.” In fact, Reagan said as governor of California he had learned many people were poor because the government “bureaucracy” there to help them “has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away.” His first budget as president sought to eradicate virtually the entire federal safety net and replace it with block grants and billions of budget cuts.
The same familiar accusations and policies are back from some leaders today who believe government’s safety net is responsible for putting poor people in a “poverty trap,” and they will only be able to escape it if we shred the safety net to pieces. In many corners we hear the same old exhortation that the way to fix poverty and anything else that ails Americans is for us to become a nation of Good Samaritans. But has giving a beggar a coin ever been as effective as creating an economy that provides him or her a good education and a job? Is starting a prison ministry the same as speaking out against racially unjust law enforcement and judicial sentencing policies and practices? Can the most dedicated volunteer at a children’s hospital give every child in her community access to preventive health care if the Affordable Care Act is overturned?
Should we be satisfied because we helped a single wounded traveler if we didn’t do anything else about the rest who travel the road to Jericho at risk of attack or unjust police brutality tactics and law enforcement policies that too often take rather than protect Black lives? What is so scary today is that so many young children and adults of color have to combat daily violence in their own neighborhoods and from law enforcement officials enjoined to protect them.
We are facing another inflection point in our nation and I hope and pray we will hear and heed and move towards and not away from becoming a more just nation. Will we just let everybody worry about themselves—and rely on needed acts of charity—to get by? Or will we reform the deep unjust structural inequalities and injustices at America’s core that favor the powerful at the expense of the powerless, the rich at the expense of the poor, and the greedy at the expense of the needy? Can we become a more just as well as a more charitable nation—understanding that the latter is no substitute for the former? Dr. Hilfiker in the article “When Charity Chokes Justice” reminded us that “working for justice is messier and far less rewarding than charity. There are no quick fixes, and the most common reason for quitting is discouragement. But we have little choice. Within an unjust society, there are limitations to our charity; we need to join others in the struggle for justice as well.”
Marian Wright Edelman is the current President of the Children’s Defense Fund.