Posted by: Dan | July 11, 2006

Justice, Benevolence and Enabling Oppression

Naim Ateek, a Palestinian priest and liberation theologian, has had the opportunity to observe firsthand the ways in which oppressive power often lurks behind a mask of charity. In Justice and Only Justice, he writes:

It is part of the deception of power that repressive governments are deluded into believing that through benevolence they can lay the right foundation for harmonious relations with the people they rule. Such governments cannot see that what people really need is not benevolence but a sense of justice… It is far easier for repressive governments and military regimes to resort to philanthropy than to justice. Sympathy and philanthropy in such cases are part of the exhibition of hypocrisy.

I would like to suggest that what Ateek says is true not only of repressive governments and military regimes, it is also true of the average middle-class North American. Instead of seeking justice for the poor and the marginalised — instead of realising that justice is owed to the poor and the marginalised — middle (and upper) class people prefer to offer them donations and charity. Of course, when charity is understood in this way it is comparable to the story told by Leo Tolstoy in his book Resurrection. A rich man seduces a young woman and, after having had his way with her, he thrusts a bundle of money into her hands. Sadly, all too often our charity is like money that a rapist throws on a victim.

Thus, one is, once again, reminded of the words of Dom Helder Camara, who once said:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have not been eating, they call me a communist.

Yes, there is a lot of room for benevolence within our society, as long as that benevolence is divorced from justice.

This already provocative train of thought leads me to thoughts that are likely even more provocative. Let me explain.

Working with street-involved and homeless youth (and adults), one regularly hears discussions around the topic of “enabling.” “Enabling” is understood as charity that, despite good intentions, actually harms the person to whom the charity is extended. Thus, enabling would be understood as giving money to a drug addict who is jonzing. The intentions are good but the addict is just going to go and get high with the money. Therefore, many people would argue that it is better not to give money to the addict at all.

Of course, what has been entirely missing from this discussion is the realisation that charitable organisations, by accepting money from corporations like the Royal Bank of Canada, Shell, Nike, etc., are actually enabling the ongoing oppression and abuse of the poor! By licking the boots of executives from Canadian banks, we ensure that kids stay on the streets, and that families stay in poverty, while also providing the powers with the assurance that they're actually running good and moral institutions. By accepting benevolence divorced from justice, charitable organisations support the larger structures that ensure that the poor stay poor, that the debtors stay in debt, and that the marginalised stay on the margins. By gratefully accepting the money offered by oppressive institutions we ensure that we will never see the systemic changes that we long for. Essentially, we reinforce the lies told be the structures of power — lies that justify the wealth and comfort of a few, and the poverty and suffering of many.

Therefore, if enabling is to be a topic of discussion amongst Christian charitable agencies we must ask how we are enabling oppression — not only in our relationships with the poor and the helpless, but also in our relationships with the rich and the powerful.

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