One year ago today Tè Tremblé struck Haiti. This devastating earthquake claimed over 250,000 lives, displaced one million people, led to a deathly outbreak of cholera, and created a humanitarian crisis the Western Hemisphere has never seen. It was preceded by a social disaster that left Haiti the poorest of all western countries, and it is being followed by a 3rd disaster which stalls development and the rebirth of the Haitian people: charity.
The week of the earthquake, Dr. Evan Lyon said this in reference to charity: “This aid attention is nice. The extra supplies are nice. The energy and the money is helpful. But if the Haitian institutions are not rebuilt, nothing will be durable, and in one year we’ll be exactly where we are right now, which is in pain.” Today, one year later, these words are all too true! You see, our primary response has been humanitarian aid, rather than justice, solving the short term problem of food while utterly failing to provide for infrastructure, leadership, housing, or health care. Even with our insistence on charity only 10% of that pledged by the international community has been delivered. The same is true of many non-profits. One million people remain living in tent camps with little food or sanitation. Haiti is an utter indictment of the limits of charity.
The Christian idea of charity began to take its present form not in the early church, but in the middle ages. “The churches encouraged charitable giving to meet the needs of the poor and developed various institutions to care for the victims of the system they now helped to sustain, but there was no longer any appetite to challenge the system itself (Naked Anabaptism, pg 119).” The system itself, that’s what is broken in Haiti, and no amount of loving individuals will fix it. What is needed is a social fix to a social problem, or, in other words, justice.
But what is justice? Justice is mercy and kindness applied on a social scale. It is love writ large. In the same way love and mercy should define individual relationships, justice is the biblical term for what should define community. Beyond acts of charity towards individuals, justice creates patterns of behavior, systems of community, and relational interactions so there is no longer need for acts of charity. Charitable giving can, according to Stuart Murray, “offset some of the worst effects of this unjust system.” But, he cautions, “this can appease our consciences and distract us from working toward a more just world (Naked Anabaptism, pg 121).” If a ministry of mercy would feed the poor through a food pantry, a ministry of justice would explore the systemic reasons why poverty exists in the first place, then seek to change the system so poverty is no more. Both charity and justice are expressions of Biblical love: charity on a personal scale, and justice is love writ large. But now is the time to repent of our narrow focus on charity and shift from relief to development, from charity to justice.
Alex Dupuy, a Haitian American professor at Wesleyan University, suggests that Haiti’s current situation is exaserbated by 2 primary responses: old failed policies, and charity. “The strategies that they have devised for Haiti’s reconstruction are no different than the strategies that they had put in place in Haiti for the past three decades or more that have proven to have failed.” He notes that former President Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the policies he himself pushed on Haiti were an utter failure, and yet they are the same policies he is introducing again today. Likewise, charity in the form of humanitarian aid has turned Haiti into what he calls “The Republic of NGO’s.” “The foreign community has a direct role to play, in collaboration with the Haitian elites, to create a situation in Haiti where the vast majority of the population continued to live in poverty, and their basic needs and their basic rights are being ignored (interview with Amy Goodman, 1-12-11).”
Today I pray for the ongoing disasters in Haiti. And I recognize that media-worthy disasters are not the only places were a social response (justice) is needed more deeply than a personal response (charity). Homelessness, health care, racism and xenophobia, and Wall Street are all symptoms that here in the US, we too need to let justice roll down like waters.
In conclusion, allow me to ask with lyricist John Bell of the Iona community, “If the war goes on and the daily bread is terror, and the voiceless poor take the road as refugees; when a nation’s pride destines millions to be homeless, who will heed their pleas?”