Charity vs. Social Justice: What’s the Difference?

“What is your understanding of charity? Of social justice?”

As I looked over my JVC application’s short answer section, this question stared back at me. I had seen this question in my applications to lead service break trips at Villanova and I hearkened back to what my co-leaders and I had written. I remembered thinking of the difference between the two. Was there really a difference? Could one achieve the other? Was one part of the other? What was my(our) understanding of the two?

As we talked about it, Peggy, my co-leader junior year to South Dakota (and, currently, a fellow Jesuit Volunteer in Montana), and I decided that they are not the same thing. Charity, we wrote, is giving people what you can to help ease pain and injustice in order to improve upon the situations of others in whatever way you can. These ways include raising money; donating toys, clothes, food, etc.; and volunteering at a local charity. Charity is truly a great thing, we said.

“What is your understanding of charity? Of social justice?”

“What's your understanding of charity? Of social justice?”

Social justice is different. It’s a step further. Justice is realizing that people deserve to be  treated and understood as people and then reflecting that realization through real interaction. Charity, we decided, can be a means towards social justice. We wrote that, as trip leaders, we would need to be able to reflect both notions as we strove to help others achieve justice.

The same idea will go for me this year in Baltimore. I’ll be donating my time towards others in hopes of helping high school sophomores write well. One of my goals, however, is to go beyond that role. I hope to get to know my students and meet their families, become a part of the community, help out after school with sports, tutoring, and other activities, learn from my fellow JV’s and housemates, and learn as much as I can about the city of Baltimore and its people. Hopefully, through this, I can achieve Peggy’s and my idea of social justice.

What do you think? What’s your understanding of charity and social justice?

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