MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. HAD EXACTLY one year left before an assassin’s bullet struck him down and traumatized a nation. He had spent recent months attempting to break through the “indifference barrier” by drawing a direct link between racism to poverty. It wasn’t enough, he would maintain, to seek equal rights for black Americans if they remained mired in poverty. And so on this particular night, April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, he laid it out as he had seen and experienced it:
“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.”
And there it was. He was calling on the nation to give more to charity, but to also change its structure so that human justice and not mere charity became the ultimate motivator and goal. He assumed most knew the story of the Good Samaritan, of how a man is beaten and robbed, left by the road side, and of how a compassionate Samaritan helped him. He praised such actions, seeing them as a great aspect of the American character. Yet he reminded his generation that true compassion is attacking the forces and systems that leave others in need in the first place.
As King saw it, to those living on the margins of our communities, acts of charity and compassion should be our very first response to meet the need. But then there is the next stage. What caused it? Who is responsible? How can we change things at their source so that acts of charity are not as required as those were we help those who begin to find their footing?
Reflecting on King’s words years later, Nelson Mandela concurred: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” And as the south African leader knew, the prevailing system of his time would itself have to be changed if justice was to be achieved. He knew, as we all know deep within us, that if an economic and social system leaves huge fallout, then the very best of charitable generosity will never be enough. Will donating to a food bank alleviate hunger pangs? Absolutely. But it can never eradicate hunger itself. For that there must change at deeper levels.
Richard Nixon had a different point of view at that time, maintaining that the best method for eliminating poverty was to “enlist the greatest engine of progress ever developed – private enterprise.” In other words, Nixon was looking for millions of more Good Samaritans.
In a very real sense, the former president got his wish but not his desired outcome. The corporate structure that has taken over our public policy machinery has recruited a plentitude of corporate largesse for those at risk, offering funding, expertise, services, and leadership. But after almost half a century of this, where has it gotten us? Poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health and addictions – all these have grown, not diminished under Nixon’s structure. They have had their opportunity; it has not worked.
The time has seriously come to ask ourselves, individual and collectively, “Will we just let everybody worry about themselves and rely on charitable donations of time and money to get by? Is this what we would want for ourselves if we remained mired in poverty? If so, then it won’t be too long until the damage created by present structure will become so great that prosperity will never be gained other than by a few.
Or will we be different? Will we reform by our actions and votes the deep and unjust structural inequalities at our nation’s core that favour power and abandon the powerless? To that wonderful Canadian trait of generosity and charity can we add a passion and understanding for justice? There are no quick fixes in justice – it is a long road – but the results last decades and lift millions out of their despair. Charity by itself is surely limited, but when added to sincere efforts at systemic restructuring it can become a springboard for change. Without serious reform, charity just leads to an ever-increasing cycle of hopelessness. Charity gives, but justice changes. What will we fight for, the present or the future?