Holiday charity or year-round compassion?

‘Tis the season to be surrounded with warm fuzzy news stories about people volunteering at food banks or participating in clothing drives or raising money for non-profit groups. When a reporter for a nearby wealthy suburban newspaper called me this morning for my “expert opinion” about how to teach children a “sense of charity,” I bristled. As I responded to her, I felt a bit Grinch-like, spoiling all the fun and dampening the holiday spirit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for seasonal charity. For years, I’ve bought mittens and scarves to donate to schools or sent money to food banks or bought presents for down-and-out families. I do have a soul. And I’ve worked with organizations whose budgets depend on those annual pledges and surges of contributions at the end of the year.

But here’s the deal. Those charitable actions may help in the short-run while doing almost nothing in the long term to address root problems of homelessness or hunger or wealth inequality. And there is always the potential that they grant the giver a giant pat on the back and a sense of do-gooder pride while drawing attention away from systemic injustice – the reasons people are homeless, hungry, or poor in the first place. I’m talking to you, Wal-mart.

In my research on economically privileged kids learning about social justice in elite school settings, I found this back patting to be common. Most of the kids talked about their class advantage as “luck” and thought of themselves as “good privileged people” when they were charitable. Let’s be clear. Wealth inequality is not a consequence of happenstance, accident, or serendipity. It is in large part the product of policies and practices (often racist and sexist in addition to classist) that those with any shred of power have an ethical obligation to make more equitable. Addressing injustice requires more than charity. It requires a deep commitment to social movements over the long haul. It requires calling into question taken-for-granted ways of doing things that produce the inequalities getting attention this time of year.

And it requires an abiding sense of what I call “critical compassion.” Being critically compassionate means asking who is need, why, what they need in the short and long term, and what should be done to both mitigate and eradicate poverty. Of course, answering these questions may lead to charity, but it might also lead to other acts that better address the roots of problems rather than just their symptoms – joining social movements fighting for justice, working alongside fellow community members to solve complicated problems, lobbying politicians to enact more equitable legislation, making changes in our own daily routines, campaigning for changes to exclusionary policies, etc. These are all long-term commitments throughout the year that don’t just happen around the holidays.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with charity per se. Addressing immediate concerns is really important. And sometimes what is needed most is a check, some food, or a pair of mittens. It just can’t stop there.  So, be generous this December – but don’t forget to be critically compassionate all year long.


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