Foodbanks, Justice and Charity
by Elias Blum
“The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life.” (The Constitution of Ireland, Art. 45)
Justice and charity are both necessary. Both contribute, hand in hand, to ‘tikkun olem’ (the repairing of the world) and to ‘shalom’ (the establishment of righteous peace). Charity meets immediate needs; justice rectifies a broken legal-political order. Charity helps the world as it is; justices changes the world into what it should be. As it was illustrated to me as a child, charity is helping people out of the river, whereas justice is putting fences along the banks so they do not fall in – or, sometimes, stopping people from doing the pushing.
I think that we are all called, in our different ways, to do both acts of justice and charity. Not many of us can rightfully say, “oh, I only care about charity, so I’ll donate to the local foodbank, but not be politically active”, or, on the other hand, “I only care about justice, so I’ll write books and get involved in campaigns, but not do anything about immediate needs.”
But that’s not to say we should all be doing the same things. There are a myriad of problems to be solved, needs to be met, and injustices to be rectified, and we cannot all carry the weight of the world: we just need to find the corner to which we are called and lift that bit. The issues that move me most are in the areas of poverty and inequality, as well as democracy and human rights. My wife, as well as being a much more consistent pacifist, has a stronger calling to help people with special needs, lonely old folks, and animals. One of the issues in our household on which we are still seeking further clarity is whether a portion of our monthly giving should go to an animal welfare charity, or whether all of it should be spent on relieving human needs.
All of which brings me to the subject of foodbanks. As what was once a humane and democratic ‘cradle to grave’ welfare system has reverted to Victorian punitive parsimony, foodbanks have been steadily on the rise. Not only those ‘sanctioned’ for minor infractions of a harsh and inscrutable benefits system are queuing up at their doors, but also the ‘working poor’; as the bedroom tax kicks in, and the prices of privatised utilities rise, ever more people find themselves living in the sort of real, absolute, hopeless poverty that has no place – no place – in a civilised and free nation.
Those who meet these needs are the glue that holds society together. They not only give out tins of cheap (and probably not very nutritious, but that’s a whole other story) soup and beans, but also, in many cases, provide a bit of chat and a friendly face. This opportunity to treat people not as hopeless causes, or as soulless numbers to be processed, but as beloved human beings, with an irrepressible spark of divinity in each one, can go some way to removing the stigma and indignity that adds unnecessary insult to the injury of poverty.
Yet, for all this, foodbanks should not exist. A decent living, without having to beg or depend on charity, ought to be guaranteed to all citizens, not as a favour, but as a right that stems from their membership of the res publica. When democracy, and not plutocracy, controls how economic decisions are made, there will be sufficient for everyone’s needs.
Most of my work to date on this subject has focused on the question of how these covenantal commitments to a country where (in the words of a good old song) ‘all the sons of Adam find breid, barely-bree an paintit rooms’ can be expressed on a constitutional level, as the foundational law of our new state. This is a subject I discuss, in general terms of constitution principle, here and here.
However, I am increasingly keen to take the conversation further into the specifics of policy, at the sub-constitutional level, in order to explore how in practical terms the resurgent evil giants of want (poverty), disease (health inequality), squalor (poor housing), ignorance (lack of education), and idleness (unemployment) can be driven decisively from our land.
I’m particularly interested in opening a discussion on the idea of a basic citizens’ income that would keep everyone – unconditionally – above the poverty line.
PS. This is the file that inspired this post. It has very good points in it and is well worth a read: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/FaithInFoodbanks-Signs-of-the-times.pdf