Charity AND Justice

“My Soul magnifies the Lord…

He has brought down the powerful

From their thrones,

And lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things..”

      Luke 1:46, 52-53

In our churches, acts of charity abound during the Christmas season. Some of us prepare food baskets to take to the local hospital, others gather coats for homeless shelters. We construct “angel trees” with branches holding the names of children who would not receive presents were it not for the generosity of others.

In the words of Mary’s Magnificat, we organize ways to lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. These are expressions of kindness and good will. They are acts of charity. But at Protestants for the Common Good, we believe it is important to remember that Mary’s words call us beyond charity, as important as such acts are.

In the words of Rev. Susan Johnson, senior minister of Hyde Park Union Church, last Sunday: “Let us dwell this season on Mary’s witness and participation magnifying God for us … helping us to understand where God is, what God is doing, what the signs are—scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, lifting up those of low estate, feeding those who hunger and thirst, sending away those who have more than enough…”

The Jesus to whom Mary gave birth did not speak in political terms. But he constantly told parables and raised questions about power, wealth, poverty and justice. He gave us a Gospel to which we cannot fully respond unless we wrestle with these same questions today. Most immediately, he asks us to understand why we are more divided by wealth and income than at any time in our recent history.

Mary’s Magnificat calls us to remember the struggle a year ago that led to an increase in the Illinois income tax from 3% to 5%. The charitable acts taking place in our churches this season pale in significance compared to cuts to services for the poor that would have been necessary had that increase not occurred. Even so, human services for the needy have been drastically slashed over the past twelve months.

Illinois, with its flat income tax and regressive sales and property tax structure, still places an unjust burden on the poor. We tax those at the bottom of the income scale at an effective rate of about 13%. Those in the top 20% pay a rate of about 4%. We are reversing Mary’s Magnificat as we fill the rich with good things and send the poor away empty. We need a progressive tax structure in Illinois, both to raise desperately needed revenue, and because it is just.

In fifteen years heading PCG, I have become struck with the degree to which churches on matters of social justice reflect the communities in which they are found. Shouldn’t it be just the opposite? Our message should be radical and transforming. The Gospel calls for something closer to what our lives together would look like if we really believed what Mary’s Magnificat tells us about how God will become visible in the world—a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

Let us dedicate ourselves anew not only to charity but also to justice as we enter fully in to the joy of this Christmas season.

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