Re-Defining Charity to Bite Down on Food Injustice

204_mainThis is part three in a three-part series that explores new ways to end hunger in our communities that foster dignity, health and equality for everyone. Written by our Lead Partner Jonathan Bird.

Charity is a slippery concept. For instance, Canadian law does not have a fixed definition of what charity is or of what qualifies as a charitable act (say, for tax deduction purposes). Instead, the tax code along with decisions of Canada Revenue Agency change over time in response to court decisions on individual cases. So in a sense “charity” is whatever judges decide it is; the accumulated history of their decisions (or “common law”) guides the courts and government regulators. Canadian common law recognizes four categories of what is charitable: relief of poverty; advancement of education; advancement of religion; and other purposes beneficial to the community as a whole in a way which the law regards as charitable.

Notice that charity is categorized as relief of poverty rather than elimination of poverty. Implicit here is the widely held assumption that charity simply means compassion prompting gifts of money, goods, or services to the needy. Charity is just a voluntary response to minimize the negative effects of crisis in the lives of individuals (even if these individuals constitute an identifiable group). It often carries further assumptions about who is deserving of good will and compassion. By definition it is not concerned with justice: it does not seek to correct unjust societal structures or ask what should be owed the poor by right. In fact, Canadian charities are severely restricted in carrying out advocacy for policy change.

However, there is growing pressure in Canada to legislate a clearer, more comprehensive definition of charity that takes into account what we’ve learned in recent decades about what causes poverty and how poverty can be both overcome and prevented.

Where might we find a better definition of charity that lets us connect to the roots of the common law definition while leaping into the 21st Century? Wikipedia offers a useful beginning: “The word charity entered the English language through the Old French word charité which was derived from the Latin caritas. Originally in Latin the word caritas meant preciousness, dearness, high price. From this … caritas became the standard Latin translation for the Greek word agape” used in the Bible. Agape, or caritas, is the unconditional and sacrificial love that God has for humans and that we in turn are to have toward one another. With this love we recognize ourself in the other – Jesus said “love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbour as yourself” – and therefore we cannot rest until we have secured for the other (now our “beloved”) the same justice and flourishing life we want for ourself.

Because Canadian common law is founded on centuries of court judgments and legislation made within an explicitly Christian context, this overlooked yet central tradition could be useful in reinterpreting those past decisions. But charity based on universal humanity and the common good is by no means exclusively Christian. Jesus was quoting directly from Jewish Scripture to summarize all of Judaism – and Judaism agreed both then and now. Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and other major religions have their own versions. Personally, I am especially keen to see how the historical practice of potlatch among First Nations could help reframe Canadian charity. And there are plenty of non-religious precedents, not least among them the various United Nations resolutions and declarations on hunger, health, and poverty that Canada has signed.

So where is Planted in all this, and how can we as individual citizens best collaborate for systemic justice? Legislators are moved less by lobbyists than by growing numbers of stories coming out of their ridings of grassroots community food projects that are succeeding and would succeed all the more if laws and policies were different.

Planted is all about broadcasting those stories, and connecting and supporting the people behind them. Collaboration for systemic food justice starts with neighbours helping neighbours as equals who each have their own unique and necessary gifts to bring to the table: their self, their life experience, their dreams, their curiosity, their willingness to experiment, their professional skills and contacts, their social networks, their firm knowledge that they haven’t made it this far in life on their own merits alone and that they cannot get to where they want to go by themselves.

Collaboration has to scale up to city and region wide efforts – but we will not achieve the flourishing and fair life we seek if we start somewhere else. And if we proceed by some other means, the journey will be neither so fun nor so enlightening.

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