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God and Money, part 4: Charity and Justice

It is not enough to be generous, and give alms; the enlarged soul, the true philanthropist, is compelled by Christian principle to look beyond the bestowing of a scant pittance to the mere beggar of the day, to the duty of considering the causes and sources of poverty.  We must consider how much we have done toward causing it. — Lucretia Mott

You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. — Leviticus 19:16b (NRS)

I always knew that the command in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, required a life’s work. The more limited command two verses earlier, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor”, seemed easier. I thought I didn’t hurt or endanger other people for my own benefit.

Then I studied economics as part of homeschooling. I read about the actual history of the food I ate, the clothes I wore, and the people who produced these things. That forced me to acknowledge that I had been profiting from harm done to my neighbors for a long time without even knowing it. I had cheap food thanks to the labor of migrants working 16-hour days, often without potable water or adequate safety equipment, who were often dismissed uncompensated when they were ill or injured. I had cheap clothes thanks to the labor of women and children working in sweatshops for long hours in restricting positions for an inadequate wage. Even as I gave money and time to help the less fortunate, I profited by their misfortune.

I looked for a way out of this terrible contradiction. I saw the need to give for the relief of those who are harmed by my daily consumption, and to work for the passage of laws protecting laborers. And I felt called to live further off the grid, to provide more of what I needed by my own labor instead of requiring others to provide it under unacceptable conditions.

Off-the-grid living does not free us from dependence on other people, but it makes it easier for us to depend on people who are literal as well as biblical neighbors, so that we can clearly see what we are asking of them and whether or not it is fair and sustainable. It also gives us a clearer sense of the amount of work that goes into all the things we enjoy, keeping us aware of the others who do this work, whether near at hand or far away, and of our responsibility to them before the face of God.