The Limits of Charity


Hilfiker, David




David Hilfiker presents us with a candid article published in 2000 that is essential reading for those who work for or with the poor. As a medical doctor and founder of a community of homeless men living with AIDS in Washington, D.C., Hilfiker asks pressing questions about the effect of his own works of charity on the quest for justice. He notes how easy it is to take charitable institutions for granted and, in doing so, make us feel like we are doing more than we are, causing us to lose our "appropriate sense of outrage" at the injustices such institutions battle. Hilfiker even notes that "Charity... 'acts out' inequality" when one party must always give and the other receive. The quote which prefaces Hilfiker’s article summarizes his overall problem best: "Hidden in every act of compassion toward the poor is the danger that it will perpetuate the underlying causes of poverty. How do we keep our charity from delaying the structural changes that justice demands?"

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Sample Discussion Questions

  1. According to Hilfiker, what is the difference between justice and charity? Do you agree with his distinction? Why or why not?
  2. For the author, how do acts of charity “relieve the pressure for more fundamental societal changes”?
  3. What is an “appropriate sense of outrage” and why is it necessary for justice, according to Hilfiker?
  4. To Hilfiker, why is advocacy less fulfilling than direct service?
  5. What are the symptoms of injustice? How do we alleviate them and address injustice at the same time”?
  6. What is injustice? How do we recognize it? Who determines what is just and what is unjust?
  7. What responsibilities do we, as individuals, have in addressing injustice? What roles do our governments or communities have?
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