Social Justice: What is it?

I am writing this blog for the dual purpose of exploring both Spirituality and Social Justice. In the last post I offered my definition for spirituality. In this post, I offer my definition of social justice. I also wish to explore how social justice and spirituality are connected, and offer some introductory comments on why and how we might begin to integrate the two.

Social justice first began to make sense for me when I distinguished it from charity. The following abbreviated story helped me to make the distinction between the two and to understand that while charity and social justice are closely related, they are not the same. The abbreviated story goes as follows:

A group of people happily lived on the banks of a river. As a community, every sort of need was met and there was plenty for all. One day, a body came floating down the river. The people of the community dutifully retrieved the body from the river and gave it a proper burial. The next day several more bodies floated down the river along with some individuals that were wounded. Again, the good people of the community retrieved them all, properly buried the dead and dressed the injuries of the wounded. The next day, and everyday thereafter, more bodies and casualties continued to float down the river into the river community. No matter how many arrived, the good people of the river community continued to attend to each of their needs whether it be burial, wound care, food, drink or clothing that they needed.

This brief story highlights the difference between charity and social justice. The good people of the river community were mercifully and lovingly practicing charity. They attended to the immediate needs of the dead, wounded, hungry and thirsty. All incredibly important, necessary and graced activities that, standing alone, are worthy of praise and thanksgiving. However, the good river community did not send a party of people upstream to see where the bodies/casualties were coming from in an effort to understand and stop what was causing the bodies/casualties in the first place. This second action, going upstream to uncover the systemic source of suffering is the action of social justice. Social justice does not automatically occur through the administration of charity, it must be undertaken independently. Social Justice has a different focus than charity. Said differently, the need for charity arises from the lack of social justice. If the global society were truly just in how goods, wealth, and power were distributed, then there would be no need for charity; we all would have all that we need. Similar to the administration of charity, social justice requires action, neither can be left as conceptual exercises. Social justice uncovers and examines the root cause for injustices in the distribution of goods, wealth and power and attempts to correct systemically unjust distribution systems. Another important distinction between charity and social justice resides in differing focal points. The focus of charity centers on individuals and groups in need while the focus of social justice centers on human systems, power centers and biases. Neither is more noble or important than the other. Both Charity and social justice are noble and important pursuits in themselves. When combined and acted upon together, real change and social growth become possible.

How do social justice and spirituality relate? The exploration of this is the ultimate purpose for this blog. We have already defined spirituality as the pursuit of an intimate relationship with a higher being; for this blog, that higher being is the Christian God. God has clearly stated, repeatedly and consistently in scripture and in the teachings of the church what He desires: that we feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the refugee, care for the widow, protect the weakest among us, etc. In other words, we must exhibit mercy and compassion for the weak and poorest among us and bring justice to a world that is inherently unjust. If we want to be in intimate relationship with God, then we have to be willing to enter into conversation with Him about the things that He cares about, as we would in any intimate relationship. He listens to us and cares about what we have to say each and every time we pray. (If you do not feel this, or have never felt this to be true, then for the time being leave social justice alone and don’t worry about it. Your focus should initially be on understanding and establishing your sense of connection with God– the sole focus of spirituality.) If we assume that God listens and cares about what we have to say, then a basic foundation of a true relationship requires that we listen to and care about what God has to say in return.

I was recently involved in a conversation about what the most important thing we can do to attain social justice is. As you can imagine, many good ideas and thoughts were identified, all of them heartfelt, intelligent, and sincere. I noticed, and have noticed in other conversations on social justice, that ideas offered as solutions to social injustices typically center on some form of politically driven reform. I have a different belief (which I will discuss in more detail in future posts). I believe that just government and social reforms will be the result of, not the driving cause for more socially just systems. For me, the most important and first event that must occur, before comprehensive and lasting change in the direction of socially just policies can prevail, is that each member of a privileged class, whether it be power, wealth, or goods, must first recognize their privileged place, and the benefits they acquire as a result of that privilege from the systems that are currently in place. We, as a society, cannot begin to change a problem we do not see, or do not believe exists; the necessary changes must begin with those who benefit from the unjust systems.

I can and will say much more about social justice in future posts. For now I would like to close with several personal stories that have caused me to examine social justice in the context of my personal belief systems and life choices. Below are four of those stories that helped me to begin to understand and see clearly the systematic inequalities and biases that I have personally benefited from, and that have left me embarrassed and ashamed of the position I hold within the fundamentally and systematically unjust social, political, and economic systems that dominate our world and culture today.

  1. I have an indigent, handicapped brother. My brother was living in a tent just outside of Savannah, Georgia when he had a stroke leaving him unable to speak and in a wheelchair. My wife and I picked him up and brought him to our city to try and obtain some help for his condition. Our first stop was the urban assistance center where we found ourselves at 8:00 in the morning in a long line of individuals needing various types of help and support. It was my first encounter with both the group of people seeking help and the bureaucracy of the systems available to provide that help. Both my wife and I were out of place in dress, demeanor, and every other measure you could imagine; it was clear we did not fit in. The facility process for distributing the help and support they could offer began when at 8:00 an individual came out and by random gave you a card with a number on it that would indicate your place in the Que for receiving attention and help. This distribution process avoided the need to be first in line at the door and the inevitable rush for the door at opening. As the individual began passing out the entry cards, we were about 10th in a line of 50, I noticed him palm a card. I thought nothing of it until as he approached us, he handed my wife the palmed card. Low and behold, and certainly not by coincidence, the card we received was number one: straight to the front of the line. Not only were we ushered to the front of the line, as others watched us, but we were also assigned a personal assistant who shuttled us to and from the various people and locations we needed to meet with that day. I am pretty certain no one else that day, or any other day, received such personal attention as we did. While I am very grateful for the help we received that day, as it made a tremendous difference in what we were able to accomplish for my indigent brother, I clearly noticed the privilege that I benefit from as a result of perceptions resulting solely from the appearance of my position in society.

2. Six years ago my wife and I took our daughter to Orlando, Florida for the purpose of visiting Disney World. We decided on a hotel room and ticket package that included a speed-pass for each of the three of us to the amusement rides. Yes, it was expensive, and no I had no idea how long the ride lines could get. At each ride, we were quickly ushered to a privileged line that bypassed really long lines of tired, hungry, and sometimes angry people. I quickly became ashamed. Bypassing all those people felt wrong in every way and I knew it was only because I had enough financial wealth to buy into the privilege that I was not standing in the line myself. I will note for the record, that in spite of my shame and sense of guilt, I did not surrender the speed-pass benefits and stand in line with everyone else, I continued to use, even if I momentarily suffered shame, its privilege. I will also note that we have not returned to Disney World.

3. While I don’t wear a suit everyday, there are still times when one is required. I recently had to attend some court hearings at the county courthouse. It being an unusual activity for me, I wore a suit. Not knowing my way around, I had to ask for directions and assistance at several different points along the way. In at least one case, a courthouse worker approached me and asked me if I needed help. In all instances, the courthouse workers, many of whom were of a minority race or ethnicity, were polite, friendly, addressed me as Sir, and escorted me to my required location. I know from spending several hours there that not everyone, in fact no one I could see, received the same level of interest and assistance that I did. I know that received privilege as a result of how I looked and dressed.

4. I have a lead foot, I tend to drive too fast and have been stopped by Police or State Troopers a number of times for speeding. Recently, as a result of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, I became aware of yet another privilege that I enjoy from a system that is not equal for everyone. The most I have had to worry about when I have been stopped is that I’m going to be late to my destination and will I be lucky enough to only receive a warning? I have never had to worry that I would be asked to step out of the car, that I would be arrested, or that I would be tased, killed, or suffocated in a neck hold. I have never had to fear for my safety or my life. At most I have suffered annoyance over the nuisance and cost of having to call my lawyer, admit to having received yet another ticket, that my lawyer makes disappear anyway, often with no more involvement from me and at less cost than what the ticket was written for.

Maybe these stories make you angry, perhaps sad. I point them out in order to underscore the degree of injustice inherent in our systems that allows me, and people like me, the privilege I have unjustly enjoyed. It is also why the first step in moving to a more just place is for those, like myself, who have benefited, likely throughout their entire existence from systemically unjust systems established by those who hold the power, to wake up, smell the coffee, and see just how unjust their normal mode of existence has been. While I spoke in terms of my own experience here in the United States, the fundamental injustice of human society extends beyond the US and impacts the entire globe and the distribution of global goods, wealth and power. It is time for everyone to wake up and begin.

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