“Social justice” should win some kind of prize for buzz word of the year. It’s plastered all over campuses, publications, and pulpits. But we’re not at all sure what we mean by it, and the term has accrued some substantial baggage across the political and theological spectrum. Inspired by former Comment editor Gideon Strauss’s interview with Christianity Today, we asked some folks along that spectrum to answer two questions: “What is social justice?” and “Why, or why not, is it important for our cultural moment?”
Sean Purcell (Outdoor Leadership Team Events Manager, Coalition for Christian Outreach):
Peter Stockland (Director, Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal):
In the first encyclical of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI makes clear what social justice is not. It is not, the Holy Father writes in God Is Love, either desirable or complete without social charity.
Indeed, he argues, social justice without social charity is a blueprint for what C.S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man.
Social justice, the ordering of the world to allow all to receive their share of the world’s goods, is the proper purview and purpose of politics. Social charity, the animation of life by the principle of gratuity, rather than only what is due, belongs to the sphere of love.
It is improper for the Church to engage directly in the battles of the political world, particularly if by doing so she appears to be seeking to replace the State. Yet she is “duty-bound” to proclaim a formation of social justice that leaves open ground for complementary social charity to flourish.
“Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society,” Benedict writes. “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for the service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man.”
Deborah Bowen (Professor of English, Redeemer University College):
I approach this topic as a professor of literature for whom issues of social justice are so important that if my introducing undergraduate students to works of literature doesn’t affect their sensibilities in ways that can lead to their wiser involvement in the world, I don’t want to be a professor.
In my understanding, “social justice” stems from two awarenesses: (1) we don’t own anything—everything has been given to us as a gift by the Creator; (2) each of us is loved so deeply by that Creator that he was prepared to sacrifice the life of his Son for us. Whether human beings are born into much or into little, these same two basic specifications apply. Social justice, then, is the responsibility to share these goods (and note the ethical implications of this word), whether physical, psychological, intellectual, or emotional.
And this matters for our cultural moment for two reasons: (1) we are more aware than ever before of the lack of goods of our brothers and sisters both here and around the world; (2) responding justly to the lacks of others is the commandment of the Lord Jesus, both for their welfare and for our own spiritual health.
Nicholas Gafuik (Senior Fellow, Manning Centre for Building Democracy):
The phrase “social justice” usually conjures a mixed-bag of trendy social causes. As a result, talk of social justice is sometimes greeted with scepticism. We need to be clear on what we mean.
Social justice can result when conditions allow society and individuals to flourish and receive their proper due. It requires individual and mutual responsibility.
Every person has transcendent dignity and is therefore entitled to certain inalienable rights. But skills, abilities, and resources are not distributed equally among all people. The mere existence of inequalities is not inherently unjust. But excessive inequalities are contrary to social justice, particularly those that are the product of discrimination or the violation of a person’s dignity.
The state can’t simply legislate a just society into existence. Instead, the unequal distribution of abilities and resources invites us to share what we have with our neighbours in solidarity. In this way, a just society is made up of just and charitable people.
A 2010 Manning Centre poll indicates that while many Canadians hold more traditional views on a variety of social issues, only 31% feel that government should play a major role regulating individual behaviour and morality.
It is instead social institutions like family, community, and church that should be primarily responsible for promoting solidarity and charity. Indeed, eight in ten Canadians say they turn to family first when they need help.
Ryan Messmore (William E. Simon Fellow, DeVos Centre for Religion and Civil Society):
At the heart of justice is the concept of “the right.” Doing justice is doing what’s right in a certain situation. Treating people justly means treating them rightly, treating them as they should be treated. Simply put, justice has to do with right relationships. What, then, is social justice?
The term itself draws out the social, relational context in which people flourish. Humans are relational beings. We were created for certain foundational relationships, and we thrive when those relationships are rightly—or justly—ordered. Social justice has to do with the right ordering of relationships in society. The term also highlights the importance of social institutions in shaping relationships and contributing to the common good. Unfortunately, the conversation about social justice too often places a lopsided focus on government. Other social institutions, such as the family and church, also shape relationships and influence well-being.
When it comes to social justice, the challenge of our cultural moment is to do justice to the relational nature of human beings and human flourishing. Healthy relationships are cultivated from the ground up. Working for social justice must include working to support and strengthen those social institutions that foster local, personal relationships.
David Peck (Executive Director, SoChange):
I believe in social justice. However, current approaches to social justice seem weak to me. We need a definition and practice that resonates and makes contact with reality in multiple and meaningful ways.
Social justice is not about a radical, class-based, Marxist critique of power structures and ideological inklings. It’s about real people, and it begins by realizing that we all drink the same water from the same well.
Social justice is inclusive. It’s hopeful. It’s uplifting and grounded in a care and concern rooted in and for the other. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The strength of social justice is in its holistic understanding that every human being matters, and that lack of opportunity is the antithesis of all that is good, beautiful, and true. It is to work on the assumption that nothing other than the other matters more.
Social justice avoids the easy, cynical, and passive response, and proclaims that we will make a difference. It involves living passionately, acting intentionally, and committing to the redemptive side of our humanity that says to others, “You’re included.”
It is not a goal to be achieved, but a way to live, move and have our being.
Jim Belcher (Author, Pastor):
For many activists today, “social justice” involves working for a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution. It is this connotation that has the Glenn Becks of the world up in arms. For Beck, social justice is a code word for socialism. And for some it may be. But for many it is not; it means something entirely else.
Not wanting to takes sides politically, I will say that the Bible cares deeply about justice and how we live together socially. Justice is part of shalom. “In shalom, says Nick Wolterstorff, “each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom [peace] without justice.” Social justice, then, is when members of society work toward setting up life—in the social, economic, and political realms—in such a way that every person gets as fair an opportunity to succeed as possible in a fallen world, with the goal being shalom: peace in all our important relationships. When this is not happening, citizens and groups work for social justice to protect the abused and set things to right, to help repair the fabric of society where it is falling apart.
Ray Pennings (Director of Research, Senior Fellow, Cardus):
When I think of social justice, I am reminded that a standard working definition—giving everyone their due—is really about worth. The English word worth comes from the same root as worship, and there is a close connection. To worship is to give God the reverence due to Him because of who He is. To provide social justice is to arrange the way we live together in society that gives respect to every person because of who he or she is.
Social justice rooted in the understanding that who we are as individuals and as neighbours changes the currency of conversation from power, or pity, to principle. It sees the dignity of our neighbour not in terms of what they contribute or how they can help, but because of who they are. In a society where there is no appeal to transcendent authority, concepts of dignity, rights, and responsibility quickly become debased. But what we do flows out of who we are. The reason we’re confused about what social justice demands of us to do is that we don’t know who we are. All images of justice implicitly borrow from some idea of who we are, and it’s on those principles that, more often than not, our actions get stalled.
Sandra McCracken (Singer, Songwriter):
“Conversation is a form of activism.”
—Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring For Words in a Culture of Lies
Social action begins with conversation. Action comes out of the words we speak with our family. Should I yell at my son to convince him to obey? Or could I appeal to him more creatively? Should I make time to ask about the needs of my neighbour? Or just stay inside? Who is my sister in Africa? Am I using my resources to bring awareness to her needs?
On a good day, I battle my ego. My constant inward gaze has caused spiritual cataracts that impair my ability to seek out love in action and conversation. It is easy to fight for my own rights. It’s not so easy to fight for somebody else’s.
My husband and I moved from the suburbs into the city in 2005, chasing down this idea of what it is to love your neighbour. One practical way I have found to combat self-protection is to get out there and mix up my “rights” with someone else’s. To care about sidewalks and housing codes for the poor is to live among the poor, so that those sidewalks and housing codes become mine.
As a follower of Jesus, social justice is something I am called to do perfectly. I fail. But Jesus has accomplished social justice on my behalf. This reality, like a new birth, liberates me to engage with my neighbours in mercy and humility. In the words of John Bunyan, “Run and work, the law demands. But gives me neither feet nor hands. A better song the Gospel sings, It bids me fly, and gives me wings.”
In word, song, and deed, may the Gospel elevate our conversation.