During 2019 the SJAG will be providing regular articles to help us understand the importance of Social Justice and how we intend to take action on our behalf. This month the article will focus on the broad issue of ‘What is Social Justice’, that will provide the context for more specific discussions in later months.
What is Social Justice?
The term ‘Social Justice’ was first coined in the 19th century but the idea of social justice has a very long history.
The Jewish tradition required people to care for the underprivileged in their society – “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily, your righteousness shall go before you. If you shall pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58: 7-8, 10-11). “Defend the poor and the orphan; deal justly with the poor and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82: 3-4). Throughout Greek philosophy – Plato and Aristotle – there is the same emphasis on justice being for the good of all, not just the powerful. And Jesus carries on this major thrust – “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 6:3-4). And Wikipaedia has this statement – “From its founding, Methodism was a Christian social justice movement. Under John Wesley’s direction, Methodists became leaders in many social justice issues of the day, including the prison reform and abolition movements. Wesley himself was among the first to preach for slaves’ rights, attracting significant opposition.” The idea of Social Justice is strongly embedded in the Christian understanding of the world.
But it is not until the nineteenth century that the term ‘Social Justice’ is used for the first time when the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli coined the term in the 1840s and it became a major idea of the revolutions of the late 1840s and the attempts of some parts of the Catholic church to come to terms with the poverty and under privileged of so many people. The short-term charity handouts were seen to be inadequate responses to these people’s lives and their relation to the rest of society. They were not socially just as they emphasized that justice was not equally available to all.
At its base ‘Social Justice’ is the fair and just relation between the individual and society. In many cultures “the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice” (Wikipedia). John Rawls, a prominent US philosopher, emphasized the need for all actions that societies take to be of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. If the actions of a society are, at the very least, not of equal benefit to its least advantaged members, then that society is failing the social justice test. From a social justice perspective it is desirable that the most disadvantaged members receive a greater benefit than other members.
It is for these reasons that many parts of the Christian church have seen their responsibility as not just providing handouts to the most disadvantaged members but actively supporting them in the social, economic and political struggles to overcome the structures and processes in society that lead to such disadvantage.
The Uniting Church’s JIM Unit has this definition – ‘God’s goal for life is wholeness. Each person has dignity and worth in the eyes of God. Social justice is about having structures and practices in our society and globally to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and worth. It is the result of the choices that we as a society make towards God’s vision for wholeness.
A fair and just society is one where each person has:
- equitable access to community resources and services
- genuine equality of treatment and opportunity to reach their full potential
- the ability to live without fear
- a healthy and liveable natural environment
- is not discriminated against on the basis of gender, race, belief, disability or social class.