What is Social Justice, Anyway?

The second question on my personal narrative portion of the MSW application asks the following question:

“Social work is committed to social justice. What is social justice?…”

Ha! Imagine my surprise when they asked me to summarize what I just spent two years learning about, “What is social justice?”, in a page or less. Should I laugh or cry?

Social justice is a very broad term. Though many try to, I do not think it can be properly understood or implemented without the light of faith. Notice, I did not say, without the light of the Church. Though I do believe that the Church’s understanding of social justice, as evidenced in the canon of Catholic social teaching, is the most complete, many other faith traditions have a notion of social justice which contributes much to society. (I am thinking here of the pillar of Islam which calls for continuous alms-giving, and the ancient Jewish practice of gleaning.)

Broadly defined, social justice is something you live or work for. It’s achievement cannot be passive, its precepts must be acted upon in order to be achieved. It is the recognition of unjust social structures, institutions (both cultural and governmental), and practices. Along with recognition, is the desire and action to empower those who are having injustice thrust upon them.

Social justice is not the same thing as charity. Writing a check to your favorite non-profit is not social justice. Nor is throwing a dollar into the homeless guy’s cup. And neither is participating in the annual giving tree at Christmas. These are all beautiful examples of charity. Charity, and here I do not mean the theological virtue, but the human construct, is different from justice, though the two are often connected.

Charity gives money or even volunteer time to those who are “less fortunate”. Justice asks why people are homeless in the richest nation on Earth. Justice is giving from not from our excess, but our need, in order to understand a little better the plight of those oppressed. Justice advocates for those in society whose voice is unheard or ignored. Charity seeks to meet the immediate needs of people. Justice seeks to meet the needy; to engage with the people society has thrown away, in the hopes of helping them help themselves.

Charity (non-virtue) is a gift of money or time. Justice is a gift of oneself.

The word justice itself has several different meanings. Probably you are most familiar with Aquinas’ definition of justice, which is, “according to just desserts”. What that means is that we are given what we deserve, in terms of person-to-person justice. I suppose this is a good starting place, but I think we can do better. A more complete definition of justice is, “being in right relationship”. This is the form of justice that has most to do with Charity (the theological virtue) because the only way to consistently be in right relationship with all the people around us is to love them. And let me tell you, there are some people out there it is darn hard to love. But the dictates of God’s justice require it. So I must look to God and His love, in order to be able to love, and thus treat justly each person I encounter.

How have you experienced social justice? Do you think it is an important part of a life of faith?

This is just scratching the surface of what social justice is or can be. Perhaps another post, on how social justice is understood through Catholic social teaching is in order!

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  • http://nowealthbutlife.com Rae

    I really like your definition of justice!

  • http://thatmarriedcouple.blogspot.com/ ThatMarriedCouple

    To be honest, I’ve never really thought about social justice at all. Thanks for the primer!

  • http://noheavylifting.blogspot.com Dawn Farias

    This is a GOOD post. Thinking more…