What the Heck is 'Social Justice'?

By Rose Marie Berger 03-24-2010

Today I was interviewed by a sociology student who wanted to know more about "social justice." I was happy to talk to her. My Catholic tradition considers social justice as a central element of faith, public witness, and as integral to Catholic Social Teaching. In our conversation I drew on an article I'd written a few years back: "What the Heck is 'Social Justice'?" (Sojourners, February 2007).

A starting question when talking about social justice is: What's the difference between justice and charity?

Justice is the moral code that guides a fair and equitable society. When an individual acts on behalf of justice, he or she stands up for what is right. Charity is a basic sense of generosity and goodwill toward others, especially the suffering. Individual charity is when one responds to the more immediate needs of others -- volunteering in a women's shelter, for example. [See also An Active Faith by Yonce Shelton for more on charity and justice.]

The goal of social charity and social justice is furthering the common good. Social charity addresses the effects of social sin, while social justice addresses the causes of such sins. Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." His phrase indicates the societal pressure to separate charity and justice. The two cannot be separated. It would be like taking the heart out of a body -- neither would live for long.

Social charity is sometimes called compassionate solidarity. A church's decision to buy only fair trade coffee might be considered an act of social charity. It is a communal economic act that addresses the immediate needs of those who are oppressed by an unjust economic system. However, it doesn't fundamentally change or challenge the unjust structure.

So just what is the definition of social justice?

The principle of social justice, according to Catholic social teaching, requires the individual Christian to act in an organized manner with others to hold social institutions accountable -- whether government or private -- to the common good. The "common good comprises the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily," according to Pope Paul VI. However, social justice can become hollow if it is not constantly in touch with real people's experiences.

How does one "do" social justice?

Social justice issues are determined by "discerning the signs of the times" (Matthew 16:3), a careful process of social analysis. First, we listen to and observe the experiences of those closest to the problem. Second, together with those closest to the problem, we look at the context. What's the history and what are the root causes? Are there political and/or cultural forces at play? We take the expanded information (experience plus context) and examine it in light of biblical values and Christian teaching. What would Jesus do in a situation like this? Third, we ask: What action might successfully make this situation more just? Finally, we take the action and evaluate the results. The evaluation takes us back to step one.

The theology of social justice cannot be separated from the full scope of Christian spiritual and moral development. But theology is always incarnated in the real lives and experiences of people. If it's too abstract, then it becomes useless to the living breathing walk of faith that every Christian must make.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She's the author of the forthcoming book Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House, April 2010).

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