Social Justice

Sit back, now – I aim to cover the entire subject of Social Justice in just one blog post.

Social justice (may I borrow the apt abbreviation of “SJ”?) is a worthy, even noble pursuit – as long as one realizes it is impossible to attain.  It can only obtain in Paradise, and even then it is hard for us to imagine just how this could be.

If I may take the liberty to define it, SJ is the idea that the world should be a fundamentally fair place, that our laws and institutions should be geared toward justice for all.  (The metaphor here is meant quite vividly – the mechanisms of government, of business, and so on, should be constructed in such a way that “justice” is the outcome).

A well-known example of the practice of SJ is fair trade coffee.  The aim behind fair trade is that everyone involved in the transaction is treated with dignity:  We will not pay the farmer a pittance just because he’ll take it, because he has no other choice.  No, his pay should genuinely reward his efforts, and give him the means to provide for himself and his family.

This particular application of SJ has caught on, at least in my experience:  I sit now at Starbucks, beside a picture of beans the size of my nose, luxuriating in their oily glory.  Starbucks promotes fair trade coffee, as does my church, which sells fair trade coffee after Mass every couple of weeks.  Most coffee shops and many churches I’ve visited have similar practices.

And this is grand, it really is.  It’s a great success of the pursuit of SJ.

Any noble pursuit, though, is at risk of distortion, even abuse.  Citations of abuse I leave out, because they are sourced from among the deluded, and there can be no constructive discourse there.  An example, though, would be the shrewd, systematic silencing which calls itself “checking your privilege.”  It is hard to imagine anything more egregiously ironic than promoting diversity of thought by actively silencing whole categories of people, but truth is stranger than fiction.*

We are, at any rate, more concerned with those who are sincere about SJ, and not the brood of vipers.

There is a tension at play in SJ, and it seems to be between Justice and Power.

Power is much-maligned, but fundamental and necessary to our existence.  We need power – ability, capacity – to work, to acquire the basics (and more) for living.  Even if we start there, it is clear that some have little power, and some have a great deal more.

SJ does not entail – or does not necessarily entail – that power be distributed equally.  Nature does not distribute talents and opportunities equally.  People of similar talents and opportunity do not implement them equally.  In the course of our lives, power may be given, and power may be taken away.

These things cannot be held in perfect equilibrium – this is why SJ is a pursuit, and not an achievable goal.  It is an ideal to strive for, not a standard which can be imposed.

What is the modus operandi of those who strive for SJ?  There are two, and they are at odds.

The first, and more common – leading to distortion and abuse – is, “Give us power, and we will set things right.”

The second, and more perfect, is, “You who have power – come, let us seek Justice.”

The first is just thinly veiled arrogance.  But let me phrase it more sympathetically.

Since the 8th grade, and probably earlier still, I have wanted to help the poor.  I have prayed, throughout the intervening years, for God to give me chances, opportunities – positions of influence, wealth, confidence – so that I could try to set things right.

I have to say that God has not answered this prayer to the satisfaction of my younger self, but it has been answered to my current (hopefully wiser) satisfaction.  Why am I satisfied now?

On a practical level, I did not know – and hardly do now – the first thing about really helping the poor.  In fact, solutions to this issue are hotly debated.  If I had the power, how do I know I’d use it wisely?

On a spiritual level – and more critically – I am not perfectly obedient to God, who is Justice.  I am not sure that I’m even halfway obedient to God.  How, then, could I possibly be serving justice if I am not truly obedient to Justice?

It has been my observation that those who distort or abuse SJ regard obedience as useless and degrading.  They have not heard that the Lord came to serve, not to be served, and they have the whole principle upside down and backward.  They make an idol of social justice.

What about the second mode, then?

Here, the proponent of social justice does not impose his ideas either on the rich or the poor.  Rather, he takes a stance of obedience to a transcendental: Justice.

Come what may – even dismal failure – he will obey Justice.  His is an invitation, not an imposition:  Come, let us seek Justice.

Even if he is rejected, he does not despair.  He does not apostatize.  He does not demean the rich, nor belittle the poor, but calls on them both to recognize Justice.^  He understands that he will not cure all ills, that more worldly power will not make him more successful, much less stripping such power from others (and here is an opening for the teaching on nonviolence).  But obedience compels him to be weak, so that God might make him strong.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – this is the basis of true social justice.


*I’ve had a good chat with a friend who accepts the principles of this system of privilege, and believes everyone ought to be checking their various forms of privilege.  Aside from taking tedium to a stupefying level, I pointed out that the intention here is not wrong.  It is good to bear in mind that you may have had certain advantages in life and that you should be mindful of the disadvantages of others.  But to contort this principle – I’d call it “thoughtful consideration” – into a pecking order for public discourse is, frankly, backwards and petty.

^Simone Weil’s thoughts on gratitude as the proper disposition of those receiving charity are pertinent here.

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