Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | September 30, 2012

Social Justice

ID-10012481“Justice” is such a simple concept, and it’s probably one that reasonable people are willing to grant as a necessary prerequisite to a better world.  But it’s also a topic of great debate.  Even more important, it’s terribly misunderstood and misrepresented.

Let me get this off my chest.  As far as I’m concerned, speaking both on a personal level and as a Catholic theologian, all justice is social.  From the viewpoint of Jews and Christians, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26).  That means that our very essence, what it means to be who we are, is imbued with a dignity that comes not from what we do, or what we think, how successful we are, or even from the authority we may happen to wield, but from the fact that we have been gifted into existence.

Recognizing this dignity, it makes sense that there are certain requirements regarding the way that we relate to others.  From the gospel it’s clear that Christians should find the primary meaning of justice in the practice of love.  And what is love?  As I have said in a previous post (drawing from the insight of Fr. William O’Malley, SJ), love is a conscious and active commitment to another person’s well-being.

At the present time there seems to be a great debate taking place in American society regarding the requirements of social justice.  To be completely honest, I’m not entirely happy with either side of this debate.  Political “conservatives” sometimes mock the notion of social justice altogether while political “liberals” often speak as if they have a monopoly on just living.

If I love you, if I’m committed to your well-being, then I must be concerned when you are hungry, ill, abused, neglected, lonely, or marginalized.  Your welfare is my responsibility insofar as I am able to assist you.  To the question of the murderous Cain (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) we must answer “yes.”  Reflecting on this idea, several points come to mind.

1.  Living justly requires me to interact with others in a particular way.  That’s why all justice is social in nature.  But when we hear people arguing today for a better world, they usually seem to be telling other people how they should live and what they should be willing to sacrifice.  See the problem?  The gospel doesn’t say “somebody should do something.”  It also doesn’t say that we should take from the rich to give to the poor.  It commands me to be committed and to act upon that commitment.  That, dear friends, is the challenge.  Of course it’s much easier to tell others what they should do and what they should be giving up.

2.  There are many ways to foster justice in the world.  No one can do everything, and there is not always just a single right response to the call of justice.  In addition, the requirements of justice can change from one situation to another.  The Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) seem to have understood this when they wrote the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes].  In Sec. 78a of that document they duly noted that the concrete demands of the common good are always changing.  This means that our work is never done, but it also means that there is more than one way to accomplish the task of building a just world.

3.  Working for a better world doesn’t always mean the giving of alms (donations of money to help the poor).  Charitable giving has a long and noble tradition in Christianity, but it shouldn’t be understood strictly in a monetary sense.  There are many ways to give of myself, and not all of them are obviously related to the church.  I can serve as a school aid or tutor, visit the sick or homebound, take a course in CPR, volunteer for a radio reading service, work for a political campaign, or serve on the board of a charitable organization.  These are what I might call “extraordinary” ways of being just.  Others come as ordinary, unplanned opportunities:  helping a busy mother with her tax preparation, mowing grass for an elderly neighbor, sending a sympathy card to someone who has lost a loved one, doing a bit more than is expected at work, or taking the time to listen when a coworker is stressed.  An old proverb says that “it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”  Challenging myself to live justly is better than preaching to others about justice.  Human ego being what it is, however, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing fingers.

4.  Eschatological hope saves the church from being blinded by unrealistic hopes for earthly Utopia.  Let’s break that down into simpler terms.  Eschatology has to do with the final outcome as God has it planned for the cosmos.  The Eschaton is the ultimate culmination of all things.  The word itself is taken from the Greek word eskatos, referring to things that are remote or last.  Catholic doctrine maintains that the ultimate arrival of divine justice is something that won’t take place until the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.  That is not understood as an excuse for delaying or ignoring the work of justice, but it does remind me that it’s not entirely up to me.  There are limits to what I can accomplish; I should not lose heart because of this.  Nor should I put unrealistic or unjust expectations upon the work of others.  There are far-reaching, often negative political consequences to Utopian mythologies.  A healthy eschatology helps to avoid many of those unhappy tendencies.

5.  Complaining about injustice–especially with an eye to the injustice perpetrated by others–isn’t enough.  As a college professor, I get to hear lots of discussion among faculty and staff about living justly.  I also get to see lots of attempts to organize our students for protesting policies and institutions judged as unjust.  Catholic colleges are doing a good job turning out protesters, but I’m not sure we’re producing all the clear-thinking prophets we need in order to address the difficult work of genuinely bringing about a more just world.  Please believe me when I say that there is a place for protest.  However, protesters and prophets are not always synonymous.  We’re called to do justice, love goodness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).  Sometimes we’re so eagerly seeking something to stand for that we overlook the ordinary, simple things in life that we can do all the time to build more dignified and just relationships between ourselves and others.

In the end, it’s up to me.  (It’s also up to you, but I have no control over that.)  If I’m spending more time telling others how to live justly than acting on justice in my own life, something is wrong … way wrong.  I don’t have to look for ways to live justly.  All that’s required is that I show up and do it in a thousands ways every day while interacting with those who cross my path.  If I don’t see those opportunities then my eyes are closed and I miss a chance to light one small candle.

The really neat thing about small candles is that they are easy to light if I’m paying attention.  When I add mine to yours, a whole new clarity comes to our vision of the world around us.  “You” added to “Me” produces “Us.”  That’s the foundation for justice, and justice is always about “Us.”

Let me end with another quotation from Gaudium et Spes:  “It grows increasingly true that the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life” (Sec. 30a).

Can I have an “Amen” to that?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Mieklejohn/


  1. Amen.

  2. Thanks for your reflection regarding the term “justice.” If you would have used the work of biblical scholar John Donahue, S.J., I believe you could have brought some additional illumination of the subject of biblical justice. Daniel Goody, CSC, at Notre Dame has also made a contribution to the understanding of biblical justice. My two cents–that and two bucks may get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

    • Many thanks for your insightful comment, Robert.

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