Margaret Atwood once suggested that things which are painful and difficult to say should, nonetheless, be permitted the present tense. Painful truth, she submits, should not be washed or cauterized, but needs, instead, be said and said again, until it doesn’t need saying any more.
This is true, unfortunately, of social justice. One would think and hope that today there would be no question whatsoever that within Christian life and spirituality, social justice is not an optional item. It is a non-negotiable essential.
Sadly, that is not the case. For many of us, social justice is still seen as one specific and negotiable theology or as one optional part of spirituality. It is still seen as something we can take or leave. Scripture and Christian tradition, however, do not give us that option.
Already in the Book of Genesis, Scripture lays down a principle, which if taken seriously, demands social justice within every relationship we have. It tells us that creation reflects the glory of God and that all men and women are the glory of God.
This affirmation, understood correctly, is what social justice is all about: How do we protect the dignity of each woman and man.
The prophets flesh this out, with a clarity that leaves us no escape clause: For them, the quality of our faith depends upon the character of justice in the land. And according to them, you judge the character of justice in the land in the following way: By how a society treats three groups of persons: widows, orphans and foreigners.
They picked these groups because, at that time, these groups were the most vulnerable and least empowered among all the people. Perhaps less has changed than we suspect in the 2,800 years since the prophets threw out that challenge, given how widows, orphans and foreigners fare in today’s world.
Jesus takes up these ideas and deepens them. For him, we are not just like God, but, given the incarnation, God is also like us. This affords us, every single one of us, an incredible dignity. To protect that dignity requires social justice, namely structures, institutions and laws that promote and protect the dignity of every human person indiscriminately.
Moreover, Jesus deepens what the prophets said about widows, orphans and foreigners. For him, how we react in the face of their plight (and, by implication, how we react to the systems that help cause their plight) ultimately determines our salvation: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these (widows, orphans, foreigners) that you do unto me.”
Jesus identifies himself with the poor, with those on the edges, and tells us that whatever we do, good or bad, to them, we do to him, Furthermore, this is not just true for how our private lives, our personal sin or virtue, touch the poor, but also for how the systems (all the social, economic, ecclesial things we take part in) touch the orphan, the widow and the alien as well.
What we, or our systems, do to them, we do to Christ.
The common conception is that the church picked up this motif, in its social encyclicals, only about 100 years ago and is, only now, insisting on social justice. That is too simplistic. The church has always insisted on social justice. That insistence has simply taken on various forms:
The church has always upheld the dignity and sacredness of each human person and it has always affirmed (at least in theory if not in practice) that each person must therefore have personal access to those freedoms, goods and protections which can ensure that dignity. It also rightly insisted that these rights all have corresponding responsibilities.
Further, it also recognized that these rights and responsibilities play themselves out within a concrete community. It then taught that there are three essential levels to this community: family, nation and humanity.
Prior to its social encyclicals, the church focused much of its social teaching upon the first of these levels, the family. Then, from the late 19th century until the more recent social encyclicals, the focus was on the issues created by the industrial revolution, wages, unions and governmental responsibilities to the poor.
Today, its social teachings focus more on the third level, humanity and the problems of world peace, gender, race and the like. In this development we see a consistent line and a consistent emphasis on one of the great, non-optional, imperatives of the Gospel – social justice.