What is Just?

Why Social Justice Matters for Everyone, According to a Really Cool Nun

Social justice is one of those phrases I often hear people debating in the news and in other social spaces.

And what is interesting about such debates is that people tend to be unclear about what they mean by social justice.

This is often true, whether folks are for it or against it.

Picture by Cody Pulliam, courtesy of Unsplash.

For example, advocates often suggest that we need social justice because people are treated unfairly in some way.

But it isn’t always clear what such folks mean by social justice.

In some cases it feels like folks arguing for social justice mean that it is everything opposite of conservative politics.

Here is an example of that: “Why ‘Social Justice’ Triggers Conservatives”.

In this article, the author equates social justice with examples like the following.

Creating safe, caring college environments.

Resisting oppressors.

Businesses taking a stand on certain political issues.

The tagline of this article argues that conservatives “loathe any words that imply an obligation to their fellow human beings.”

This isn’t helpful.

I know a lot of conservatives who care deeply about their fellow human beings and spend time and money demonstrating this.

So, it is inaccurate to caricature all conservatives in this manner.

In addition, we aren’t sure what exactly this author means by the phrase social justice.

As Socrates reminds us in the Euthyphro, examples do not a clear definition make. (See Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro about what piety is.)

But, to be fair, sometimes folks on the right don’t help the matter much either.

Sometimes when conservatives use the phrase social justice, they use it to criticize all politics on the left.

Here is an example of this: “Biden and the great Sheetz shakedown—an example of social justice run amok”.

The author of this article suggests that social justice causes people to be careless about crime and standards in general.

And this is a problem which the author attributes primarily to folks on the left.

This isn’t very helpful either.

If you are anything like me, you know a lot of folks on the left who care greatly about crime and standards.

They just disagree with some folks on the right about how we handle crime or which standards are the most important ones.

The Sheetz shakedown article also lacks a clear definition of the phrase social justice.

It merely suggests that social justice concerns leads to sub-par standards and leftist apathy regarding criminal endeavors.

And this is a causal connection which the author never attempts to explain.

(Perhaps being against social justice leads to fallacious causal reasoning. But probably not. And I don’t have time to explore such a claim in this post.)

Now, my point in writing this post is not to critique either liberals or conservatives.

Rather, my point is that a lot of people have very strong feelings about the phrase social justice but are often unclear what they mean when they use the term.

And this is why Sister Marie Augusta Neal is very helpful.

“Nun Deep in Prayer”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Neal was a nun and sociologist who earned her PhD from Harvard in 1963 and taught at Emmanuel College in Boston.

She wrote her dissertation on “religious attitudes towards change and social justice”.

In recent research, I ran across an article of hers titled “Social Justice and the Sacred”.

This essay is in the book The Sacred in a Secular Age, an updated version of which you can find at your local bookstore or here on Amazon.

In it she gives one of the most helpful definitions of social justice I have ever read.

She writes,

Social justice is based on the notion that people have rights to the goods and services they need to stay alive and develop their human potential.

Action for social justice initiates and carries out what needs to be done to achieve these rights.[1]

I would like to point out two important ideas contained in Sister Neal’s quote about social justice:

First, she notes that everyone has the right to “the goods and services they need to stay alive”.

This implies that people have the right to food, housing, clothing, healthcare, and probably a job of some sort.

Second, she notes that everyone has the right to goods and services they need to “develop their human potential.”

This implies that people have the right to, among other things, an education, a job, and a healthy, clean environment, among others.

Sister Neal’s beliefs in social justice grew out of her commitment to both the Church and to God.

For instance, in the 60s, the Pope criticized folks around the world, for their “close alignment with the wealthy and the powerful” that led to “neglect of the poor”. [2]

The Pope recognized that powerful and wealthy people around the world often worked to amass more power and wealth.

They often do this even if it costs vulnerable people basic necessities.

Wealth and power are, after all, very seductive.

So, the Pope called Christians to defend the poor and work for social justice on their behalf.

This is in line with the classical Christian teachings of church father Thomas Aquinas who argued (these are his words summarized in Sister Neal’s article),

“when the poor reach out to take what they need from those who are rich, they commit no sin but only do what they should do, since, when human need is the issue, all goods are held in common.”[3]

Thomas Aquinas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It appears that at least in some corners of the Christian world, ideas related to social justice the way Neal describes it have long held sway.

This is not surprising, given the teachings of Christ himself.

Now, there are likely four objections that come to people’s minds when they hear Sister Neal’s definition of social justice.

I thought about those objections and what Sister Neal might say to them.

First, some people might argue that people can have the goods they need to live if they are just willing to work hard.

However, Sister Neal points out that this is often not the case.

For example, consider cases in the past where apartheid existed or colonial powers exploited other countries.

By controlling land, resources, and the government, such powers often denied indigenous people the ability to eat and have a roof over their head.[4]

You can read more about such instances in Brazil here: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—Chapter One.

Sister Neal also suggests that strict border control can be an example of depriving people of basic life necessities.

For example, for refugees fleeing deadly wars in their country, too strict border control can literally be a death sentence for them.

You can read more about this here.

Second, some might argue that terrible conditions depriving people of basic necessities might exist in other countries but not in the U.S.

I think if Sister Marie were alive today, she would note the recent significant increase in housing prices for both renters and buyers.

She would also likely point out that there has not been a significant raise in minimum wage, nor a change in national policy to fund college.

She would argue that such realities 1) leave many people without basic necessities to live and develop their potential.

And 2) they are the result of deliberate social choices we make.

(For example, here are social choices that cause rising housing costs.)

As such, they are unjust, given her definition of social justice.

And she would probably say we must make different choices as a matter of basic human rights.

Third, some folks might argue that taking the steps Sister Neal suggests means more taxes or corporate control and that this is un-American.

I believe Sister Neal would argue that American history is one in which values of social justice have been alternately upheld and trammeled.

For instance, she would certainly point to the following as clear examples of social justice movements in our country’s history.

The American Revolution.

And the Constitution.

The abolition of slavery.

And the women’s suffrage and equality movement.

The worker’s rights movement.

The New Deal in the Great Depression.

The Civil Rights movements.

These are all instances in which mass social action coalesced around ensuring people’s basics human rights.

Sister Neal would also point to the following as clear examples of instances in which social justice has suffered in American history.

The Native-American genocide.

Slavery.

The internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

Some instances of abortion. [5]

Poverty.

Homelessness.

Underfunded schools.

Environmental degradation.[6]

So, she would point out that in the best moments of our country, we defended human dignity and justice. And in our worst moments, we trammeled it.

Thus, she would argue, any celebration of our country’s heritage, as well as our construction of its future, must reflect the value of social  justice.

Regarding taxes, she would likely say that we usually feel comfortable about taxes that build roads and fund wars.

That is because we believe such taxes enable us to provide the things we need to live and develop our potential.

She would likely argue that we must expand our understanding of what people need to live and develop their potential.

And we must tax accordingly.

She would also likely point out that the US spends a disproportionate amount of money on war as opposed to its people.

Fourth, some folks might argue that social justice is a new concept that wasn’t a part of our Founding Father’s vision of the country.

Sister Neal addresses this issue in her article in part.

She points out that social justice ideas have always been a part of the church. However, these ideas became more widespread in the 20th century.

That is because prior to the 20th century, most people viewed society as organized and good.

And it viewed a lack of society as disorganized and bad.

According to this view, society is always just because it was organized.[7]

“Old Marketplace of Rostock”, by Friedrich Jentzen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

However, in the 20th century, as society grew, many academics and lay people began recognizing the reality of “organized evil”.

In fact they realize that “much evil is highly organized”.

This occurs throughout society in its law and systems.

Neal mentions apartheid as an example of organized injustice.[8]

As another example, consider the unethical but at least partly legal practices of businesses like Enron.

Such practices contribute to stock market crashes and result in severe financial harm to the average person.

This is an example of organized evil. You can learn more about this here: The Rise and Fall of Enron.

Only within the last century have people recognized that society can systematize widespread injustice.

This growing realization in part led to the development of the United Nations and to the International Covenants on Human Rights.

And of course, this realization has led to concern regarding social justice in individual countries like the U.S.

A Final Point

In the background of her ideas, I think Sister Neal asks us to remember a few things about the human condition.

No human being chooses to be born.

And in the best of circumstances, it can be challenging to figure out how to survive and thrive in the world.

A respect for basic human dignity requires that we recognize that being a human being can be overwhelming.

Even in the best of circumstances.

And it means we work to support people as they try to survive and thrive in the world.

It also means we identify and dismantle systemic evil that crushes their ability to survive.

People all along the political spectrum care about the basic dignity of human beings.

Or at least this claim underlies political positions in both parties.

Social justice aims at protecting basic human dignity.

And it works to combat structured evil that undermines this dignity.

That is why social justice matters for everyone.

Neal writes,

“Social justice action is often reaction to structured evil, that is, to a situation in which people suffer not because the law is violated, but because it is adhered to.”[9]

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[1] Neal, Sister Marie Augusta. “Social Justice and the Sacred.” The Sacred in a Secular Age. Phillip E. Hammond, ed. University of California Press, 1985, pg. 333.

[2] Ibid, pg. 335

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 219.

[5] This is an interesting article that illustrates the complex stance many nuns have taken on abortion: Women and the Church.

[6] Sister Neal would argue that degraded environments undermine people’s ability to develop their potential in best cases.

In worst cases, such degradation contributes to their death through severe health problems.

These are problems like pollution and devastated landscapes (like mountain top removal).

[7] Neal, Sister Marie Augusta. “Social Justice and the Sacred”, pg. 338.

[8] Ibid, 338.

[9] Ibid, 340.

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