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A Challenge To Accept

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October 2021

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A Challenge To Accept

Most professions and skilled jobs have a “language” all their own. Most people listening to two doctors describing a medical condition may have a difficult time trying to make sense of what they are saying because they are speaking – “Medicalese”. If a plumber is overheard talking about a problem with the “Y” or a trap, that plumber is not speaking of a building with a gym and swimming pool, nor a device to catch animals. To a lawyer, a “Tort” is civil action, whereas, to a baker, it is a pastry. In the arenas of philosophy and theology, there is a specific language because the ideas are defined specifically. Unless we know the context of the words – how they are used – we cannot always presume we know what is being said, verbally or written. A very important case in point is the idea of “Social Justice”. Ask two people to define “social justice” and you are most likely to get two different answers. Until there is a common understanding of just what the person means by the concept of social justice, there can really be no fruitful discussion. [editor’s note: there does not need to be concurrence, simply that it is properly understood what the speaker means by “social justice”.]

Most simply, “justice” is receiving what is rightly owed. Many are basically familiar with the Gospel story of the workers who went out to work in a farmer’s vineyard. Some went at the first call, others later, and finally others at just before evening. The workers who worked the least, received the same pay as though they had worked the whole day. Every worker received the same day’s pay, regardless of how long they worked. Those who worked the whole day believed they were given an injustice by not receiving more for their labor. In their perspective, the farmer was “unjust”. Yet, the farmer reminded them that they had agreed beforehand what a just compensation would be, and they received their just compensation. There was no injustice. (cf. Mtt 20:1-15) A moral of this story is that generosity toward some is not an injustice toward others.

Described above is an example of “personal justice”. There are as many examples of personal justice as there are persons and situations in life. Simply spoken, a personal justice or injustice is directed at a person by another person. When a justice or injustice is directed toward a “class” of persons, by virtue of race, gender, age, or whatever, either by a person or by an “institution”, that falls under the classification of a “social justice” issue. Probably one of the most significant changes Jesus brought to the conscience of the Pharisees and Scribes was the move from a sense of “personal piety” to an understanding of a “social piety”. The great Shema Prayer of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, is about personal piety – “you shall…”. (cf. Mtt 22:34-40 When Jesus was questioned about the “greatest Commandment”, Jesus quoted the Shema Prayer and added the necessary appendage – “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus took the concept of loving God out of the context of a personal piety and placed it squarely in the arena of a social context.

Picking up the gauntlet of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, is part of personal piety. It is not an easy challenge always to forego an advantage in favor of a righteous action (or inaction). But our baptism demands it of us as best we can. Neither Jesus, nor the Church denies the call to a drive toward personal righteousness. That being said, a correct understanding of “righteous actions” must directly involve persons outside of the self. If John and Mary decide to begin a vegan diet to lose weight, that might be a “good” plan, but if their goal is just the “weight loss”, there is no righteousness or unrighteousness involved. Yet, if John and Mary begin a vegan diet because they believe it will help reduce the pattern of animal cruelty, environmental decline, or world hunger, their decision moves from a personal piety (what’s in it for me?) to a social piety (what’s in it for others?). Concern for the general welfare is critical to the overall concept of “Social Justice”, but it is more than a lot more than a personal piety directed toward the whole of society. The concept of “Social Justice” involves the participation of civil, educational, governmental, economic institutions as well as personal participation.

The prophets of Hebrew Scripture challenged the civil and religious leaders of Israel for leading the people into false worship of foreign gods, of uncharity toward others, and empty worship. The prophets of Hebrew Scripture were voices against the “social injustices” of Israel and her neighbors. The teachings of Jesus were a call for a personal commitment to bring about a just society. Jesus did not deny personal sin. Even in the well-known story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus recognized her “sin”, but forgave her (cf. Jn 7:45 – 8:11). It is impossible to correctly understand the Scriptures and not understand a command toward personal righteousness. It is equally impossible to correctly understand the Scriptures and not understand a command toward social justice. The Church, as the designated interpreter of the divine will cannot ignore its command to advocate for both a personal justice and a social justice.

When the Catholic bishops call for social justice, they are calling all persons, baptized or not, believers or not, to recognize and regard the fundamental equality of every person and to direct their personal and communal lives toward protecting the universal equality of being. Humans are different from one another. This is not an unreasonable assertion. Children growing up in the same households, same parents, siblings and assorted relatives differ widely in looks and personalities. Their “equality” is not in their looks, their abilities, their intelligence, or anything external. Their equality is in their rightful claim to human dignity. And, given a bit of hindsight, it is easy to see that history has more examples of our failure to recognize and respect the dignity of others than to promote.

Most assuredly, life would be much simpler if the fundamentals of human coexistence were observed by everybody. Unfortunately, not every human person is “wired” for the simple life. There are those who take great pleasure from gaining the advantage over others, who believe that their “fair share” is everything. Quite often these people are surrounded by others looking to impress their “heroes”, and share in the aura of wealth and power. Further, if the mind is good for nothing else, the mind is absolutely clever in concocting arguments in support of their personal desires. After all, the easiest idea to sell is the one everyone wants to believe. For too many people, the desire to believe is the only evidence necessary to justify a position. This is just as true today as a century ago, a millennia ago, epochs ago. The challenge of rational minds is to bring reason and rationality back into the modern mental landscape.