Social Justice

I’ve thought about the whole “social justice” thing a lot over the last decade, and my views have changed considerably along the way. I know that they’re not fully formulated even at this point, but I’ve learned a lot, and realized a lot, both through reading, and observing, but especially through doing.

Overall, sadly, I think that at large, we’re doing it wrong. While ideas like soup kitchens, welfare, and food stamps are, at their core, good-intentioned, they lack one key element : relationship. Knowing and being involved in the lives of the people they directly affect.

This ultimate-lack-of-involvement serves two major ills –

While providing food does serve to assist with the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it ignores some things that are just as important – the ability to be human, and recognized as such. Which, many people don’t think much about, but it’s very true – for a lot of people marginalized by society, more than anything, they want to be acknowledged as existing. While they may need food to survive, they need to know that they exist more than anything. And the simple act of being involved in their lives is so empowering, so energizing, that it can help to lift them out of the place that they’re in, and inspire their drive to do more than simply be a human being. I’ve witnessed first-hand how incredibly dumbfounded people can be when you take interest in them, rather than treating them like they don’t exist. And it’s incredibly overwhelming, extremely challenging. It forces us outside of our own comfortable little boxes to really see the pain in the lives of people around us – to look people in the eyes and try to read the anguish in their very souls. To allow God to let us catch even a glimpse of what He sees in other people. It is, honestly, so overwhelming that when it happens, it makes me almost physically sick – to see the hurt, pain, and struggle of other human beings. It can be too much for me to take. And to be honest, I shut it out a lot of the time. Not because I want to, but because I simply have to. Because if I don’t, I can’t function. It is a feeling of helplessness that I can not even begin to express. And I really believe that everyone could feel this level of anguish about the state of other people around them, if they would only allow themselves to. The thing is, if we all did so, then we all could impact the world around us for the better. Because I can’t change the world. I realized years ago that even if I gave every dollar I made to help the homeless and starving, even if I lived under a bridge in a box, I could not help everyone. And, personally, I’m not called to. But we (collectively) ARE able to. We ARE called to. If each of us, in our own way, reached out into OUR own world, OUR own sphere of influence, we WOULD change the world. To me, that is social justice. Using the resources and abilities we’re provided in order to speak hope and truth and value into the lives of the PEOPLE around us. That doesn’t mean that we will change everyone, that we will be able to help everyone, because some people, for whatever reason, don’t want that. At least not at the current stage in their lives. But we will leave an impact on their lives, which they will carry for the rest of theirs.

Secondly, by not being actually involved in people’s lives, it allows for a LOT of abuse by folks who could provide for themselves, should they have the need to. I saw this hundreds of times first-hand during my years volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Between people making $50k+ coming in for the free meal, local townspeople who would call to ask what was being served that day before deciding whether they would stop by that day, folks selling their state-provided “benefits” for cash so that they could go buy things they really wanted, etc., there is so much waste and abuse in the system that it’s both disheartening and incredibly frustrating. Because the people who are just lazy are taking resources from the people who are legitimately destitute. The drain on society goes beyond financial though, it has reached the levels of becoming its own entrapping culture. And it continues to get worse.

So, how in the world do we do stuff like this? When I was single, I had all kinds of time to be able to be at the soup kitchen, traveling and meeting people, etc. But now that I’m married and have a young kid, time is fleeting, and I’m exhausted pretty much all the time. The key is that we have to do what we’re able to, with what we have, where we are NOW. In some seasons, that’s not very much. In others, it’s a ton. But the key is that as our ability or resources dwindle, others grow, and they can take our place. Likewise, when their ability or resources dwindle, we may be able to take their place. If we all do our own part, as we’re able, that’s the key – it’s the methodology of the early church, which is so inspiring – as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 8:

… Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have. Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. As the Scriptures say, “Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough.” (2 Cor 8:11b-15)

It is this community, this actually-knowing-beyond-the-facade-people-around-us-put-on, this actually being involved in the lives of others, that helps us to understand the fullness and community that God experiences within Himself. It is knowing that we are doing what we can to make sure that others can not only be human, not only exist, but thrive and grow. That, to me, is the definition of social justice. It is putting rubber to the road, and actually being involved in the lives of others. It is using our abilities, our resources, our lives to change our world. To ensure that the people around us are taken care of. And, the people around us ensuring that we are taken care of. If we all did that, then there would be true social justice.