February 20 is the United Nations’ World Day of Social Justice
We all have an instinctive sense of what is fair. It can be very sharp when we assess what people or governments owe to us, less sharp in judging what we owe to others, and quite blunt about what our duties to people distant and different from us. We often need to be shocked into broadening our vision.
This year the bushfires have shocked us into recognising freshly what justice demands of us in the many relationships that make up our lives. Justice demands respect, requiring us to recognise the value of our world, of ourselves and of others and to respond to them respectfully. As we become more aware of our significant relationships, so the demands of justice on us deepen and become more complex.
We learn justice first through our relationships to family, friends and to people wanting to trade with us. We recognise that if we want people to be fair to us, we must be fair to them. We see that punishments should fit crimes and that to lie to others, shout at them or steal their toys, lacks respect for them. Later we learn that respect demands we keep promises and fulfil contracts. We learn what justice means in our personal and business relationships with others.
Relationships, however, are rarely between only two people. If we steal from our sister, we find that we disappoint and anger our parents. If we steal a poor person’s cow we may take away her income and make her family homeless. Our relationships intersect with one another, so that acting with due respect becomes more complex.
The complexity grows because we are part of many groups: families, schools, churches, businesses, sporting clubs and nations. All these groups and institutions are composed of many persons, none of whom is solely responsible for what the group does. If the institution is to act justly, its leaders must ensure that everyone in them knows what respect demands of them in their relationships to people and other groups in society.
That is why we speak of social justice. It looks to the complex relationships between complex institutions, asking if the laws and practices that govern the ways in which the act in which they interact serve the welfare of all people in society, and particularly the most disadvantaged or are rigged in favour of the strong and wealthy.
The bushfires, however, point to even more complex relationships that must be right if a society is to be just. They show that in all our relationships, we as individuals, families, groups, institutions and as nations must show respect for our natural environment. Environmental justice calls us to recognise the beauty, variety and harmonies in the complex and interlocking relationships that sustain the world of which we are part, and to ask what paying due respect to them means.
The bushfires show that the way in which we presently relate to our world lacks respect. It will need to change if we are to preserve its beauty and its capacity to sustain life. We can see the stress that climate change brings through more frequent droughts, diminished rainfall and drying out of forests. It makes catastrophic bushfires more likely as well as affecting farming and water supplies. Ecological justice spells out what we owe to the world in which we live if we are to respect it.
Interpersonal justice, social justice and ecological justice are not separate kingdoms. They are all aspects of living with respect in our world. To bring them together in our personal lives, our working relationships and our advocacy is a challenge at which we work in Jesuit Social Services. Social Justice Week strengthens us to meet the challenge.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.