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What is social justice anyway?

a bar of soap

Earlier this year, I relocated from Christchurch to South Auckland. In the evenings, my husband and I have been walking the streets of our new neighbourhood to get a sense of our new community. During the day, I’ve been trying to get a sense of my new role as Assistant Director with The Salvation Army’s Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit. Our team is part of The Salvation Army’s mission to fight injustice and engage in social action.

As a newbie to both South Auckland and the unit, I decided the best way to understand my new environment is to ask questions. I have asked questions like: where do I find the best Indian takeaways? Why are there Police in my supermarket most times I shop? What do I do about the baby left crying in the back of that car? Why have prisons been built in our neighbourhood? And … what is social justice, anyway?

To be honest, my understanding of social justice sometimes seems a bit like chasing a wet cake of soap across the bathroom floor! I think I know what social justice looks like, but it is still hard to grasp.

In the past, I’ve read about social justice issues. I’ve liked social justice posts on Facebook. And in my previous role, I specialised in delivering addiction treatment interventions. Yet still I’ve felt guilty about not being involved in enough ‘social justice causes’. At times, I’ve not been sure if I’ve been engaging in social justice ‘properly’.

My more intentional research this year has revealed that social justice is actually very difficult to define. According to a survey undertaken in New Zealand a few years ago, respondents had very different ideas of what social justice is all about. Even Google offers many definitions. It’s not that some people are right or wrong. Rather, there are many different ways of approaching social justice and a variety of understandings of what constitutes social justice. No wonder it’s felt like I’ve been struggling to keep hold of a slippery bar of soap!

At last year’s Just Action conference, I was deeply impacted by the comment of a Salvation Army officer who told me that many of our Salvation Army corps (churches) tell him they ‘don’t do social justice because they haven’t yet found a Social Justice Champion’. Perhaps our churches feel like they are grasping at an elusive bar of soap, too?

As my research progressed, I changed my questions. I stopped asking, ‘Am I doing social justice?’, which comes with a subtle second question: ‘Am I doing enough social justice?’ That’s because when my focus is on ‘doing’, I suspect there’s the danger that social justice then becomes something I do to others. And I also suspect that such ‘doing’ might come from a place of superiority, pride or power. Such actions are more like an ‘App’ to download and play on command, rather than a way of life. If I focus on doing social justice, I can then stop doing social justice whenever my virtuous feelings outweigh my guilty feelings about not doing enough.

But when I change my approach to ask, ‘Am I living justly?’, I suspect that ‘just action’ will become an integrated part of who I am. For those of us that are part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, just living flows from an understanding that God dignifies all human life and the planet. Ideally, this understanding motivates us to live from a place of compassion that empowers and honours others and protects our universe.

As I’ve considered the various definitions of, and approaches to, social justice, it seems to me that God gives each of us a passion for particular causes. Some of us are deeply moved by the injustice of migrant exploitation here in New Zealand, others want to fight for gender equality, address the causes of child poverty, or create pathways to accessible housing for all New Zealanders. Thus, alongside the multiple definitions for social justice are multiple pathways for working toward a more just world.

I therefore wonder if it is more important to focus on who we are by embracing Gandhi’s challenge: ‘You must be the change you want to see in the world.’ Each of us can ask God for the passion to be part of solutions in our own communities, living in ways that make those solutions a reality.

This year, The Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit’s Just Action conference is taking the form of a roadshow in four main centres. We’re planning to localise each roadshow to reflect what’s happening in each of these communities. Our overall aim is to inspire responses about how we can live justly and promote just action in our own backyards. We intend to move beyond chasing a slippery bar of soap, to grasping hold of a way of life that brings social justice to our communities. I hope you’ll join us.

By Sue Hay

Go to www.salvationarmy.org.nz/socialjustice and www.facebook.com/SPPUNZ for more about the work of the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit.

To receive the unit’s monthly Public Sphere newsletter, e: socialpolicy@nzf.salvationarmy.org