By: Gabriela Degen De La Cruz
My name is Gabriela Degen De La Cruz. For some I’m a nomade without a place to call home, and to others I’m a wonder-filled wanderlust soul. Although I come from a broken family with separated parents, since the age of 10, I was beyond fortunate to have been privileged enough to attend private International Schools in Cambodia, and boarding school in Thailand.
Having traveled since I was 5 months old, and the first time I traveled unaccompanied was when I was 11, I quickly learned to rely on my own senses to get by. I’ve developed skills to navigate through life, think critically, and act purposefully.
Although I have the capabilities to be a catalyst for change, I don’t always deem myself as best placed to do so. It’s not whether I can or can’t do it, it’s more my own perception in my ability to do well. And if I dig a little deeper, it’s whether I want to risk potentially failing and being wrong. Yes I am human too and not immune to insecurities. But as my father taught me from the young age of 8, you either learn to fail, or fail to learn. Isn’t it interesting how we learn more from our failures than our successes? So here I am, sharing with you the lessons I’ve studied so far - from the lecture halls of my Undergraduate and Master’s studies, seasoned with life’s lessons on a plane from one country to the next.
Schools of Thought on Social Justice
Undoubtedly, when you delve deep enough to study what there is to say on “social justice”, there are many perspectives, school of thoughts, and theories you come across. Luckily for us, who don’t have hard copies of encyclopedias or paperback dictionaries, with only a few clicks away we can read a summary and be satisfied that we understand what it’s all about. Until we hear something in the news or start a conversation at a neighbourhood party, should the topic arise. But before we go further let us start with the basics.
According to the Oxford Dictionary Online, social justice, is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society”. This leads us to take a closer look at the familiar term ‘justice’, which has its roots in the Latin word ‘justus’, referring to just behavior or treatment. However, an inquisitive mind like mine does not hesitate to questions “just behavior” or “just treatment”, because if there is one thing that I’ve learned from all the places I’ve been to, is that common sense is not common, and the same can be said about a “just” behavior or treatment. Different cultures understand justice differently, and therefore “just behaviors” are experienced differently by people from different backgrounds, religion, ethnic origin, gender, etc. the list can go on.
Nonetheless, if we continue delving deeper, the term ‘justus’ derives from the term ‘jus’ meaning ‘law’, ‘right’. This is where people and cultures find seemingly different applications of justice depending on their unique contexts. Hence, why we have a legal system that can enforce law and order, which nowadays can chime a strong cord with those who have lost trust in governing institutions to do so (more on this in coming posts). But it is in the legal terminology, that even the moral principles of Human Rights has evolved from. Today our human rights are widely accepted as inalienable fundamental rights to which a every person is inherently entitled to, simply because she or he is a human being. These human rights are enshrined in documents like in the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that social justice is routinely coupled with ideas of equality - since every individual has inherit rights merely by being human, and therefore entitled to equal access and equal opportunities. This is the bedrock of egalitarian thought. Egalitarianism, as a political doctrine that essentially advocates for everyone to have the same political, social, economic and civil rights.
From an economic perspective, egalitarianism is seen to be the driving force behind socialism and even communism. It is economic egalitarianism that seeks to remove the social barriers, due to economic inequality by means of redistribution of wealth. An obvious example of this is in social welfare programs, where progressive tax policies take proportionately more money from wealthy individuals to redistribute it to those who lack the same means, in order to raise their standard of living.
Among many criticisms, economic egalitarianism as a doctrine has two main problems. Firstly, the mistaken premise that the rich exploit the poor in order to get wealthy. Over the last 150 years most socialist literature promote this premise. This is most evident in Karl Max’s work when he wrote his “Communist Manifesto” published in 1848. Depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, you could still argue that it’s still the case today, or argue your way around this. Secondly, it has been extensively argued that socialist programs and welfare systems have the tendency to create more problems than they actually solve. For example, welfare programs that use tax revenue to supplement the income of underemployed or unemployed individuals, usually has the effect of creating a dependency relation, where recipients become dependent on the government’s support instead of being incentivised to improve their own situation. It has been observed by historians that in places where socialism or communism has been tried on a national scaled, it failed to remove the class distinctions in society. Instead, the distinction between the nobility - common man has been just replaced with the working - political class man (Kowalczyk, 2016).
With the above snapshot, this leads me to wonder if different perspectives of ‘social justice’ simply encapsulate a specific time in history. And with time, and as society constantly changes, how we see social justice in practice also changes. Then, maybe we need a perspective that is out of time and place, to really be our standard for what ‘social justice’ should really be about.
A Different Way of Seeing Social Justice
From all the philosophical texts and writings on social justice, I haven’t come across one that is so practical and explicit as the Bible. If you just read that and you had to gasp for air, please know what I’m about to touch on next will not be a sermon on the mount like preaching. Instead, it’s an invitation to consider an alternative perspective of social justice that is out of time and place from the assumption that God is exactly that, out of time and place. If you are quite familiar with the texts in the Bible or growing in your understanding, this will be another opportunity to compare how schools of thoughts on social justice compare to what you may already know.
What, then can we know about social justice from this alternative perspective that is out of time and place? Well, there are quite a number of things one can draw out from texts found in the Bible. One of the key findings, on which most, if not all, topics revolves around, is the source of social justice. However, for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick to discussing how this alternative perspective present social justice.
Firstly, there is a strong emphasis to show concern and care for the plight of the poor, for those who are afflicted, and in need (Leviticus 25:35; Exodus 22:25; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 58:6–7; Zechariah 7:9-10; Jeremiah 22:3; Psalm 82:3; Proverbs 31:9; James 2:14–17), or less fortunate (Matthew 25:40). Most of these individuals are often orphans, widows, and what we nowadays call refugees and asylum seekers - individuals who do not have a support system or are able to fend for themselves within the systems of their society. The focus here, is still who society is to treatment those less privileged. Secondly, other accounts (Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; 27:19) also alludes to consequences if we treat vulnerable individuals unjustly, which we see nowadays when orphans are abused, widows violated, and refugees denied their right to seek safety.
Another text talks about reaching out to the homeless and loveless (James 1:27). Here too we see a reference of social justice as being a moral obligation to care for those less fortunate. Thus, these example can be said to be out of time as it shows that it’s not constrained to the moment in history in which it was written nor the context. In other words, because it is still applicable today, it’s safe to say that it’s past the “test of time”.
Moreover, this perspective is out of time and place, as its exhortations to care for the poor are more individual than societal. Rather than delegating our responsibilities to our governments and social institutions to ensure social justice is carried out, we as individuals are encouraged to do what we can to help those in need. The notions of social justice we frequently hear of today replaces the individual with the government, who, through taxation and other welfare programmes aims to redistributes society’s wealth. Such policies very rarely foster compassion and encourage generous giving, but tends to harbor resentment in those who see their hard-earned money being given to someone who they could consider as undeserving. Thus, this alternative perspective of social justice, by focusing on our individual responsibility, surpasses the stance and political views of any government or school of thought, at any time in history, and in any particular place.
In conclusion, we’ve seen how social justice is often described as relative to a time and place. In turn, this provides an inconsistent definition, as its standard is constantly changing. A standard that is frequently evolving and flexible in its definition is not a reliable measure at all. Therefore, we looked at an alternative perspective that is out of time and place from a few references in Scripture offering a better definition of justice. This definition goes beyond social infrastructures and policies to how we treat each other on a day to day.
Kowalczyk, H. A., (2016) Capitalism, Socialism and Communism. Huffington Post. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/henryk-a-kowalczyk/capitalism-socialism-and-_b_8523486.html