Matching action to social justice rhetoric



The World Day of Social Justice greets a year when social justice is returning to favour. Bank executives begin to own their social responsibilities. Liberal economics begin to be seen, not as the condition for a productive economy but as a barrier to it.

Thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Egypt and Tunisia, wait to cross into Tunisia from Libya. UNHCR/A DuclosThe common good is no longer seen as an oddity but as a powerful idea. Government spending is seen as helpful; austerity directed against the poor and the passion for balancing budgets are no longer boasted of.

That is the rhetoric. For governments, though, it is business as usual. Tax cuts for the wealthy, cuts in budgets that further humiliate resourceless Americans or Australians, with the ritual verbal muggings of minorities, coal worship and river destruction, continue unabated. Even if the cawing of economic liberalism is no longer heard in our land, the birds of carrion still feast.

This mismatch between rhetoric and practice discloses the lack of a coherent vision of society that shapes society. In developing such a vision the principles of Catholic Social Teaching can be a helpful resource. Their central insight is that each human person is precious and demands respect. People must not be treated simply as means to an end, as workers are if they are seen simply as a cost in production, or as people who seek protection are if seen simply as alien.

In this teaching, too, relationships are all important in human life. We depend on our environment and on one another in all that is significant in our lives: from being born and educated to making money and enjoying technology. Because we depend on one another we are also responsible to one another, particularly to the most vulnerable. That responsibility touches us in our domestic life and also in the organisation of the economy. So the making of wealth and the running of business have a social license — they are part of society with a responsibility to society.

Reflection on social justice generally focuses on the relationships between people in the institutions they form — businesses, media, churches, the military, governments etc. It looks at the human relationships that are embodied in the management of the economy, government and so on, and points to aspects that impede human flourishing.

More recently the importance of the environment for flourishing has been recognised. When this is disrespected we all suffer. Vulnerable people are often disadvantaged by pollution, by extremes of heat and cold, by rising sea levels and unreliable power supply. It is natural then to ask what we owe to our environment in order to ensure that it — and we as part of it — flourishes.


"Social justice does not mean simply beginning to act rightly. It demands teasing out and identifying what is knotted and reweaving what is matted."


This broadening of the scope of social justice invites an all-encompassing view of it. It invites us to see people in all their relationships that affect their flourishing. These include their relationships to ancestors and descendants, to their living places and language, to family, friendship and work groups, to states and nation, to their natural and built environment, to the groups they join, to government and its officers, to the legal and economic systems and their high priests.

We also see the importance of ecosystems — the multiple and interrelated aspects of life in disadvantaged areas that impede human flourishing. They also include the practices, rules and alliances that make an economic system that fosters inequality seem decent and inevitable. Among them, too, are the history of dispossession, discrimination and brutality facing Indigenous people that have fostered environmentally destructive practices and resistance to reform, and the contemporary destruction of native people's habitat by corporations assisted by first world investors and pension funds. .

Seen from this perspective many of the strands of relationships that connect people to society and to the environment are tangled. Social justice does not mean simply beginning to act rightly. It demands teasing out and identifying what is knotted and reweaving what is matted. It is a work of reconciliation in which the threads knotted in the ecosystem need carefully to be recognised, picked apart and rewoven harmoniously together.

Reconciliation involved more than setting right wrongs. It embraces also the relationships between the agents and the beneficiaries of action for social justice. Because they are part of the same ecosystems of love and exploitation, reconciliation demands self-reflection as well as social activism.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

World Day of Social Justice is 20 February 2018. Main image: Thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Egypt and Tunisia, wait to cross into Tunisia from Libya. UNHCR/A Duclos

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, World Day of Social Justice


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Existing comments

Selfishness and exploitation are the great enemies of social justice. When forming our social, political and personal moral values, these two serious flaws result in those knots that need untangling. Not just talking about social justice but offering help to others and examining our own reluctance to do so. Plus it feels good to help others, to care for the environment and to value relationships.
Pam | 20 February 2018

"... Each human person is precious and demands respect. People must not be treated simply as means to an end, as workers are if they are seen simply as a cost in production, or as people who seek protection are if seen simply as alien." Thank you Andrew for this concise and beautiful summary of Christian social teaching. Sadly you're absolutely right to argue that the increase in talk about social justice is not being matched by government and corporate action. I would also want to add that the church generally seems to be inadequately speaking up against poverty and inequality. Pope Francis of course is one of the great exceptions to this disappointing reality.
robert van zetten | 20 February 2018

Thank you Andrew. I believe the good Pope Francis would add " I concur". Would be delighted to experience similar action and urgency from the Australian bishops.
Michael Gill | 22 February 2018

Thanks Andrew. Clear, coherent and compelling. I appreciate your consistent voice of principle and humanity.
Anne | 22 February 2018

Would that this impassioned fervorino, weaving a Catholic spirituality with policy action for justice, were broadcast throughout the land and became deeply embedded in the everyday agenda of all Catholic leaders, from our Bishops to School Leaders. More Power to Your Elbow, Andy Hamilton!
Michael Furtado | 22 February 2018

Thank you to Andrew Hamilton for emphasising how the fight for social justice for all is interlinked with the struggle to effectively care for the environment. Sadly, too many political leaders fail to make this very important connection. All too often, they have allowed the big corporations to pollute at will. This has meant that we are confronted with the great peril of climate change which many do not want to recognise, but it also means that larges areas of the environment are so polluted that it is threatening the quality of the planet's water, soil and atmosphere. In many heavily populated and polluted regions, we are now seeing that many are being afflicted with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), heavy metal poisoning, cancers, respiratory complaints, heart diseases etc. And as Andrew has said in his article. it is those in the poorer parts of the world who suffer most. Already, people who live near badly polluted areas are being counselled to relocate to healthier ones. But if our leaders allow industries to continue their high levels of pollution, there will be no safe places to go. The struggle for social justice also involves the struggle for a healthy, safe and viable environment.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 February 2018

Like Anne I also really "appreciate your consistent voice of principle and humanity," Andrew. Thank you for your prophetic voice and courage.
robert van zetten | 22 February 2018

You make some nice points Andrew, but the piece I thought was rather over pessimistic. The world has learned by brutal experience that the best way to general prosperity is a well functioning market, and globally this has been hugely successful over the last 100 years. But markets need regulating and markets tend to fail and need swift interventions by governments and their collective international agencies. All of this has been hugely successful and should be celebrated. In Australia a major problem is "capture" of collective resources such a social spending by the powerful middle class ("middle-class welfare"), while the really poor literally go begging. Our poor are disproportionally the unemployed for whatever reason (and students in fact but they will see better days and are bright and quite resilient!). Over 50% of Australians pay no net tax, and that is absurd and immoral. So is the treatment of the family home and our intergenerational wealth preservation sans tax. I am not sure what you really mean by "liberal economics" but it should not be an attack on markets, but certainly on individualism , "entitlement" , sectional or personal self-interest and the lack of broad social solidarity that is characteristic of modern Australia.
Eugene | 22 February 2018

Beautifully articulated Fr Andrew. Thank you for its clarity and understanding of flow (threads, knots and weaving) in relation to the work of reconciliation. Relationship is central o creating a flow of, and in, life. Jewish people engage in a wonderful ritual when one of their people dies. The grieving person takes a piece of fabric and a hole is punched through it leaving threads dangling and missing in its aftermath. The work of bereavement is to pick up each thread (representing a relationship - could be to land, plant, animal, people, work, personal interests, responsibilities etc etc) , reflect on its significance (past, present and future), and discern whether to tie it to another thread or sever it altogether. Over time, this piece of fabric takes on another pattern ... a new life ... often more complex and interesting than the previous pattern. All the knots are either severed, enfolded into the new pattern or become a feature of the fabric itself. Beautiful symbolism of how life can be lived. Unknotting it is the challenging part ... and many people do not wish to partake of the wisdom inherent in its unfolding. Sadly, technologies and modern society tends to oppress, suppress and try to upstage this wisdom - the price paid for loving and losing someone or something deemed precious to that person. Compassion is the path in this journey of weaving a new story; and authentic social justice demands it.
Mary Tehan | 24 February 2018

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