Tuesday, March 17

Social Justice Traditions and Charity

Modern social justice came out of the eighteenth century as an important political and social issue in Western civilization. Since this time, there are concepts such as political equality, citizenship and distribution of monetary resources have come to the forefront of social justice. However, it is not only within the social and political spheres that social justice has been a concern, but also within religious traditions across the globe. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a long history of doctrines relating to social justice topics, particularly those found within the canonical Scriptures. 

But it was not until 1891 when Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which kicked off modern movement. This encyclical joined the hands of Catholicism and Modernity, and addressed labor issues current at the time. Catholic Social Tradition (CST) begins with Genesis, where God creates humanity in the imago dei. As beings made in his image and likeness, we are endowed with inherent dignity, value and worth. Franciscan scholar John Dun Scotus referred to the notion as “thisness” - the particularity or uniqueness of the human person. In Genesis 4, God calls out - “where is your brother? Cain’s response is both philosophical and social - “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Judeo-Christian tradition would answer in the affirmative, and declare that we are called to be our brother and sister’s “keeper” as well as taking care of the world around us. 

These issues, although we as individuals are responsible for working toward the common good, are not ours alone. We must work with others, as a community. Since the dignity of the human person is the foundation for a moral vision of society, it therefore follows that social, economic, political, and other considerations come into play. CST addresses issues such as human trafficking, abortion, the death penalty, birth control, treatment of the poor and the homeless, treatment of the oppressed and enslaved, as well as a myriad of other issues. However, it is worth noting that social justice is not a tradition that belongs to Catholicism alone, but to all people. This can be seen through the lens of Islam and Buddhism, two very different but very important religious traditions, which then begs the question - are we enacting justice, or charity? If so, how does one differentiate the two in order to come to a fuller understanding of humanity and our role within it?

Social Justice Teachings of Other Faith Traditions
Christianity and Islam
Christianity and Islam have always had a tumultuous relationship. In recent years, however, in part due to the large amount of inter-religious dialogue that is taking place, ideas concerning social justice are being exchanged, examined and discussed. For example, by perusing several quotations from the Bible and from the Qur'an, one finds a good number of passages on the love of neighbor. Both Muslims and Christians are called to solidarity, and to help the needy, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick, the dying, the hurt, as well as others. 

The founders of these two traditions, Jesus and Muhammad, lived in rather unfavorable times. One of the shared truths that Jesus and Muhammad often spoke about is the poor. The phrase commonly used in Christian circles - “the option for the poor” - actually comes from a Spanish phrase. The Spanish for “option” is stronger, implying something that should be done, not something that you may do. One must live in solidarity - living with and experiencing the poor. In fact, in Islam, paying the zakat (the charity) is one of the Five Pillars, or five requirements of being a good Muslim. 

In both traditions, God created humanity with a particular harmony, but this harmony is not maintained by instinct - rather by action. Right action is a thus a form of witness to God, but injustice can and does cause division, as well as turmoil and strife. Then, jihad becomes important. Although jihad is often associated with a holy war, it actually has a much broader understanding in Islam. It speaks of a struggle to transform the individual and society. But one cannot simply espouse a social justice teaching and not act. One must puts words into action. But Islam is not alone in its call for jihad against the injustices of society at large - other religious traditions, including Buddhism, address these same issues. 

Buddhism and Social Justice
Buddhism is seen in some circles as a contemplative religious tradition. However, this does not mean that it is without its values on the human person and justice. Since its formation followers of the Buddha have placed an emphasis on social justice borne out of compassion. An early example of this emphasis is seen in the reign of King Ashoka (304-232 BC). He started out as a violent ruler, but following his conversion to Buddhism he began to repent for his past actions, and as a result, he tried to rehabilitate prisoners and stop the slaying of animals as well as setting up hospital-like areas for both humans and animals. Further, Ashoka formed a group of messengers who could bring their concerns and desires before the king to be given fair treatment. 

In the Mahayana tradition we read of the bodhisattva, Christ-like figures who live their lives in service of others. A bodhisattva pledges to take upon themselves the burdens and suffering of all beings, from humans to birds to plants. This allows the bodhisattva to fully experience the life of creation and as a result, he or she grows in compassion. The current 14th Dalai Llama cries out for justice for the Tibetan people, as well as an end to injustices across the globe and fair treatment of all through compassionate means. Although this is only one example, it demonstrates that Buddhism also places an emphasis on the same sort of issues that CST does. 

The Relationship between Charity and Justice
At this point it is necessary to define what one means by justice and charity. Justice and charity can be described through analogy. A group of villagers continually finds bodies floating downstream each day. They care for the wounded and bury the dead. The villagers do this day after day, and in their charity continue to take care of the bodies. But is this justice? Justice would be seeking the source of where these bodies are coming from, and changing the situation. Charity is more concerned with social action, whereas one can see that justice is more concerned with systematic action. In other words, charity would be serving at a soup kitchen, helping out at a thrift shop, or building homes for refugees, whereas justice is changing official government policies, and working to transform not only the individual but the society at large. By directly confronting the flawed systems that the issues stem from, one can begin to bring transforming the society. 

Habitus toward Social Justice
By examining the social justice teachings of a selection of religious traditions as well as establishing similarities and differences between justice and charity, one can begin to come into a fuller grasp of CST as a whole. This cry for justice is universal. Love and compassion transcend religious boundaries. A quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi famously declares, “In everything you do preach the Gospel... if necessary, use words.” Social teaching must show itself in practice, but it should not stop at charity. Social justice is also a spiritual value rooted in different religious traditions. Yet one will find that Atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others will all talk about social justice issues. Now, in various religious orders, professed members wear a “habit.” This word is derived from the Latin habitus, which means “a new way of life.” By living out social teachings from each religious tradition, justice can begin to take hold in society and can further its transformative power. Yet it takes more than one person, it takes a community of persons; a community of love. It calls for a new way of life - a habitus toward social justice.

[1] Cho, Sungtaek. Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice. Stony Brook: Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7. 2000. 2. Print.
[2] Donovan, John F. “Pope Leo XIII and a Century of Catholic Social Teaching” in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. 55-56. Print.
[3] Dardess, George, and Marvin L. Krier Mich. In the Spirit of St. Francis and the Sultan. 1st ed. Maryknoll: Orbis Book, 2011. 153-175. Print.
[4] Butler, Colin. Buddhism and Social Justice. Australia: National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, 2014. 1. Print.
[5] Cho 6.
[6] Analogy derived from chapter 8 of The Holy Longing (Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. Image. 2009. 169-170. Print.).

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