The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome

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Probing the Decline in the Commitment
to Social Justice
Jose Mario C. Francisco, S.J.

Many, including even Father General, have suggested that there appears to have been a decline in the commitment and work for social justice within the Society and in general. Some say that this is due to a watered-down understanding of social justice that has included palliative measures like giving financial assistance to the poor. Others believe that the cause of this apparent decline lies in the ethos of today’s world – so different from that of the ‘70s when GC 32 passionately enshrined the integral relationship between faith and justice. This perceived difference has been interpreted as an indication of general apathy and resignation to the status quo, and/or of the need for a new way of working for social justice, one with an ‘ideological’ framework different from that of earlier times. Surely there is some truth in each of these views.

However, there may be more fundamental issues connected with this apparent decline that I should like to discuss in this short essay.

The integral relation between faith and justice has been generally and rightly based on our rediscovery of the biblical theme of justice. Thus many theologies of justice, liberation and integral evangelization draw from the Book of Exodus, the prophetic literature and the ministry of Jesus in relation to his preaching of the Kingdom of God. But what may not have been sufficiently emphasized is that this view of justice cannot be separated from two related biblical convictions – that the world is absolutely dependent on God’s dominion and action, and that the subject of justice is “God’s chosen people.” Herein lies the most crucial and fundamental need for greater theological and practical integration of faith and justice.

In order for the biblical view of justice to be truly appropriated, and not simply transposed to our times, we need to examine to what extent these underlying biblical convictions are recognized and accepted. Furthermore, even if they are, there remains the related question of whether they are compatible with prevailing contemporary modern or post-modern worldviews. Let us take the first biblical conviction that the world is absolutely dependent on God’s dominion and action. Much of today’s work and advocacy for social justice is based on discourse involving human dignity, freedom and rights as basic concepts. And this has been most useful in advancing social justice. But such a discourse, as some social philosophers and theologians have recognized, especially when completely sealed off from any dimension of the ultimate or faith, appears incapable of providing a fundamental ground for social justice. The basic question then is why one should work for justice at all. The absence of the ultimate leads to current forms of social justice discourse that suggest in the manner of popular slogans that “you can be whatever you desire.” Even if what we so nobly desire is justice, we have to admit that our desires and the freedom to act on these noble desires are not absolute and need some reference to ultimate ground, even if its formulation is always imperfect and requires constant revision.

Furthermore, current social justice discourse based on human dignity and freedom historically developed in the western context from a religious perspective, e.g. the natural law tradition. Though one cannot return to the past, a perspective closed to any formulation of ultimate ground, e.g. a strict secularist (not secular) view , could easily lead to a dead end, where rights of individuals or groups compete without the possibility of fundamental resolution.

Thus there is an urgent need to better articulate within our particular contexts what constitutes an ultimate ground for social justice. In the pluralistic context of western societies, such a ground must draw from its different traditions but not be closed to the dimension of ‘ultimacy.’ In the diverse societies of East Asia, this integral relation between faith and justice can only be articulated with the contribution of the great religious traditions that have shaped its civilizations.

Let us now proceed to the second biblical conviction which is closely related to the first, that the subject of justice is “God’s chosen people.” While the biblical understanding of justice protects the dignity and well being of the individual, its primary focus is communal, expressed in God’s covenant with Israel. This is again very different from much of the contemporary discourse on justice, which is based on the western concept of the autonomous rational subject, the individual as most central.

This inattention to the primacy of relationality over individuality has been criticized from both western and eastern perspectives. Commentators have pointed to the fragmentation that characterizes many contemporary western societies. The concept of human rights divorced from a communal context has been criticized in the non-Western cultures of Asia and Africa, and this critique has unfortunately been used by some political leaders to reject human rights and justify authoritarianism. But when one examines traditional East Asian cultures, for example, one finds that communitarian relations provide the context for the dignity and well being of each individual. Thus in both western and eastern contexts, social justice must be intrinsically connected with community.

Today’s apparent decline in the commitment and work for social justice then must be addressed at its roots. We need a contemporary articulation of social justice as open to ultimacy with the primacy of relationality in our view of human dignity and rights. This task falls upon all who work for social justice especially those who do so in the light of their faith. We must be able to articulate for others and ourselves what it means for us to work for justice and to be dependent on God’s action in the world, what it means for us to acknowledge community as the context of our human dignity and rights.

 

Jose Mario C. Francisco S.J.
P.O. Box 221, U.P. Post Office
1144 Quezon City
PHIILIPPINE