Agnes Santhosh Thomas takes us to an understanding of social justice and how we can effortlessly practise this in our day-to-day lives.

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

Understanding social justice

‘Justice’ can be defined as our attitude and understanding of fairness in the broadest sense. The way fairness is felt and experienced in our households, community, and society at large helps us examine if it is lived or not. Justice and social justice are often used synonymously; however, in simple terms, social justice is how fairness is displayed in the everyday making of a society. Here, I hope to share some of my observations and learnings that made me aware of the importance of working and contributing to building a just society where everyone has a voice, a place, is seen and included; to be part of a community and place where we act as good stewards of our environment. I also wish to share some tools and practical steps that can deepen your understanding of social justice and how to become a champion for justice in your everyday life. In the spirit of solidarity, I want to highlight that social justice is not to be categorised as a profession or work. But as an everyday act, attitude, and choice you and I can make to create a just and fair society for all and live up to our call to ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ 

Understanding social justice is a critical need. It is evident in the increasing number of people who are being disadvantaged and excluded due to their class, caste, race, color, sexuality, ability(dis), gender, religious status, etc. Though we have become progressive in all areas of our life and society, this trend reveals that something is seriously flawed in our way of thinking and acting. Especially when it comes to the treatment of some people and groups and their lack of participation in society. For us as Christians, this reality contradicts what is presented in the life and death of Jesus and the Gospels’ teaching. We are called to love, and injustice manifests in the absence of love in our midst. But not all is lost, nor should we feel despair that there is no hope.

What makes our world a beautiful place to live is there are always signs of hope, joy, and a genuine desire for goodness in most people. My introduction to social justice came in the form of a community. It was an accidental discovery for a young person seeking to live a holy life by serving the poor. Looking back to those early years, I must admit how ill-informed and skewed my understanding of poverty, charity, and vulnerability was. I went to live with people with disabilities at L’arche1, a big part of our community life was about embracing and celebrating differences. Many of our members with intellectual disabilities have experienced terrible injustices in their lives, not because they have done anything wrong to others, but because of our ignorance and lack of care and understanding. We are taught to treat anything and anyone that does not conform to our definitions of ‘normal’ with suspicion and contempt, and to reject what does not conform. Until I went to live at L’arche, I had never met anyone with an intellectual disability in person. They existed in storybooks and were often depicted as the fruit of a bad deed, sin, and karma. The ones who lived belonged to asylums and mental health institutions; they didn’t belong in a family, let alone in a community. Unfortunately, this idea and attitude is still a reality for many people with disabilities and people dealing with mental health issues. A lot has changed since then; however, the absence of people with disabilities in our workplaces, social spaces, and communities reveal that we have a long way to go. We are still not inclusive; we don’t have space that can accommodate their needs, we don’t have classrooms and recreation places that they can access. 

Respecting human dignity

One of keys to understanding social justice is distancing ourselves from the tendency to view it as an individual issue vs. social issue, an experience that occurs to individuals of similar characteristics –  such as a person with a disability or a migrant worker with no social and economic capital. When we individualise a social problem as an individual issue, we place the responsibility on the shoulders of the very person who is negatively impacted by a system. Another significant aspect of understanding social justice is the impact of a ‘charity model’ set up in our midst to address social inequalities and their subsequent outcomes. During my early years of community work, I viewed my work and involvement from a charity framework. In simple terms, it meant that I was doing some good for the people who needed my support, and they were the recipient of my goodwill and many other do-gooders like me. The fundraising activities also had the same emotional appeal, placing the individual in need of our charity and benevolence. While charity, kindness, and concern for the other are needed, what needs revisiting is how it is done and where it places the individual on the receiving end. Careful consideration should focus on how human dignity is addressed. How is the person’s need and situation addressed beyond a free meal, a free check-up or free school supplies? My experience and criticism of a charity model approach often treat the individual as a passive recipient with no or little capacity to change their situation, often looked down upon as depending too much on good people; therefore, a burden we need to unload.

In an ideal social justice framework, individuals are still at the centre but have agency and power in decision-making. They have access to support without being treated like a passive recipient of somebody’s benevolence. They are also actively involved in addressing the issues faced by them as much as they are able, and they have a supportive network of people, systems, and policies that are put together in place to help them out with their issues. An example of this is the anti-oppression policies many in my group have recently developed or are in the process of developing. Treating people with respect should not be in the form of a law or policy. When we have to apply mandatory policies to respect some people in our community, it shows the weakness of our society more than the weakness of the person or group who needs protection in the form of law and policy. 

In our everyday life and work, the simplest gesture and act of justice for us to consider when we think of people and change is that we can be more open and welcoming. Once we become welcoming, we will ask ourselves if we have a space that is welcoming to different needs? When people occupy spaces, we will learn to ask, do we allow different voices to occupy our regular discussions, classrooms, and other social spaces and occasions? I am using the example of people with disabilities because that is where I learned the meaning of inclusion and exclusion. I have also learned to observe how this manifests in my life and the broader world. The most important life lesson I learned at L’arche was treating people with dignity is at the core of all human interactions regardless of their social location. Respecting the dignity of the other is an effortless way we all can practice in our day to day. 

Justice work

The everyday act of kindness sometimes turns into a significant act of justice. One of the privileges of being involved in community work is seeing many layers of beauty and pain co-existing in persons and communities. I met Balu in Bangalore at one of the Sunday events organised by the Salesian brothers for street-involved children. Balu was approximately 10 when I first met him, a nice boy with a small smile and big warm eyes. We met every Sunday for several months, always a pleasant encounter; it was never lost on me the conditions he and many of his friends lived in. When I moved away from the city, we lost touch, and several years later, I met Balu again at a youth event. This time, a confident young man, he was happy to see me and shared that he was in college run by the Salesians and was planning to become an auto mechanic. Balu gaining access to education and having a safe place to live was nothing short of a miracle; however, when we look at it through the social justice lens, we can see that having access to education and shelter is a basic right. Through their work with the boys, the Salesians showed an example of justice that was denied to them by the system and society. The work of the Salesians and many other groups like them exemplified solidarity and care for the marginalised children of that city. 

Justice work is complex and multidimensional; often, many issues are closely connected. I met Sun Yun a few years ago at a study group. Sun Yun is an active environmentalist and makes a point to talk about the need to care for the earth at every one of our meetings. At first, it was annoying to hear Sun Yun go on and on about the need to protect the planet and the effects of global warming. Over time, she helped us understand how it affects the poorer countries more drastically and made us act on it in simple ways. Bringing her spoon and fork, reusable cloth bags to our social gatherings instead of one-time-use plastic stuff provided an example for many of us. She taught us the simplest way we can contribute with our bit to save the earth and the impact of our daily choices on the issues we are passionate about in an authentic way. 

Social justice is an everyday act and choice. The most obvious places we can practice this in our midst are in our homes, neighbourhood, community, workplaces, and educational institutions. Through individual and collective ways, we can bring change. The way we speak, use of language, what we post on social media or do not, how we comment, who we support, not support, what we buy when we shop, what we read and what you don’t read, what you watch on TV and choose not to, and so on. Our choices reflect what we believe in and want to see in the world. Justice begins when we commit to learning and change to make our world better for all. Justice is in how we treat the vulnerable among us. Justice is the awareness that there are people out in our community, neighbourhood, and the world who need our support to move forward. Justice is an act of love toward the rest of creation. Justice is our commitment to reconciliation with our words and action today and in the days yet to come. 

1 L’arche is a worldwide community of people with and without intellectual disabilities working together for a world where all belong.
Catholic Social justice teaching/principles: https://www.cctwincities.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/
Key-10-Principles-of-CST_1-pager.pdf ‘
Charity model’ from a disability perspective: https://www.theweb.ngo/history/ncarticles/models_of_
disability.htm


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