The Complexities of Social Justice

     I heard a story the other day that I believe is important enough to share with others.  The story centers on a cold weather shelter which a church in my community opens up for a period of time in the dead of winter, when the weather is most likely to be at its worse.  The church has an indoor gym/basketball court upon the floor of which homeless families can spread a mat and catch a night’s sleep out of the elements.  There is also a kitchen, bathrooms and showers, so the guests can get a hot meal and clean up for a night and perhaps feel a little better about life for a while.  These homeless people can line up each night for a couple of weeks and after the adults blow into a breathalyzer (no drugs or alcohol permitted in this space) the families go in and reclaim their corner of the gym floor. Various churches in the community take turns monitoring and facilitating the process, and my church’s turn will come later in January.

     The speaker at my church told us a story about a family that helped last year, and particularly about a young boy who is a member of that family.  On their appointed evening the parents went about their chores while the little boy in question played with the children of the guest families.  As children are able to do, the differences in social position between servers and served were overlooked and he simply had a great time playing with another little boy.  When their four hour shift was over the parents gathered up their little one and began their drive home.  On the way the little boy was expressing how much fun he had had and how he wanted to play with his little friend again the next day.  “Well, we won’t be going back tomorrow” said his father.  “We only signed up for one evening.”  “Can’t we just go over to their house?” asked the little guy, seeing an obvious solution to the problem.  “No, we can’t” responded Mom.  “That little boy and his family don’t have a house.  That is why we were helping them to have a warm place to sleep tonight.”  The little boy thought about that for a while and as the concept that the family of his new friend did not have a home sank in he began to tear up.  “But where do they live when they are not at the church?” he asked.  “I don’t really know” replied Dad.  “Sometimes with friends for a while, or in their car.  I really don’t know.”  This was too much for the little boy to deal with.  He simply broke down and cried as Dad and Mom drove home.  Mom and Dad were weeping too by the time they arrived at their warm house and both ended up lying on the bed with their little son, comforting him and each other until at last he fell asleep.

     After hearing that story I meditated for a while on the concept of justice and its counterpoint, injustice.  The words get used in a great many different ways and their meanings can become murky.  One person’s injustice is another person’s just deserts, and so on.  Many people speak of social justice and injustice and it can be hard to pin those concepts down too firmly.  A baby is born to an addicted mother, and clearly the baby is a victim of injustice while the mother is guilty of breaking a plethora of moral and judicial laws, and is deserving of retributive justice.  But when that baby grows up with his capacity diminished by the drugs in his little preborn body and surrounded by the most marginal edges of society and then he is homeless, addicted and viewing life through a lens that doesn’t quite reflect the view from a safe and secure middle class life, has he ceased to be a victim of injustice?  He should most certainly be answerable to the law for infractions of that law, but is a bag of dope in his pocket going to get him a much more harsh sentence than the same bag of dope in the high school quarterback’s pocket?

     I could make this a longer bit of writing but I don’t want to preach.  The topic of social justice and injustice is a difficult and tangled one and if you believe that you have it all sorted; well, you don’t.  There are ins and outs, nuances and a galaxy of tangents and rabbit holes to be plunged into in a full discussion of this topic, and I do not propose to so discuss it.  Rather, I find it valuable to ask myself as I ponder the issue “does it break my heart?”  Do I weep because a little boy or a little girl does not have a home?  If not, why not?  Am I so calloused and hard that such a thing does not bother me?  Has this child tapped into the heart of God in a way that I, with my books read and sermons listened to and tedious opinions rendered to whomever would listen to me, have completely missed?.  I am uncomfortably certain that that is indeed the case, and I will have to give up a lot of my smug pride and false sense of superiority to even begin to understand what that little boy instinctively knows.

2 thoughts on “The Complexities of Social Justice

  1. Thanks for your post… I, too, think about many of the issues that you have presented to eloquently in your post. The little boy born into the vicious cycle of drugs, legal issues, broken families, low SES, etc. embodies a lingering problem in our society today, and one that has bothered me for a long time. Although there are so many debatable points in the case of this boy, one aspect of your post stuck with me the most: your asking yourself whether or not something breaks your heart as a way to gauge whether or not something has crossed into the realm of social injustice. I think that we, as a society, are hardened in a way that many generations before us have not been. Several factors contribute to our propensity to minimize certain “injustices,” but none more than the cultural acceptance of the bootstrap theory–“anybody who works hard enough can pull themselves up out of any unfortunate circumstance, whether it is addiction, money problems, psychological challenges, family issues…” Until we can find a way to overcome this way of thinking and not let it be so widely accepted, people will continue to be oriented toward self security and we will not naturally have the desire to continue to see those stuck in the cycle of different forms of oppression (such as the little boy grown up to also be addicted to drugs) as in need of community outreach instead of judicial sanctions.

    Interesting issues that you bring up in your posts–I look forward to continuing to read your mental wanderings. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comments objectifemme. I agree with you completely. The bootstrap theory might possibly work well if we lived in a vacuum, but in the real world where physical, emotional, social and cultural complications, to list just a few, set up traps and roadblocks that even the most balanced citizens struggle with to “make it”, it is a bit too much to ask that the marginalized in our society “just get it together”. I appreciate your comments and will take a look at your work soon (it is late and I am off to bed now).

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