Social justice is a globalised form of mercy.
When Aristotle wrote that ‘Man is by nature a political animal’, he meant simply that human beings will always need to interact.
The original unit of human interaction, the family, developed into communities of families (tribes) with shared needs, requiring more complex organisation.
The biggest organisation Aristotle knew in the 4th century BC was the ‘polis’, the city-state. With the expansion of world population, we have seen city-states expand to become countries, commonwealths, and now a global community, but the core principles of shared needs and of human interaction remain the same.
In this light, social justice represents an evolution of individual mercy encompassing families and tribes into social policy encompassing whole societies and nations. This evolution began in Christianity’s earliest days.
For example, in Mark 10:21 Jesus advised a rich young man to sell his possessions and give to the poor in an act of individual compassion; soon, the elders of the Jerusalem Church were urging St Paul and his Gentile churches to ‘remember the poor’ as policy (Galatians 2:10), and so St Paul began a regular collection for God’s people (I Corinthians 16: 1-3) – the origin of passing around the plate!
Further, Jesus, a male Jew, engaged a Samaritan woman in a one-off theological conversation at Jacob’s Well (John 4: 4-26) and barely 20 years later St Paul wrote this astonishing statement of universal racial, social and gender equity: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
In our own time, we can see that the principle implied by the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) – ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – must be elaborated in response to refugees, who are no less brutalised and left by the wayside than the single traveller in the story. Social justice does not replace an individual’s works of mercy, but modern societies have even greater ability than the ancient world to administer justice in an organised, equitable manner, and the Holy Spirit of Christ clearly urges them to do so.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them. That is the essence of inhumanity.’
By corollary, the greatest kindness toward our fellow creatures is not to love them complacently, but mercifully to pursue a universal program of justice.