Redefining Social Justice

I’ve undergone a lot of personal and spiritual changes over the past few years. One thing that is changing drastically is the way I look at social justice.

While I’ve never been on the front lines of the social justice movement, it’s always been important to me. And now I’m realizing that maybe it’s been a little too important. When my anorexia was in full swing, I actually used social justice as an excuse to not eat as much as my body was telling me to, because there are starving children in Africa of course. (It didn’t help that several of my high school friends reminded me of this fact constantly and sometimes even berated me for eating.) Before and after my battle with anorexia, I often neglected to take care of my mental health. Music and TV can really help me relax, but I thought it was selfish to enjoy those things when so many people don’t have them. I didn’t know how I could have any place in the area of social justice if I had my own ongoing issues that need seeing to.

From what I can tell, I’m not alone on that one. Many well-intentioned social justice advocates are great at taking care of other people and lousy at taking care of themselves. (What Do You Mean This Reminds You Of Someone? 0:-) ) William Wilberforce worked so hard at abolishing slavery that he suffered from ulcerative colitis, a digestive condition usually triggered by massive amounts of stress. Erin Gruwell (portrayed by Hilary Swank in “Freedom Writers”) was so invested in her students that she threw personal boundaries down the toilet and her marriage fell apart.

Why do the Americanized church and society in general approach social justice in such a linear, all-or-nothing way? I have a few theories.

1.) We have a white savior complex. We want to present ourselves as having it all together and not having any problems. Focusing on mental health awareness and prison reform would require admitting that (shocker!) our country has its own social issues. Why would we want to admit that when we can pretend we’ve got it all together and go overseas kicking down brothel doors? After all, that’s where the real problems are. We’re white Americans. No problems here!

2.) We want to look good. Want to make a real difference in the social justice arena? Sign petitions online. I’m completely serious. You would be amazed at the things that have been accomplished through this venue. But since people don’t always know when people do this, one can’t expect to be sainted for it, so no one wants to do it. The same goes for buying fair trade products. The impact is profound but no one really believes that.

3.) We want to be martyrs. We want other people to admire us for tirelessly devoting ourselves to different causes. We’re afraid to want things because the last thing we need is another lecture about how there are starving children in Africa. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Africa is not the only place where children are starving!)

There’s no place for me in this narrow-minded definition of social justice, so I’m redefining it. Buying environmentally household products is an act of social justice. (After all, poisoning your neighbor’s water supply is not exactly a loving thing to do.) Buying fair trade tea and chocolate is an act of social justice, seeing as depriving someone of a decent wage is also unloving. Signing online petitions totally constitutes speaking up for the defenseless.

How do you define social justice? How do you make it a part of your everyday life?

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2 thoughts on “Redefining Social Justice

  1. for my $.02 – all those lovely things you do for “social justice” are all nice feeling but again, are only there to make you feel good that you are doing something that helps. I am not opposed to using your commercial dollars to further the ideals you would like to promote and online petitions definitely have their place but..

    Well… none of those things actually DO anything you can see – in my book, they are all talk and no action.

    Social Justice for me has to do with affecting change where you can actually affect it. Do you see someone in need? fill the need if you are able.

    Do you see an injustice in your life or family or neighborhood? provide the balance of justice where you are able.

    Donating clothes and food to organizations that you have investigated and trust their practices – GREAT! Then you know you’re filling needs in ways that benefit all. Volunteering your time (or dollars) to a cause that you have chosen to concentrate your investment is social justice (note: there are MANY good causes and no one person can do them all so choosing where and why you will focus on is very important).

    All the rest is merely “feel good” activities and actually NOT in any way actual social justice – to me.

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