some thoughts, on the UN’s Day of Social Justice.

Today is the UN Day of Social Justice – a day when the UN asks its members to promote activities in their countries that work towards the objectives and goals of the World Summit for Social Development.

Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability. For the United Nations, the pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of our global mission to promote development and human dignity.

It is a great thing to do and there is some great work to celebrate. I like the title of the day too – it reminds me of something a friend of mine said, earlier this week. Andy was talking on BBC Radio 4 (you can hear him here, about 10 minutes in), and he said:

‘Social Action is not the same as Social Justice.’

I thought this was a great point (and one that got a bit lost as the interviewer trying to set Andy against the other speaker as they talked about the current austerity politics and its implications for the UK) – because they are two slightly different things. Connected – but different.

Social action is just that, action. It’s the things that people (Christians and non-Christians) do every day to make their communities better places – and it is vitally important that we do this. This is the most immdiate part of loving our neighbours and being Jesus’ disciples where we are.

But it’s also not the only part of loving our neighbours, and if it’s all we do, we will get tired and disheartened – because there’s always someone in need.

Martin Luther King once said:

I no longer believe the Good Samaritan story. I’m tired of trying to pick up those who are beaten down. I want to change the Jericho Road. I want it to be a safe place where no one gets beat up, robbed, and left for dead.

Sometimes this is called ‘upstreaming’ – using a metaphor employed by Desmond Tutu when he said

Will we be so busy pulling the bodies out of the river that we forget to go upstream to see who is throwing them in?

Social justice is about being a part of making changes to the systems that create need – create injustice and poverty. It’s about saying that we have a dream of a better society. For Christians it’s about saying we have a hope in a better Kingdom that we want to start making that real: both immediately for individuals, and over the longer term, for the whole of society.

It’s about those of us who volunteer for and support projects like foodbanks, or debt counselling, or street pastoring, or night shelters, or any of the other community projects taking root in our churches saying, ‘I am glad that this is here, now, but I wish it didn’t have to be,’ and going on to make a difference at the roots of this problem – to change the Jericho Road.

To be honest – it’s not just about those people, it’s about all of us who want to share the Good News of the gospel with those around us getting involved too, but some are already on their way up the river.

As Tearfund we try and do both – we support churches around the world to do social action in their communities and we campaign for social justice, to challenge and change the systems that contribute to injustice and poverty.

It’s important to do both, I think. For a start, people exist in communities and societies and are affected by them – so separating the need for action from the need for justice is just unrealistic. But also, working at just the one thing can get disheartening – both for the Good Samaritan, as Martin Luther King felt, and for the person trying to clean up the Jericho Road. When we’re working on the ground, we need to remember that change can happen in the bigger landscape, but when we’re trying to shape that bigger picture, we need to remember that it does have a real impact on individual people.

I work with people who are amazing at both social action and at social justice – and I love that I get to work with both, and occasionally bring them together to learn from and inspire each other. This is what we did in Mumbai – and what we hope to do again in future, because it’s a relationship that works.

You can also read Andy’s blog on this issue here.