Some years ago, I was engaged in a conversation at a religious communicators convention with a liberal/progressive activist who was having trouble understanding how the market could actually be a force for good. Finally, he defaulted to the question that — to him at least — would settle the matter. “So,” he asked, “does the Acton Institute work for social justice?” My response, of course, was, “You bet we do.”
The problem with this brief exchange was that we obviously didn’t understand social justice in the same terms. It was a failure to communicate at the communicators convention. And truth be told, there are probably fewer phrases that are thrown around so loosely, that are so heavily freighted with ideological baggage. Liberal/progressives use social justice as a shibboleth that offers affiliation with the tribe of those who advocate statist solutions, whatever else it might mean to them. Conservatives tend merely to shun its use.
A lot of that confusion promises to be cleared up with the release of an outstanding new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need from the Heritage Foundation. This resource includes a DVD and companion study guide (available free of charge) and can also be viewed on the Web site. You’ll recognize a lot of the names in this series from their association with Acton over the years as staff members, scholars, speakers at conferences, and policy experts. People like Anthony Bradley, an Acton Research Fellow, Marvin Olasky, Rudy Carrasco, Chuck Colson, Jay Richards, and Robert L. Woodson Jr.
The video for the first chapter — Rethinking Social Justice: Getting to the Root of the Problem — sets the framework for the entire series of lessons. The question: What are the “real roots of poverty and social breakdown.”
On the Web site, Heritage has also posted bonus interview footage from experts featured in Seek Social Justice that is really well done.
Here’s an excerpt from the study guide (download here).
Regrettably, ideas offered in the name of social justice have sometimes misdiagnosed the problem and had unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intended to help. That’s because they have assessed poverty primarily as a material problem.
Programs based on this assumption have kept those willing to help at arm’s length from those in need, often looking first to government and substituting impersonal handouts for personal care and real transformation. Jumping into action without thoughtful consideration has led to damaging results.
Somehow in the urgency to dedicate our lives—or even a few hours or dollars—to a good cause, we’re missing something. We’re missing something about who we are at our core as human beings; we’re missing something about the complex and relational nature of poverty. Though motivated by good intentions, we need a better framework for understanding and engaging the issues surrounding human need and social breakdown.
When it comes to translating good intentions into actions that really make a difference, we need to understand the nature and context of the problem. That begins with correctly diagnosing the suffering we see around us. In the United States, poverty and social breakdown are often rooted in problems that are deeper than a lack of money or material possessions. The poor in America typically suffer in different ways than the poor
in developing countries, where corrupt governments, the missing rule of law, unstable financial systems, food shortages due to famine, and the absence of basic health care systems exacerbate extreme material deprivation. Unique conditions call for a different approach in developing nations.
The lessons are equipped with readings, which will take the student deeper into the subject matter. This is from Michael Novak’s “Defining Social Justice” (First Things, December 2000):
The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.
We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice.
Kudos to the Heritage Foundation, lead writer Ryan Messmore, and all of the contributors and editors behind Seek Social Justice.