Making a difference with social justice

By Timothy Bladel

Ever since Pope Francis started talking about social justice, the words have become more commonplace. For St. Ambrose University, it is part of the mission and vision. Social justice is part of what it means to be an Ambrosian. It makes sense to know exactly what that means.

Social justice is concerned with a kind of society we should have.

“Social justice is concerned with what is a “good society,” what is a “just society,” professor Keith Soko said. “It is concerned with social structures and institutions, changing structures that are unjust, which is about fairness.  So, it involves charity, which is meeting immediate needs (like soup kitchens and shelters), but also social justice, which addresses unjust structures, structures that discriminate, are racist, sexist, etc.”

Social justice is about how we treat others, especially those less fortunate and without the means of protecting themselves.

“It is concerned that all people have their essential or basic needs met,” Soko said.  “It also seeks to “empower” people, not just give them a handout. That involves education, advocacy, and speaking out against injustices.”

When asked how someone lives out social justice, St. Ambrose University associate professor Micah Kiel laid out a path someone could take if they wanted to.

“There’s a hundred ways of answering that,” Kiel said. “In a practical matter, there’s all sorts of groups on campus you can get involved in. You can do it in your course of study, we have a minor in Peace and Justice.  We have Ambrosians Women for Social Justice and Ambrosians for Peace & Justice. Campus ministry is really into this. We have service trips over spring break. We have classes on social justice and the Bible.”

He adds that people can get involved in their home churches when they work with marginalized communities or the homeless shelters here in town.

“That’s all sort of in the activist mode,” Kiel said.  “The other thing you really should do is think about how you live your own life.  Everything from the money you spend on clothes, to your cars, to your house, to your food, these are all decisions that impact everyone.”

Kiel points out that even the small things are social justice decisions that we can do in our everyday life.

With an ever growing wealth inequality in the U.S. and around the world, having a Pope talk about social justice issues was bound to lead to a popular pontiff. And it has, with Time magazine’s naming Pope Francis person of the year and becoming the first Pope to land the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

But last year when Pope Francis warned that unrestrained free-market capitalism is a new tyranny, it became very political. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh called the Pope “pure Marxism.” The Holy Father’s focus on growing inequality has ruffled some feathers.

“It’s not just a political idea, it’s not just a social movement,” Kiel said.  “At its core—at least for how St. Ambrose would understand it—it is a theological idea about the very disposition of God.”

Although it’s not completely removed from political involvement, as Kiel illustrates.

“And so then does that eventually have implications in the realms of ethics, church and particularly even politics, yes,” Kiel said.  “If that’s what God is interested in, and that’s what you think God thinks you should care about, then that should change how you vote. It should change what you think the leaders in Washington should be doing.”

Soko points out that some of what social justice advocates can be seen as progressive.

“Catholic social teaching is the body of documents that address social justice issues,” Soko said. “These are usually pretty progressive, arguing for human rights, health care reform, immigration reform, etc.”

To some on the conservative political right, social justice is radical.

“Coming from a theological point of view, the more radical part of it is that it starts with God,” Kiel said. “So you see these themes starting in the Bible that God’s interest is in the poor, and in the needy, and in the vulnerable. And that God’s work in the world is to achieve justice for those groups.”

Pope Francis has put the principles of social justice back into the debate by reminding us it’s what God’s work is.

“I guess the question would be, well, who are we to tell God what God should be up to,” Kiel said.



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