In one of his most famous writings, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of injustice, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In other words, the very existence of injustice has implications for us all. Thus, we each have a responsibility to actively challenge unjust power structures wherever they should surface. According to the United Nations, “the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have never been more relevant than they are today.” Structural injustices are pervasive in the United States, perhaps more than in any other Western industrialized nation. They include record levels of economic inequality and mass incarceration and attempts to slash entitlement programs, restrict women’s reproductive rights, and erode voting rights. Globally, injustice exists more frequently in other forms, such as poverty, hunger, worker exploitation, sex trafficking, resource privatization, and severe restrictions on women’s and gay rights. In every corner of the world people’s rights and dignity are under constant assault by different forces.
Numerous definitions of social justice can be found in the literature. Some are more comprehensive than others. An inclusive definition may draw from several perspectives. This piece integrates a few such perspectives – an approach which will inform the later discussion on the importance and significance of social justice. Hopefully this examination will grow our understanding of why we must strengthen progressive campaigns that are confronting various ongoing efforts to deny or strip fundamental rights. Such an understanding may help us build a stronger and more ubiquitous nonviolent social change movement.
The United Nations (UN) considers social justice to be “an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations.” These principles are upheld, according to the UN, “when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants…when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.” More specifically, the UN believes social justice can be understood as “the principle of positive peace that complements the notion of peace as the absence of direct and institutional violence (negative peace).” Johan Galtung, known as the father of peace studies, distinguishes between the two types of peace: Negative peace is simply the condition under which there is an absence of violence, including war. Positive peace, however, while requiring the absence of direct violence, goes much further. Positive peace can be attained when we identify and prevent the root causes of violence in order to end violence and the unjust policies/practices that fuel it. It is the absence of structural (systemic) violence (violence that interferes with the ability to meet basic needs and preserve dignity). It is the “integration of human society,” according to Galtung. Positive peace is the condition under which a more just and equitable society can be secured for all.
In his 2007 bestseller “Blessed Unrest,” environmentalist Paul Hawken defines social justice as “the implementation and realization of human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” We can assert, therefore, that the condition of positive peace necessarily includes respect for and preservation of human rights. The Albany Social Justice Center, a grassroots community organization located in Albany, NY, is among the many organizations confronting the roots and structures of oppression. The Center’s definition of social justice incorporates militarism and imperialism, and calls for the cessation of both: “We are working for a world in which international conflicts are settled without war, in which people treat each other with love, dignity, and justice…We are working to stop harmful U.S. military and economic intervention in the affairs of other countries.”
In summary, social justice can be achieved when social conditions are such that universal human rights are recognized and upheld, without discrimination, for every individual, group and community. This type of justice is served when the inherent dignity of all persons is respected and protected and every man, woman, and child has equal and unfettered access to basic human needs. The formation and growth of socially just contexts and identities require life sustaining resources to be distributed in a fair and equitable manner, regardless of socio-economic status and geographic location.
In November 2007, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly announced February 20 would be celebrated annually as the World Day of Social Justice: “The observance of the day should,” the UN proclaimed, “contribute to the efforts of the international community in poverty eradication, promotion of full employment and decent work, gender equity and justice for all.” This inclusion of some of today’s biggest social problems facilitates our ability to focus our attention and develop and employ creative, strategic nonviolent action plans that can dismantle unjust systems.
Economic inequality was the focus of World Social Justice Day 2013. A statement released last year by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon read, in part, “…we see far too many places where there are increasing opportunities for a few and only rising inequality for the many. Growing inequality undermines the international community’s progress in lifting millions out of poverty and building a more just world…The fault lines are visible in falling wages for women and young people and limited access to education, health services and decent jobs.” While the poorest and most unequal nations should be our priority for humanitarian aid and assistance and resistance campaigns, we must not lose sight of the fact that whatever democracy we have left in the United States is currently under direct threat by certain political factions and special interests that place profits over people and what they believe to be “security” over what we hold as our most cherished freedoms and liberties.
The pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of the United Nation’s global mission to promote development and human dignity. International guidelines and road maps have been established to help steer us toward achievement of these goals. In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization and the Millennium Development Goals are two solid representations of the UN’s commitment to social justice. Other declarations that concentrate on social justice as part of their global frameworks for peace and sustainability include the Earth Charter and the Blue River Declaration.
Some of the most dedicated and impactful workers for social justice in the United States have included Henry David Thoreau, Helen Keller, Dorothy Day, Susan B. Anthony, Zora Neale Hurston, César Chávez, and Daniel Berrigan. Their indomitable spirit and courage and impassioned support from people of conscience enabled them to build robust coalitions against structural violence and for civil and human rights. Their work must become ours at this critical time. It is our moral and civic responsibility. And as we challenge and work to end new and longstanding injustices, we should remember a major precept of peace education: peace and justice are interconnected and interdependent – working for peace should go hand in hand with working for justice, and vice versa. As Dr. King said, “There can be no justice without peace. And there can be no peace without justice.” Accordingly, it could be advantageous to social justice activists and the movement in general to embrace this principle when resisting unjust and oppressive systems.
Brian J. Trautman is a military veteran and an instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA. He is also a peace activist involved with a number of groups, including Veterans for Peace and Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice. On Twitter @BriTraut