Today (February 20) is World Day of Social Justice and, as Andy Hamilton SJ writes, social justice must be built on interpersonal justice and extend to environmental justice.

Image: International Labour Organization

Many people see Social Justice Days as a time of division. They believe that it divides oppressors from victims and people who are treated unjustly from those who acquiesce in and profit from their treatment. That is understandable. But seen more broadly the day is one that holds separated things and people together.

This bringing together of disparate things can be seen in the instinctive public attitudes to spokespersons for large institutions. If an institution is seen to have acted unethically in one area, its spokespersons will not be trusted on any ethical question. Representatives of financial institutions will not be dismissed only when they offer opinions on ethical behaviour in banks. They will also lack credibility when speaking on Indigenous rights, same sex marriage, family violence and other issues.

Similarly, Bishops who represent a Church which has been responsible for sexual abuse of children and for covering it up will have no credibility when speaking of marriage, life issues and social tolerance.  Even Pope Francis’ outspoken statements about our ethical responsibilities for the environment and for shaping a just economy receive less favorable attention as he has become entangled in the stumbling response of the Catholic Church to sexual abuse.

It is unfair, of course, to dismiss people’s reflections on ethical issues because of the bodies they represent or the company they keep.  But the fact this happens shows that ethics cannot be divided. Personal ethics cannot be separated from social ethics; neither of them can be separated from environmental ethics. Social justice must be built on interpersonal justice and extend to environmental justice. It is equally wrong to set fire to your friend’s home, your place of employment, or your local national park. When a society allows the environment to be polluted and the world to be heated, it is always the poor who suffer first from toxic air and water, from storms and lack of food.  Subsequently the life of each person in society will be diminished.

The reason for this is that we are not isolated individuals but are shaped by our relationships to our environment and to others from birth to death and beyond. We survive childhood because others love, care for and feed us, and because our natural world sustains human life. We grow into creative adults because others teach us, walk with us, build the systems that enable us safely to travel, communicate, do business and realise our dreams. The life we claim we make for ourselves is really a gift that others make to us.

For the world to flourish fully all our relationships to others and to our world need to be based in respect. This means recognising our own unique dignity and that of others. It means being grateful for the gift of the world and of the universe of which we are part. Those attitudes translate into treating others as centres of their own world and not as instruments to be used for our own advantage. Respect means being compassionate to people who are disadvantaged and changing the conditions in the world which keep people disadvantaged.  It means respecting the world of which we are part by living in a sustainable way.

For us at Jesuit Social Services care for the environment is not an add-on but part of who we are and of how act. That is because social justice is about a rounded world – rounded because in it all relationships are equally important and equally respected.