Hmm, why do we…

So why do Unitarian Universalists do social justice work? In other words, what’s our religious reason for trying to improve the world?

I know my own personal reasons for doing social justice work. My reasons come partly from classic Universalism: we don’t have do worry about whether or not we’re going to heaven, but it is our job to make this present world a better world. I have updated classic Universalism with Bernard Loomer’s naturalistic interpretation of the teachings of Jesus: Jesus had a vision of the “kingdom of God,” which Loomer defines as an egalitarian interdependent web of existence in which all persons are valued, and in which no person shall go hungry, and this “kingdom of God” is the highest value towards which we can strive (note that Loomer was the one who introduced the phrase “web of existence” to Unitarian Universalists, which he identified with the kingdom of God). Thus I do social justice work to try to bring about what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” where “God” is understood in an egalitarian, naturalistic way.

But people like me who rely upon Universalism and Jesus are definitely in the minority. What is the religious grounding for other Unitarian Universalists doing social justice? And pointing to the “seven principles” is not a sufficient answer — just because we voted to include the seven principles in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1986 doesn’t tell me why we included them in the bylaws (e.g., I would argue that we included the seventh principle on the basis of Loomer’s understanding of Jesus).

I want to know why we do social justice. What’s your reason why?

15 thoughts on “Hmm, why do we…”

  1. This should have been asked at GA fwiw. We’re social creatures and I think religion best practiced in community. Performing social justice work an expression of solidarity with our communities. At it’s best, it should create friction that forces self-examination. When I spend the night in the homeless shelter I feel the conflict of having a home against people in the same room who don’t. The risk of doing this work is a sense of self-importance. Solidarity lost to the egos of those making judgments.

    How’s that for quick answer?

  2. I think many of the best philosophies and religions of the world have expressed the faith, which can be backed up to some extent by rational argument, that we are “better” people (more virtuous, happier in some sense, more “good-spirited”, more blessed) if we avoid acting unjustly towards others, and act justly, as much as possible. Part of acting justly is seeking to attain social justice in the world. The caveat should be that we should recognize that in many cases, how best to achieve social justice in a complex world is difficult to determine. But uncertainty should not prevent action where the way is clear, or even some sorts of action when the way is less clear.

  3. Tim — OK, but what about you? I’m having a hard time imagining individuals doing social justice work because of world religion peer pressure (“everyone else’s religion is doing it…”). So would you be willing to speak personally and say why you do social justice?

  4. I think evolution has hardwired empathy and sympathy into most people (with some notable mutations). These two qualities have helped Homo sapiens survive and prompt my justice efforts.

  5. I’m not certain they’re all that hard wired Charlie. I think empathy and sympathy have to be learned. It’s one of the benefits of social justice work. It’s one reason why it’s as important for ourselves as it is for any good that comes of what we do.

  6. My personal reasons are that I feel better about myself, and think myself to be a better person, if I act to promote social justice in the world, by helping improve the lives of other people. I’m quite conscious that “there but for fortune go I”. Now, I think it’s important that those personal feelings can be backed up by rational argument and appropriate interpretations of various traditions. Otherwise, I should have to perhaps question whether I should follow my personal moral instincts. That is why I mentioned the philosophical and religious arguments for a pro-social justice stance — I don’t think that how you live your life should simply be based on unexamined intuitions, or unexmained traditions.

  7. And thinking further about this, it’s not just that I feel better about myself by engaging in social justice activities. I also simply feel better if I see another person is doing better due to this work. This is easier to do if the social justice work helps specific individuals, but also can be experienced from more general social justice work with some imagination about how the work is helping people. This feeling better is due to feelings of sympathy and compassion.

    Again, however, I think these personal feelings should be questioned. They gain validity because they can stand up to rational argument.

  8. My pitch about doing SJ work once at Church was it should make us feel worse. I said I needed some friction in my life. I spent time in the homeless shelter to be confronted with the fact I had a home, and others didn’t. It made me uncomfortable. It was a successful fund raising pitch too as I found out afterwords…wasn’t my indent.

  9. Bill – there is a book out recently by Jeff Goins called “Wrecked” which pretty much argues what you are: good works, social justice work, should hurt because compassion should inspire you to feel uncomfortable.

    That insight helped me burn out a little less quickly in my social justice efforts.

  10. Dan,
    Just wondering… shouldn’t the question be: “Why do some Unitarian Universalists do social justice work? What’s their religious reason for doing it?” Making the world a better place does not necessarily involve social justice activism. There are different ways of creating the Kingdom of God. For some, maybe the way they choose to help make the world a better place is social justice activism; for others, it may be something waaay less obvious. For example, Flaubert wrote a magnificent short story called “A Simple Heart” about a domestic whose dedication and love for her pet parrot is her way of expressing love and finding spiritual fulfillment.

  11. Victor, nice distinction. E.g., for some of us, the arts are just as important as social justice work.

  12. Dan, Thanks for responding. But I’m not certain you understood what I meant to convey. I was referring to the myriad ways one can express selfless love, not about the arts being just as important as social justice work. Unfortunately, this topic is not one that can easily be explored in a post.

  13. @Victor.. the question is “Social Justice” just directed at people. I’d argue Social Justice is directed at people, but also reflects back on oneself, but also because people are connected and part of creation, the Social Justice can be directed towards the parrot, or the environment, or all creation.

    Pre 1968 UUs tended to refer to Service rather than Social Justice which I think the better term and more embracive than Social Justice which seems awfully human focused.

  14. I think that I was originally drawn to social justice work because my mom, from an early age, always prompted me to put myself in the shoes of others. I started volunteering in high school when the opportunity presented itself. As an adult, my religious reasons draw from a UU Buddhist perspective: compassion draws me to be involved, and I see all of us as interconnected. Thus, as comfortable as I might get with my own life, I am aware that others suffer, and I am drawn to help as I am able.

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