I've been hearing variations on that complaint for more than a half-century now. I started wondering if it was true in my teens. By now, I'm pretty sure that it's not: partly because now I remember the 'good old days:' and like I've said before, they weren't.
I was one of "those kids" in the late '60s and early '70s.
Some of us were lazy bums, and others were only too eager to blame our parents, the government, or anyone else, for our problems.
But others were "irresponsible" only in the sense that we wouldn't accept the status quo.
That attitude didn't appeal to folks who believed in buying stuff they didn't need, with money they didn't have, to impress people they didn't like.
We thought we could reform the world: and certain that we had to try.
Five decades later, some of our reforms succeeded. Others didn't turn out as I had hoped. Some of my generation are part of the new establishment.
Me? I still think we can reform the world. I am certain that we must try.
Folks have been thinking about justice, rights, and society, for a long time. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle generally get credit for first discussing such things, about two dozen centuries back.
But more than a thousand years before Plato and Aristotle, leaders like Hammurabi started writing law codes.
Babylonian law was an effort to define justice: balancing the severity of an offense with an equally-severe punishment.
The Code of Hammurabi's death penalty for robbery (Law #22) seems harsh — partly, I think, because we've made some progress in the last 3,700 years toward building truly just societies.
And we have a great deal more work to do in that direction.
The phrase "social justice" apparently comes from Catholics like Luigi Taparelli — in the 1840s.
Taparelli's "Civiltà Cattolica" says that capitalist and socialist theories don't pay enough attention to ethics. I'm inclined to agree with him. (February 27, 2012; March 13, 2010)
After becoming a Catholic, I had a lot of catching up to do. Most of what I'd heard or read about the Church was either several centuries out of date: or simply wrong.
One of my happy surprises was discovering that social justice, Catholic style, makes sense. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928-1942 is a pretty good place to start learning about the Church's social teachings. I put links to more resources at the end of this post.
A sincere desire to make the world a better place can slip into an 'I love humanity, it's people I can't stand' attitude: and I've been over that before. (October 15, 2012)
The basic rules are simple:
- Love God, love my neighbor
(Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31)
- See everyone as my neighbor
(Matthew 5:43-44; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-30; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1825)
That's where personal responsibility comes in.
Today's reading from the Old Testament start with a familiar complaint:
"You say, 'The LORD'S way is not fair!' Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?That chapter of Ezekiel starts with a proverb about grapes and teeth:
"Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man,The footnote explains that the 'teeth on edge' proverb was used by folks claiming that they were being punished for something their ancestors had done: not their own wrongdoings. You'll see the same proverb mentioned in Jeremiah 31:29.
"1 what is the meaning of this proverb that you recite in the land of Israel: 'Fathers have eaten green grapes, thus their children's teeth are on edge'?
"As I live, says the Lord GOD: I swear that there shall no longer be anyone among you who will repeat this proverb in Israel."
Looks like trying to shift responsibility goes back at least 26 centuries. Now that I think of it, Adam tried blaming his wife: and God. (August 29, 2014)
While I'm thinking of it — today's readings are Ezekiel 18:25-28, Philippians 2:1-11, and Matthew 21:28-32.
The Gospel reading, Matthew 21:28-32, is the one about two sons: one who said "I will not," but later decided to do his job anyway; the other, who said "yes, sir," but didn't.
Jesus went on to remind the chief priests and the elders that "tax collectors and prostitutes" had listened to John and accepting what he said:
"25 When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him."(Matthew 21: 32)I could cherry-pick that verse from Matthew, and a few others, and decide that all I have to do is 'really believe.' That would be a bad idea.
Faith is important, but "faith without works is dead." (James 2:14-26; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1815)
"You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.I can't 'work my way into Heaven.' My salvation depends on my Lord. But I can't 'believe' my way into Heaven, either.
"Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
"You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works."
Where I spend eternity depends on my faith and works. (Catechism, 1021, 1814-1816, 1987-1995)
Okay: I'm supposed to act as if my beliefs mean something; I can't shift responsibility to my parents, ancestors, society, whatever; and social justice is important.
What can I, as an individual, do to end world hunger, broker a lasting peace in the Middle East, and cure the common cold? I'm one man, living in central Minnesota, with a computer and an Internet connection: so the answer is — not much.
I can, however, do what is possible for someone in my position: act as if God matters, and work at conforming my will to God's.
As a youth, I realized that reforming the world would take time: and that anything I did would be only a small part of the work. Since then, I've learned more about humanity's back-story.
I think we'll still be supporting what is good, and changing what is not, when the United Nations Charter seems as remote as the Code of Hammurabi does today.
I don't think we'll have a perfect society in the 57th century, but we do have a reasonable hope of building a better world. And that's another topic.
More of my take on faith, hope, and social justice:
- "Caesar, Civilization, Dealing With Change — and Building a Better World"
(August 31, 2014)
- "Predestination — Free Will from God's Point of View"
(July 27, 2014)
- "Strangers and Standing Orders"
(July 6, 2014)
- "Faith, Works, and Spirituality for Dummkopfs"
(October 5, 2011)
- "Hope, Joy, and Working for a Better World"
(September 13, 2011)
- "Caritas in veritate"
Benedict XVI (June 29, 2009)
- "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church"
(June 29, 2004)
- "Luigi Taparelli on the Dignity of Man"
Dr. Thomas C. Behr, University of Houston, Texas (USA)
Congresso Tomista Internazionale, L'Umanesimo Cristiano Nel III Millenio: Prospettiva di Tommaso D'Auino
(International Thomistic Congress, Christian Humanism In the third Millennium: Perspective of Thomas Aquinas) (September 21-23, 2003)
- "Rerum Novarum"
Leo XIII (May 15, 1891)
- "Summa Theologica"
St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, via NewAdvent.org (1265–1274)