In Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the spirit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who has come to alert Scrooge to the three spirits who will visit him in an attempt to save his soul. When Scrooge asks Marley why he is laden down with chains and irons, Marley explains that he is wearing the chains he “forged in life” as a punishment for not making better use of his time on earth. Scrooge protests, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” To which Marley laments, “Business! . . . Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Today, more than ever, we need to hear this same message, namely that humankind is our business; “the common welfare” is our business; “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” are all our business. This call to make other people’s business our own business is at the heart of social justice.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola believed strongly that our faith must translate into working for justice. He believed that there can be no true expression of faith where concerns for justice and human dignity are lacking. Social justice is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. Social justice tells us that, when people are suffering hardship and oppression, their business is our business. Social justice also calls us to open up our eyes to the needs of others who may be suffering due to the way we conduct business. So, just what do we mean by justice? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” (Matthew 5:6). The Greek word for “righteousness” can also be translated as “justice.” Unfortunately, we sometimes think of justice as a strictly legal term, for example, when we say that someone who is punished for an offense has been “brought to justice.” This understanding tends to equate justice with retribution. The Bible, however, understands “righteousness,” or “justice” as much more than this. While God does bring retribution on those who do wrong, he also expresses justice through his faithfulness, trustworthiness, and compassion. To say that God is just means that you can always count on him to do the right thing—to show compassion and mercy in all situations.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel prayed for God’s justice, meaning that they prayed that God would stand by them and do the right thing, being compassionate and merciful toward them. The people, in turn, recognized that God expected them to deal with one another in the same way, namely by respecting people’s rights, by fulfilling their obligations to one another, by showing compassion and mercy to others in all situations, and by caring for those who are in need of any kind. With this understanding of justice, we realize that God’s call to be just means a summons to practice justice in every aspect of our daily lives. Social justice, then, refers to society’s responsibility as a whole to respect people’s rights, fulfill its obligations and show compassion and mercy to all, and to care for those who are in need.
Sometimes it is wise to “mind your own business.” When it comes to the needs of others, however, their business IS our business. That’s the Ignatian way.