This is the time of year many Christians celebrate (if that’s the right word) “Lent.” Lent is a period of forty days (not counting Sundays) preceding Easter, whenever the powers-that-be decide that’s going to be, during which you, well, prepare for Easter. Generally that means “giving up [fill in the blank] for Lent,” thereby achieving a feeling of immense self-satisfaction and virtue for having “given up” something you’d probably be better off without in the first place.
|"Is it virtuous not to want it, or to want it and not take it?"|
Obviously, this is a good exercise in character building for anybody. That’s one reason why so many religions and philosophies teach that self-restraint and willpower are good things, assuming they are directed to proper ends. For example, a glutton who manages to practice self-denial in matters of food and drink to strengthen his will and incidentally save a little money that can be put to other, more worthy uses, is probably more virtuous than the miser who starves himself in order to accumulate money as an end in itself.
So, whether it’s for religious reasons, or for anything else, “giving up” something as an end in itself or for a less than worthy goal is probably not a good thing. That’s why Those Who Know advise you not just to give something up, but to do something more, i.e., balance the negative of giving up, with some kind of positive of doing more; it provides “positive reinforcement” to reinforce the negative by helping turn it into a benefit or a good.
|"I had my diet. This is my dinner!"|
This is one reason, for example, diet clubs and support groups stress active participation in meetings and events. The group gives something positive — group moral support and encouragement — to balance the loss or the sacrifice of the individual members. It’s not that you’re incurring the loss or making the sacrifice in order to get the moral support and encouragement (although in extreme cases it can come to that), but that it makes the struggle easier to bear.
Enough of the philosophy, though. What we’re interested in is what people can do to advance the Just Third Way. In social justice terms, it’s not enough for you to be personally virtuous and just. That’s good, of course, even essential if you want to grow and develop as a human being. It is not, however, going to change the system into something where it becomes worth our while to be virtuous and just.
Will some people manage to be virtuous even without a justly structured system? Sure. But it’s going to cost them. An employer can pay a fair wage, and go broke because nobody else is doing so and his costs are therefore twice as high as anyone else’s. A country can mandate complete pacifism, and be conquered by the first warmonger who comes along. It’s nice to have principles, but nicer if you can live those principles without it costing you your life, your fortune, or your sacred honor.
|"I gave up not eating cookies!"|
So, what should we add — not just for “Lent,” but for always in order to be socially just instead of merely individually just? How about the “social” works of mercy — which (per CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree’s pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice) are not large-scale individual works, i.e., meeting material needs, but in focusing in on institutions in order to make it possible for ordinary people to take care of themselves through their own efforts.
Father Ferree’s example is wages — not the best one, but it makes the point. Social justice does not consist of paying a living wage. That remains individual justice or charity, regardless how you classify it. Rather, social justice in that situation consists of making it possible to pay a living wage, not in actually paying it:
Social Justice ≠ Paying a Just Wage
Social Justice = Making It Possible to Pay a Just Wage
|"You mean paying a just wage is individual, not social justice?"|
A better example is the pro-life movement. It clearly lacks political power. If it did not, then Congress would long ago have taken back its power from the president and the Supreme Court, and reinstated original intent as the correct way of interpreting the Constitution.
Why does the pro-life movement not have political power? Because it does not have economic power. As Daniel Webster pointed out in 1820, “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”
|Frederick Jackson Turner|
Americans started losing political power in the late nineteenth century with the closing of the frontier. As Frederick Jackson Turner explained in a paper he delivered at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power.” (Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894, 199.)
It is therefore essential that free land be replaced with some other form of productive asset that ordinary people can own as private property. CESJ proposes a “Capital Homestead Act” to open up the commercial and industrial frontier the way Lincoln’s Homestead Act opened up the land frontier, thereby securing to every child, woman, and man a “competence” and thus political power.
The way to do this is to open up access to productive credit for financially feasible capital projects that can pay for themselves out of future profits. That’s why we plan on (peacefully) demonstrating at the Federal Reserve in DC toward the end of April, on “Earth Day.” It’s after Lent, and many of us are not even Christian, but so what? Justice is for everyone.