People who involve themselves in the work of justice do this work most often in two different ways. One way is in direct service to those who are suffering injustice. Another way is to work to change the systems cause and keep injustices alive.
Direct service to others is immediate. It puts us in contact with those who are suffering either directly or with their stories of suffering. Direct service arises out of compassion and the desire to do something that will make a difference, that will alleviate suffering. Direct service can be a one time act or a seasonal or even routine kind of action. In other words, direct service can be something we do once, or it can become a part of how we live. Direct service often makes those involved feel good about their service, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it can complicate matters.
Years ago, we had a President who I believe was concerned about people in our own country who suffer from poverty and all of the products of poverty. His solution was essentially the call for more people to involve themselves in direct service to the poor. He called this direct service “the thousand points of light.” He seemed to believe that if more people contributed (food, money, clothing and other kinds of direct service) to the poor the problems of poverty would be taken care of. He often highlighted in his speeches individuals who were examples of “the points of light” for their direct service. What direct service is good for is responding to immediate need. It alleviates immediate suffering. It does not address the causes of the suffering, and sometimes it can actually interfere with the changes necessary to address the causes of suffering if the focus is on doing good and feeling good about it. It can almost create an industry out of doing good which requires a supply of needy people to whom we “do good.”
Involving ourselves in the work needed to create systemic change is not easy, not immediate, does not produce visible results in the short term, and often feels frustrating as those who work for systemic change face repeatedly the living systems that perpetuate human suffering. Most often, the human beings who address systems that create injustice must also face other human beings who are invested in–even supported by–the very systems that must be changed. Working for systemic change takes lifetimes and often lives in the process. Those who spend their lives working for systemic change may never see the ultimate changes they work for, and yet we hail them as men and women of justice.
In reality, working for justice includes both alleviating immediate suffering and working for systemic change. In our own living, it can help to reflect on where we invest ourselves in justice work, in direct service and in working for systemic change. Justice work involves them both.