Each month, the pope sets a universal intention for the Church to rally around in prayer. Pope Francis has declared that the prayer intention for this July is the integrity of justice — that “those who administer justice may work with integrity, and that the injustice which prevails in the world may not have the last word.”
There are many layers to unpack here — after all, the political administration of justice alone varies dramatically from country to country. Beyond that are the social, religious, and non-profit sectors as well. As individuals, how much impact can we have on “the integrity of justice”? Is justice simply too big a concept for any one of us to tackle?
There is an African proverb that, translated, says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Saying a prayer is relatively easy. Moving your feet to take personal responsibility in seeing the prayer fulfilled requires more from us — that’s where the rubber meets the road. Do we really care about the issue at hand, or are we just saying a prayer to alleviate ourselves of any real sense of accountability?
If we’re sincere about wanting to see justice administered with integrity, there are things we can and should do in our own lives to move toward that goal. Most of us have the power to vote for our elected officials, in which case we have the grave responsibility of choosing the candidate with the most holistic view of human life — not simply the candidate who is loudest about one single issue. After an election, we then have the privilege of being able to contact our representatives and express our support for laws that affirm the dignity and human rights of all people, especially the marginalized. In simple ways, we regular old citizens can play a big part in seeing justice administered with integrity.
But surely there is more we can do. Beyond the political sphere, how else are we called to put proverbial feet to this prayer?
Whatever kind of service or justice work we might do, there’s a natural tendency to feel slightly superior to the people whose needs we are meeting. Deeply embedded social structures tell us that those who are not “in need” have more power than those who are. As much as we may cringe to admit it, doing the work of justice in any form means struggling with integrity in such a power dynamic — even in the most subtle of ways.
For example, I have been a part of many soup kitchens in which I (as the volunteer) have had good intentions of meeting the tangible needs of others by helping to provide a hot meal. And yet in these scenarios, I am almost always behind a door to the kitchen or scurrying from table to table serving dishes or cleaning up.
At the end of the meal, I have not had one single conversation with anyone who has come for food. I haven’t gotten to know them as a person or given them the dignity of letting myself be known by them. Missing this encounter solidifies the damaging social message that there is an “otherness” between socioeconomic classes — an invisible but impenetrable wall between “us and them.”
This is just one example, of course, but the same theme can be found in almost any act of service or mercy. In the example of the soup kitchen, it would be far more humanizing and dignity-affirming to make the whole meal a collaborative effort where everyone participates in food preparation, dining together, and cleaning up afterwards. That way, we could build a sense of community and camaraderie — affirming that every person is needed and we are all on equal footing in that space — even while meeting very real physical needs.
When I finally did encounter such a community meal, it was so transformative it changed my life.
This is the heart of what it means to have integrity in justice work: elevating the dignity and humanity of those being served and treating others quite literally how we would want to be treated. Are our efforts at justice more about checking something off a list, or actually recognizing that each person we meet is deserving of a real, reciprocal relationship?
Seeking integrity in justice work will always be a personal, hidden endeavor because we’ll only ever act in integrity if we believe, deep down, that those we serve have just as much to offer us as we do them. When we enter into genuine relationships with those in need — not to be praised for it, or because we’ll feel better about ourselves for doing it — we receive the gift of being free to admit our own needs, too. When everyone’s humanity is acknowledged and equalized, we might just find a unity that shocks us.
It is normal to become frustrated and disillusioned with the state of the world or the lack of integrity of its leaders, and it’s tempting to let that frustration keep us feeling small and ineffectual. But the truth is, each of us is more powerful than we think. If we decide to practice true solidarity instead of holding the pain of the world at arm’s length, we will discover firsthand just how revolutionary the power of compassion really is. In this equation, even the smallest acts make a big difference.
As Gandhi once said, we must “be the change we wish to see.” When it comes to integrity in justice work, it starts with being willing to change our own mindsets first.