Advocates of social justice are quick to impugn the motives of those who disagree with them. But what of the motives of social justice advocates themselves? Are they always and only noble and selfless?
Alas, a little reflection and investigation reveals that professions of concern for the poor are not always genuine. Sometimes they are a cloak for ambition and greed.
The apostle John records that a few days before his crucifixion Jesus enjoyed a meal with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. During the evening, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with “a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard”. Judas objected to this, saying, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” If the narrative stopped here, and if we took Judas at his word, we would have to concede a certain nobility to Judas. Yes, perhaps he was a little insensitive to Mary and to Jesus, but this was only because he felt so deeply for the poor. He was passionate about social justice! Even if reluctantly, we could feel a welling of admiration for Judas on this occasion. But the narrative does not stop there. John continues: “He [Judas] said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:4-6, ESV). So, Judas wore the mantle of social justice to cover up his personal corruption. He lied about caring for the poor to conceal stealing from his friends.
Similarly, others in more recent times have been Judases, disguising their evil intentions with lofty talk of justice for the poor. The communist (Marxist) movements and regimes of the past 100 years offer the best example of this. The principles, policies and practices of the communists are supposedly intended to help the poor and powerless. Yet whenever and wherever communists gain control, they never lift up the poor. Rather, they always pull down the prosperous and add them to the ranks of the poor. If we ignore the privileges communists confer upon themselves as the ruling class, we have to admit that they do manage to create societies in which there is equality among citizens. But it is an equality of misery, not of wellbeing and dignity. In any given communist society all citizens are equally oppressed, equally impoverished and equally intimidated. The communists’ claims of concern for the downtrodden are essentially a way of gaining and legitimising their own political power. They preach social justice while they scheme social tyranny. They are Judases.
In Australia today, it is not inappropriate to question the purity of the motives of some who present themselves as noble servants of social justice. Take, for example, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), which describes itself on its website as “the peak body of the community and social ser-vices sector.” ACOSS claims, “We are the national voice for the needs of people affected by poverty and inequality.”1This sounds admirable, but it is not entirely accurate. Isn’t ACOSS, in fact, the national voice for the needs of people who make their living from servicing people affected by poverty and inequality? When ACOSS lobbies the government for more spending on the poor, isn’t it, coincidentally, lobbying for more government spending on the service industry for the poor? And doesn’t that spending, coincidentally, translate into more members for ACOSS and higher salaries for ACOSS members?
In its 2010 submission to Fair Work Australia in support of the Equal Remuneration Order lodged by unions representing social and community sector workers, ACOSS complains, “Community sector organisations have long been facing a crisis in their capacity to sustain the vital services they provide because of an inability to attract and retain skilled, experienced staff.”2It seems that salaries in the $60,000 range are not enough. Indeed, during the wage campaign, one disgruntled counsellor told the Sydney Morning Herald, “My hourly rate is $28. Depressing.”3(Yet the counsellor’s clients would most likely find the prospect of earning $28 an hour quite cheering.) ACOSS continues: “Higher wages are essential for addressing many of the workforce problems in the sector, and therefore the effectiveness of social services in meeting the needs of low income Australians.”2
Note how ACOSS makes the welfare of the poor dependent upon the payment of higher wages to those who provide them services. And note, too, how ACOSS seems oblivious to the irony that its workers will only help “low income Australians” if they are paid a high income.
If, as ACOSS claims, the community sector can only attract and retain workers by offering them higher salaries, it follows that sector workers have more on their minds than simply helping the poor. Social justice is not their only (and perhaps not even their primary) concern. They are motivated by a measure of self interest. This does not make them Judases—but just as importantly, it does not make them (as some would have us believe) Mother Teresas, either.
I have no doubt that many social and community workers have a genuine concern for the underprivileged people they are paid to help. Equally, I have no doubt that their concern, practically speaking, is tied to their pay packets: they would not continue to work for the poor if they did not continue to receive payment for doing so.
I am reminded of an actual situation in a country church where a member of the congregation, a social worker in government employment, wanted the church to set up a food voucher program for the needy. Under the scheme, anyone claiming to be in need could come knocking. However, the social worker did not want the town’s needy to come knocking on her door. She wanted them to knock on the pastor’s door. Her noble idea was that the pastor should administer the scheme, having strangers coming to his family home day and night asking for handouts. When the pastor, citing some unfortunate previous experiences, declined to accept responsibility for the scheme, the social worker was upset, but not upset enough to run the scheme herself. Seemingly, her concern for the town’s poor did not extend in any practical sense beyond the hours for which she was paid.
For myself, I do not feel that paid social workers have any more responsibility towards the poor than anyone else. I certainly do not object to them being paid to work with the poor. I simply object when some of them pretend that they have a truer concern for the poor than those who do not work in their sector or those who do not embrace social justice dogma and employ social justice jargon.
Social and community workers are not the only ones who sometimes give themselves undeserved social justice airs. Aid agencies and workers sometimes do likewise. The Chief Executive Officer of World Vision Australia, Reverend Tim Costello, comes to mind in this regard.
Tim is not slow to publicly criticise others along social justice lines. So, for example, when Paris Hilton spent over $5,000 in Melbourne on clothes one day in December 2008, Tim was quick to condemn her, declaring, “In World Vision terms, $5,000 would ensure that a village of 2,000 people in Africa or Asia would have clean water for the rest of their lives.”4
Several days later Tim resumed his attack on Paris, publishing in a major newspaper an article full of sarcasm and condescension. Paris and her “admiring hordes”, Tim said, represent “thin stories of glamour and gratification”, while those who “serve the vulnerable” represent “thick stories of courage, self-discipline and hope”.5All this distain because Paris, without pretending to be doing anything noble, had spent $5,000 of her own money on herself—an act that, Tim would have us believe, is, in World Vision terms, unconscionable!
Tim gives the impression that if he had had Paris’s $5,000, he would have arranged for 2,000 African villagers to get clean water for the rest of their lives. But would he? The stark reality is that World Vision pays Tim approximately $5,000 every week. In 2008, and again in 2009, his annual salary and superannuation package was $250,000.6That amounts to half a million dollars in just two years! In effect, his yearly salary package uses up the yearly giving of over 480 donors (working on the current World Vision child sponsorship rate of $43 per month for 12 months).
While Tim is not at liberty to use Paris’s money for his village water enterprises, he is perfectly able to use his own money. With just one week’s salary, Tim could do what he criticised Paris for not doing. Indeed, if Tim, out of concern for not only third world victims but also first world donors, were to settle for a handsome salary of, say, $150,000 per annum, then the freed up $100,000 would ensure that 20 villages inhabited by 40,000 people in Africa or Asia would have clean water for the rest of their lives—and another 20 villages/40,000 people the next year, and the next.
Tim’s public piety at Paris’s expense is all the more hypocritical when we remember how he once publicly criticised another charity leader for taking a high salary. Commenting on television in June 2000 about the revelation that the head of Wesley Central Mission was earning $160,000 a year, Tim said, “I was shocked and I think most clergy in the church are dumbstruck. When you have a religious calling, you understand it’s about sacrifice and service. You’re not in it to make money.” And again, “To be on a salary [from an organisation] that is practising and preaching social justice, as the Wesley Mission is, that’s that high, is not living consequentially with your values.”7
The social justice path has been a very rewarding path for Tim Costello. The adulation of the media, the socialising with celebrities, the travels to various countries, the invitations to conferences, the quarter of a million dollar annual salary—not bad for a man who (World Vision proclaims) “has devoted his life to health, welfare and social justice in Australia and globally” and “is an authoritative national voice of social conscience”.8
Because the pursuit of social justice in Australia and the Western world is so popular and lucrative, it would be surprising if the motives of some social justice advocates were not mixed. While I do not necessarily reproach them for having mixed motives, I do take exception when they either pretend to a purity of motives that they do not have or score points off those who do not share their social justice views.
Permit me this observation in closing: The sincerity of a person’s concern for the poor, I suggest, is closely related to his or her philosophy and practice of giving to the poor.
Generally speaking, advocates of social justice want to tackle the problem of poverty with other people’s money. They covet the wealth of the prosperous and pontificate about how that wealth could/should be used for the benefit of those whom they deem to be in need. They insist that others should be compelled to pay for their vision of the perfect world. They dream of big Robin Hood governments who rob from the rich and give to the poor. Indeed, they routinely press governments to devise new forms of taxation, and to revive old forms of taxation, and to increase existing forms of taxation, so that they can extract ever increasing amounts of money from the supposed haves for redistribution to the supposed have nots.
In contrast, those who oppose this social justice approach nurture a philosophy and practice of personal, voluntary giving. (In my experience, this acceptance of the need for personal giving is particularly characteristic of conservative Bible-believing Christians—the very Christians whom social justice advocates claim are selfishly indifferent to the poor.) Without fanfare, they give generously to missionary and aid agencies from their own income and savings. They do not insist that others do the same or make them feel guilty if they don’t. They do not seek praise for this selfless giving, nor are they accorded any. They simply give, and continue to give.
I suggest that this latter way is the better way. And I further suggest that it reveals a deeper and truer sympathy for the poor on the part of those who follow it.
1. http://acoss.org.au and http://acoss.org.au/about_us/who_we_are/ , accessed December 2010 and 22 February 2011.
2. ACOSS, Equal Remuneration Order: Decent Wages for Community Sector Workers – http://acoss.org.au/images/uploads/ACOSS%20paper,%20funding%20PE.pdf , accessed December 2010 and 22 February 2011.
3. “Community sector unites to fight for better pay”, Kirsty Needham, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 2010 – http://www.smh.com.au/national/community-sector-unites-to-fight-for-better-pay-20101126-18an4.html
4. “Paris Hilton slammed for Wayne Cooper shopping spree”, The Daily Telegraph, 30 December 2008 – http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/sydney-confidential/paris-hilton-slammed-for-wayne-cooper-shopping-spree/story-e6frewz0-1111118431516
5. “Hilton stunt leaves society limping”, Tim Cosello, The Age, 2 January 2009 – http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/people/hilton-stunt-leaves-society-limping-20090403-9rq5.html , accessed December 2010 and 22 February 2011.
6. World Vision Australia Annual Report 2009, “Executive Team”, p. 86.
7. “Controversy over church charity head’s salary”, 7.30 Report, ABC TV, 9 June 2000. Transcript available at www.abc.net.au/7.30/stories/s139045.htm
8. World Vision Australia Annual Report 2009, “22. Remuneration of Key Management Personnel”, p. 124.