Social Justice as Spiritual Practice

Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity. (Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha)

The spiritual is higher than the material, but the material needs of others are an obligation of my spiritual life. (Rabbi Yisroel Salanter)

There can be little growth in holiness without growth in a sense of social justice. (Edward Hays, A Lenten Hobo Honeymoon)

I am bothered by a failure to speak of justice in much of today’s spirituality. It echoes a split life rather than the non-split life. Suspect any spirituality that is “just us”—too much me and not enough we. (Kent Ira Groff, What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?)

Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the root. (Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH)

This spiritual journey is often characterized by an intense passion for justice and liberation, especially in the face of exploitation and deprivation. The desire for justice is motivated not merely by the plight of appalling suffering, but by a deeper sense that love and well-being must prevail in the end. (Diarmuid O’Murchu, Quantum Theology)

More than a few Christians might be surprised to learn that the call to be involved in creating justice for the poor is just as essential and nonnegotiable within the spiritual life as is Jesus’ commandment to pray and keep our private lives in order. (Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing)

If you want to discover who you are, do justice! (Meister Eckhart)

Wherever the poor are heard and respected, the face of God is illuminated. (Jean-Bertrand Aristide)

He who earns by his own exertions,
And gives something out of his earnings in charity,
Nanak, he has found the way to the Lord.
(Guru I, Sarang Rag)

We cannot enjoy the spirituality that truly is of God unless we are enjoying the struggle for justice—love, compassion, nonviolence, and forgiveness in the world. And we cannot stay in the struggle unless we are drawing personal strength from the God whom Jesus loved, however we may experience and image this sacred power. (Carter Heyward)

When we pray, we move our feet. (African Proverb)

The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question. (Nikolai Berdyaev)

To the ocean of his being, the spirit of life leads the streams of action. (Isa Upanishad)

Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the root. (Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH)

Although you may not know it,
If you love anyone, it is Him you love;
If you turn your head in any direction,
it is toward [Her] you turn.”

Have you seen him who denies the religion? He is the one who harshly rebuffs the orphan and does not urge the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who do prayer, and are forgetful of their prayer, those who show off and deny help to others. (Qur’an, 107:1-7)

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Jesus, Matthew 25: 35-40)

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. (Dorothy Day)

The Holy Prophet of Islam said at another occasion: “A moment of justice is better than seventy years of worship in which you keep fasts and pass the nights in offering prayers and worship to Allah.” (Jami’us Sa’adat,vol. II, p. 223)

I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver. (Maya Angelou)

Liberating oppressed peoples and creatures—Healing personal wounds, ours and others’—Liberating us from fear, freed, and lack of confidence—Healing peoples, nations, tribes, and earth—It all goes together in God. (Carter Heyward)

On the soil of your mind sow the seed of good actions. (Guru I, Sri Rag)

The only true sacrifice to offer God, O lovers of God, the only authentic renunciation that can clear away obstacles to spiritual progress, is to abandon once and for all this constant drive for self-perpetuation, this instinctive urge to survive and dominate which manifests in so many subtle and obvious forms—including the obsession with becoming holy or elevated. (Ramakrishna)

Do not be surprised or scandalized by the sinful and the tragic. Do what you can to be peace and to do justice, but never expect or demand perfection on this earth. (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs)

Have contentment of mind. And be merciful to all creatures. (Guru V, Gauri Rag)

Do you love your Creator? Love your fellow-beings first. (Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH)

What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured. (Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH)

The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, “This is the year the Lord has chosen.” (Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19)

Get together, my brethren, and remove all misunderstandings through regard for each other. (Guru V, Gauri Rag)

Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. (Mahatma Gandhi)

Peace on the outside comes from peace on the inside. Peace on the inside comes from understanding that we are all God. (Shirley MacLaine)

Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold… Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free. (The Dalai Lama)

Listening Exercise: Comparing an Ancient and a Contemporary Prophet

Give each group member a copy of the lyrics for “Life Uncommon” by Jewel and a copy of Isaiah 58. Listen to the song, noticing similarities between the two texts As the song finishes, each person writes down a word, phrase or image that this song evoked for you (on a small piece of paper)

Share: have each person take turns sharing their word or image (verbally and/or placing paper in center)


  • What do you resonate with or find challenging in this song or religious text?
  • What do you associate with “spiritual practice?”
  • What do you understand social justice to be?
  • What do Jewel and Isaiah reveal about social justice as a spiritual practice?

Go – around: Each share one way in which your service experience is (or you wish it to be) a spiritual practice.

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
(Isaiah 58)