Social Justice and Beloved Community

December 22, 2023

The 2024 theme for the NorcalMLK Foundation is Social Justice and Beloved Community.

In the sixth century of the common era, Byzantine Roman emperor Justinian enacted the Roman law upon which the modern foundation for the term ‘justice’ is understood: “Justice is the set and constant purpose which gives to every man his due.” 1,2 To take full advantage of Justinian justice, one needed to be a Roman citizen, meaning not enslaved and mainly male.3 So the very way we now understand justice is tied to a sixth century, restrictive definition that we have attempted to adapt to our universal purpose by facing neither the term’s history nor our own.

Theologian Howard Thurman notes how human beings are part of the larger rhythm of nature and that within the diversity of the human project, interaction is required for life, and our interactive life is nourished by communication. This interdependent mutuality works best when human beings recognize themselves in each other, which is the very prerequisite for a more authentic meaning of justice.

Justice is embedded within the concrete ways in which we interact and in how we grasp values and essential meanings through these experiences. This, in turn, forms a structure for our moral actions. And because human interaction and interdependence work best when we see ourselves in each other and when we recognize the other in us, social justice can find fertile ground. Because, social justice begins with the mutual recognition of each person’s inherent dignity. It is a dignity that carries with it the responsibility of being human in an interactive and interdependent human community, a beloved community.

So we can read these words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with fresh understanding:

“All I'm saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” 4

In 2024, let us dedicate ourselves anew to social justice and beloved community.


1. Caesar Flavius Justinian, Institutes (AD 563), trans. J.B. Moyle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911), 4.

2. See David Miller, “Justice,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021 (accessed September 2, 2023).

3. Book I, Title II, Sec. 12, and Title III, Preamble, of the Justinian Code’s state , “…[I]t is useless to know the law without knowing the persons for whose sake it was established. … In the law of persons, then, the first division is into free men and slaves.” Justinian, Institutes (AD 563), p. 5. And, again In Book I, Title VIII, Section 1, regarding persons who are dependent, it states, “Now slaves are in the power of masters, a power recognized by the law of all nations, for all nations present the spectacle of masters invested with power of life and death over slaves; and to whatever is acquired through a slave his owner is entitled.” Ibid., 7. And Book I, Title XVI, Section 4, regarding a slave's civil rights, “A slave does not suffer loss of status by being manumitted, for while a slave he had no civil rights.” Ibid., 12.

4. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” June 1965, (Oberlin: Oberlin College Archives, 1965) (accessed December 17, 2023).