Social Justice

“Justice will only exist where those not affected by injustice are filled with the same amount of indignation as those offended.”

(Plato, c.427 – 347 BC)

One of the things people have said to me since I started writing about social justice is that I should not use the term “social justice.” They tell me I should use the term “biblical justice” instead. Their reasoning is that the phrase “social justice” is usually associated with the political left and liberal Christianity. (Just for clarification, I consider myself to be apolitical and theologically conservative.)

After considerable thought, I have decided to continue to use the term “social justice.” Here is why:

  • The phrase, “biblical justice” is redundant. God is just. God’s primary characteristic is holiness, but closely related to holiness is justice. God’s justice is a holy justice. All justice is biblical and anything that is not just is not of God.
  • The term “social justice” communicates two important keys: (1) Justice has to take place in community; (2) Communities must continually fight injustice among all peoples. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • Among Christians, the phrase, “biblical justice” communicates. Among non-Christians, the phrase, “biblical justice” has no meaning. I would prefer to redeem the phrase “social justice” than to explain the phrase “biblical justice.” My dream would be for people to associate the phrase “social justice” with Christ-followers, not political pundits.

How do I define social justice?

The word “social” comes from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion” or “ally.” The word “justice” comes from the Latin words iustitia and iustus, meaning “righteousness” and “equity.” Thus, “social justice” is seeing all people as your companion or ally and treating them in a right and equitable way. Basically, “social justice” is treating others the way you want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). Inherent in this definition of social justice is not simply individuals treating others rightly, but societies and communities and governments treating others rightly. Therefore, fighting for social justice means speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves and standing up for the rights of people who have been mistreated and oppressed. Social justice is a call, not just to individual action, but communal action as well.

One thing that alarms me when I talk to Christians is their insistence that nowhere does God call on governments to play the role of justice on the social issues of affordable housing, poverty, health-care, immigration, and other similar issues. These well-meaning believers see justice as an individual mandate; the believe charity starts at home and should not be forced; and of course, they also believe the church needs to help as best it can, but leave the government out of social justice issues.

I understand what they mean. I use to feel the same way. But I think that attitude comes more from a frustration with our broken governmental system than it does true, biblical, social justice. I think it would help if we differentiate between macro-social issues and micro-social issues.

An example of a micro-issue would be that single mom who lives in your neighborhood who is disabled and having a hard time paying her bills. She is a couple of months behind on her rent and her landlord is threatening to evict. Out of compassion, you and your Sunday School class gather some money and approach the church to help. In addition to paying her rent, you help her fill out the appropriate paperwork to start receiving disability and you help her learn to manage her low-income. You also tell her about the food closet and clothes closet that you have at your church.

At the micro level you may volunteer to sit on a committee dealing with affordable housing, or cleaning up the local lakes and streams, or marching for equality on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; or a host of other issues that can, and should, be handled by individual people, churches, and organizations.

There are lots that you can do, and should do, at the micro level.

But some social justice issues are at the macro level; and the only way those issues can be rectified is through governmental legislation. In other words, while it was individual Christians and churches who fought to overturn slavery, slavery was only overturned by the government. You can fight for affordable housing, but it takes the local government to set standards and regulations on builders to build affordable houses. It takes legislation to insure disabled people have equal access to public buildings. Since only governments can declare war, only governments can declare peace and declare a war to be unjust. At the very least, it takes governmental involvement to address the human rights issues in Uganda or the AIDS epidemic in Africa. You need governmental involvement at the macro level. The macro level issues are where the systemic problems lie.

At the micro level I can pull people put out of the river of poverty and lack of education and unemployment and hunger. But after awhile, someone needs to look at the macro level and walk up river to see who is throwing all these people in the water in the first place.

I think all Christians believe that God will bless a nation that lives by His principles. Why then, as followers of Jesus, is it so bad to compel our government to fight and support social justice?

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About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider...in that order.
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5 Responses to Social Justice

  1. Tim Clayton says:

    Largely I agree with you Kevin, except that perhaps I see it as more polar than you. Yes, our Government stood against slavery in our own borders 160 years ago, but who is carrying the fight against slavery into Africa today, where it is still common? The Church is capable of crossing borders where the State cannot. The Church can reach out in Love, Chessed, The State cannot.

    Unfortunately the term Social Justice rarely means what you see it as meaning any more, it is an angry torch bearer’s catch phrase. I prefer your slant on it.

    I am sure we agree that it is not social (societal?) justice for a portion of my income be taken by Government to go to one who is capable of supporting oneself but simply refuses, or one who is incapable of supporting themselves through gluttony, sloth, or other intemperance.The most obvious Biblical example of a law regarding societal justice is the Law of Gleaning. But even that act required that the one gleaning go to the field and claim some of the harvest through their own effort.

    A bit away from the topic, I feel very strongly that the Government, any Government, being involved in redistribution is a dilution or outright theft of the heritage of responsibility God assigned to righteous individuals. As in your example, the church, or synagogue is where people in need are supposed to turn to, or their neighbors, or family, not some official behind a desk. Sustenance is to flow from God, not the State. In that way God can bless both the gifted and the giver. I almost consider our system of Governmental welfare a Satanic attack against the Church. Instead of going to a House of God, and receiving aid from a person the Holy Spirit can move through and speak into the needy one’s life, the needy deal with a local office, staffed by joyless people waiting to get to the end of the day and clock out, filling out stacks of forms and affidavits exposing their lives’ intimate details, being humiliated and debased even further, and in some cases wait months for partial relief. This is an offense against the Self Respect that God wishes each of us to have. (Yes, I know that there are some Godly people working in the various offices, but the information flow that they have to produce is the same.)

    The State, as initiated by God, is to dispense just laws impartially, and not to try to make everyone equally prosperous regardless of their effort. If our Government was not made up of men and women, elected by a (supposed) majority I would possibly trust it more. If those elected have a different view of justice from you is that a problem? Or are your opinions the problem, as in the views of the majority which elected those officers? Then you find yourself struggling against people in the street, at political gatherings, and so forth.

    And then there are people who wish for the Government to extend them Social Over-Justice, but I know you disagree with them for you are a man who loves being fair and honest, and I respect you for that.

    At the macro level the people are being thrown into the water by the destroyer, Satan, and you and I are not quite up to standing toe-to-toe with him. Perhaps that is an oversimplification. Yes, there are societal criminals, but they are well represented by attorneys and usually stay inside legal limits. It is rare that a Bernie Madoff gets caught, Unfortunately catching Bernie does little to remedy the harm he did, and that is far too often the case.

    Over all I like the way you think..

    Just thought I would through a little lighter fluid on the coals. I hope you and your family have a wonderful and blessed week Kevin. Preach on, my brother!

  2. Kevin — as I pointed out in response to another of your recent posts, adopted and accepting the term “Social Justice” is a grave error. It sells the work of the Kingdom far short of its true objectives, and replaces the goals of God with the counterfeits of men. It also allows the Enemy to substitute deceptions for the Truth.

    While I know what YOU mean by “Social Justice,” and I know your heart and your intentions, many of those who would hear that term, and many of those who would walk with you, would assume something totally different, something totally un-Biblical.

    An essential question we must ask is, “How can two walk together except they be agreed?” While you might wish to end poverty, or racism, or “injustice,” or a host of other social ills, I can guarantee, my Brother, that you do not want to do so in the way that most who embrace “Social Justice” desire to.

    Social Justice is a “political” and/or ideological viewpoint by its very nature. You may say you are “apolitical,” but this is a slippery slope, and you will slide in if you stay here. I would ask you, my friend, to reconsider.

    J. Dale Weaver, M. Div.

  3. jbdlsmith says:

    http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=21907&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=DPD
    In my opinion we allow liberals to continue maligning capitalism which though far from perfect has done more to lift world populations out of poverty than any government program could ever hope to.

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