“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?