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Is Social Justice Biblical?

Today is, according to the United Nations, Social Justice Day. 

For me, this is cool.

I like the phrase ‘social justice.’

We started The Justice Conference, which is coming up this weekend in Portland and is one of the largest international gatherings around biblical and social justice, so maybe it’s pretty obvious I like social justice and see it as a part of the outworking of my Christian faith and biblical justice.

Other folks share my excitement for social justice.

Here is World Vision from their blog today:

“Biblical references to the word “justice” mean “to make right.” Justice is, first and foremost, a relational term — people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation. From a scriptural point of view, “justice” means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves and is rooted in the character and nature of God. As God is just and loving, so we are called to do justice and live in love.”

Eugene Cho also tackles this subject on his blog today with this intro, “Today is World Day of Social Justice. Those two words, “Social Justice” can be very polarizing. For me, it matters because the Gospel matters. If you truly believe in the Gospel, then you have to believe that it matters not just for your personal salvation but God’s pursuit of restoration, redemption, & reconciliation for the entire world. I believe in this Gospel. I live for this Gospel.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I received this e-mail thread from a wise, older trusted friend and mentor this morning.

“By the way, I listen to MacArthur on my way to early morning workouts just to remind myself of how good it is to be free from all that crap. He’s in a series proving that the social justice movement isn’t biblical. So, brace yourself for the attacks.”

 

So why would some Christians be so excited about social justice while other Christians would be so hostile as to try and prove it to be unbiblical?

I think the biggest problem lies in the use of language.

What is the definition of Biblical Justice?  This one is pretty easy.  It is a definition that refers to justice referred to or promoted in the bible or scripture.  There is an authority source (the Bible) and the question references this definitive source in seeking its answer.

What, however, is the definition of social justice?  This one speaks to a category or sphere of justice.  It doesn’t have in its name, though, the definitive source for it’s definition.

 

Thus the problem.  Social justice can be defined or interpreted in a myriad of different ways.

If someone is mentored by Glen Beck (who made headlines a year ago for calling people to leave churches if “Social Justice” was talked about or espoused) they will define it as “Democratic socialist politics aimed at the forced redistribution of wealth.”

If someone follows a very legalistic Christian leader they will find it defined as “that liberal social gospel agenda whereby we try to make earth into heaven and distract people from the centrality of the cross and salvation.”

The more straightforward definition, however, is that social justice describes a sphere in which justice works – namely ‘the social sphere’ where issues of racism and poverty reside, where orphans, widows and foreigners face injustice, oppression and vulnerability and where huge issues like trafficking, HIV/Aids, famine and natural disaster relief fall into or overlap.

What other category of justice – criminal, business law, political law, international justice etc. – is large enough to include every aspect of the issues above?

If we drew this as a pie graph (see image below), social justice would be a slice, a sphere, in which justice operates.

Therefore, if God cares about the issues that would fall in that sphere, orphans, widows and foreigners, then it logically follows that social justice (as a category) harmonizes with Biblical Justice.

 

Here is the caveat.

Social justice, if it is a sphere of justice in the social arena, doesn’t necessarily settle the question on how best to enact justice for the poor, oppressed or vulnerable.  It leaves the question of method, means, efficiency and effectiveness up for discussion.

This is another part of the problem with peoples’ understanding of social justice… believing there should be justice in the social sectors doesn’t pre-commit you to a certain political party or theory of enacting social justice.

Wealth redistribution and other hot buttons can be argued about, both sides can present cases as to why their view is the most effective or efficient, without attacking the idea of social justice itself.

We would be far better off realizing God cares for and wants justice for the marginalized while arguing means than denigrating social justice itself.

Unlike Glen Beck, I don’t find the term (historically or otherwise) as necessarily being defined as socialist politics.  Additionally, if God is a God of justice and commands justice then I don’t find it helpful, like many legalistic pastors, to pit God against mercy, compassion or justice.  As if God would be happy with us if we kept ourselves pure by avoiding social justice and walking to the other side of the road.

Wasn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan aimed at just this point?  That legalistic or pietistic religion can often lead to a counter-intuitive ignoring of love of neighbor (the Priest and Levite) and that often it is the least religious who empathizes or understands love of neighbor best (the Samaritan). See Luke chapter 10 verses 30 and following.

Maybe being against social justice is a white middle-class issue.

I know this sounds inflammatory, but most folks I know who have a lot of animosity toward the phrase itself tend to be white middle-class. However, all of my Christian friends in the relief and international development world, those who work in urban contexts, those who have taken vows of poverty or service or those who are or live in minority communities seem to take the phrase at face value and almost as a given – there should be justice in the social sectors…  God, scripture and much of Christian history stand with and for the vulnerable and oppressed!

Theologian John Stott once called the movement away from justice issues by the church in recent times, “the Great Reversal.”  He meant to imply that this was a departure from Christian history where Christians where often at the forefront of social issues, justice issues, charities, hospital building and so much more.

I find this whole question, “Is Social Justice Biblical,” to be the sort of silly game that Paul warned about when he said to avoid petty arguments.

People matter to God and therefore they should matter to us – every bit of them from the salvation of their souls to the meeting of material needs (see 1 John 4:20-21).

Justice is rooted in the character of God, commanded in his Holy Scriptures and exemplified in the life of Christ and the history of the church.

Justice is the right ordering of our relationships with God and neighbor.

Justice, in all spheres and slices of life and especially in the social sectors, is biblical, God-honoring and right. Politics, theories or political platforms, however, are open to dispute and disagreement.

Let’s keep the means and ends from being confused on this one.

[See also "Justice as a Theological Necessity" and "Defining the term Justice"]

5 Responses

  1. Phillip O'Reilly says:

    Ken, read your post.

    Put me in the group of white middle class males who are cynical of social justice. I have actually on the staff of the Conservative Baptist campus ministry when it was controlled by advocates of social justice. I watched as social justice crowded out the gospel. I have observed the same thing with relatives of mine.

    I think you make some good points, but I cannot tell if your position is biblical because you do considerable hand waving and employ phrases that mean different things to different people. Think your audience would benefit from clarification on these issues.

    Best regards,

    Phillip

  2. David Krause says:

    Ken, this is a thoughtful post. I appreciate the reformative work you do within a conservative christian framework/tradition. A couple of thoughts:

    1. I see a disconnect between an understanding of the gospel that is at its core about individual/internal/spiritual salvation, and an honest concern for social justice. For example, If your eschatology holds that it’s all going to burn anyway, and we just need to get as many souls to heaven as possible before the end, then social equity, and the physical needs of the marginalized are pushed to the periphery, or just become something that we should *also* be concerned about because God is loving and just, etc. Or worse, social justice work becomes a means toward our *real* goal of individual conversion. I’m not trying to paint you into that box at all, but I see confusion among evangelicals who are trying to synthesize their awakening social consciousness with an inherited American fundamentalist gospel. I would love hear you clarify how social justice fits into your theology systematically.

    2. The critique of the new evangelical social justice movement from my camp (progressive, anabaptist, etc.) is that it has a tendency to be concerned about what’s happening *over there* to *those others*. Or how we respond to the plight of the “other” here in America (undocumented immigrants, etc.) There is a reluctance to question or even recognize the political and economic structures at the root of injustice, and our complicity with them, or to put our place of privilege at risk, but that’s exactly what I see Christ calling us to do. To speak truth to power and embrace the radical notion that there really is no “other”, it’s all “us”. This can be very uncomfortable to the Glen Beck crowd, or to christians seeped in a christianity of empire and privilege. Again, I’m not suggesting that this characterizes your position, quite the opposite, I just think that at some point, we need to stop talking about the need for honest conversation about christians’ political response to social justice, and to actually have that conversation; as uncomfortable as it may be.

    If you haven’t already, I would strongly recommend you (and any christians interested in social justice) to check out: “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder, “A Peacable Kingdom” by Stanley Hauerwas, The Powers trilogy by Walter Wink, and “Binding the Strong Man” by Ched Meyers.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Phillip,

    I would suggest you click the links at the bottom of this post (which is obviously a brief treatment of the subject) and watch the message entitled Justice as a Theological Necessity for my full position on where justice stands in relation to theology, scripture, the bible and ultimately or understanding of and relationship with God.

    I agree Social Justice pursuits can sometimes become over zealous about the work to the degree that the image of God in our neighbor is missed, the culpability of our own sinfulness and shortcomings get missed and, as David says above, we too narrowly draw our lines of justice around causes and miss much else that is “invisible” to us (the movie “The Help” really showcases this.)

    I also think we all have more to learn about justice than we have to teach.

    Thanks for your comments,
    Ken

  4. admin says:

    David – thank you for your thoughtful comments as well.

    There is obviously a depth to this issue that one blog post can’t touch, but my point was simply to say the argument and discussion should center around such deeper issues rather than whether justice (in any of the spheres) is good or not.

    Instead of quibbling about social justice we should be delving deeper into what God would expect or require of us with regard to ourselves, our communities and our nations.

    Again, thanks for taking this conversation to a deeper (and I believe, more profitable) level.

    Ken

  5. [...] Conference founder (and lead pastor of Antioch Church in my beloved hometown of Bend) Ken Wytsma writes on why justice matters to followers of Jesus and all who trust Scripture: People matter to God and [...]

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