Defining Social Justice

Bring up the question of social justice and you will get varied and often heated responses. There is tension around the term because of the history of theology and practice. It has been hotly debated, written about critically by scholars such as Friedrich Hayak and is often confused to equate fully with the controversial subject of wealth redistribution (better classified as Distributive Justice.) The problem of those on the far left is they make social justice look too much like socialism—the problem of those on the far right is that they react to social justice as if it is socialism. The middle ground, as in most things, proves to be where the balance is.

Let’s take a moment to re-define the phrase. The most helpful way of thinking of and defining a phrase is to split the words apart. In the case of social justice, it’s simply justice with a modifer in front of it. We use modifiers all the time for justice such as criminal justice, international justice, and retributive justice. So if we’re talking about justice with regard to immigrants, widows and orphans, poverty and exploited workers—examples of justice in society—then “social justice” is an incredibly helpful way to describe it, just as criminal justice is descriptive when we discuss law and order.

The real fruit of the conversation on justice comes out when we start with theology and leave the politics for later once we’ve grounded ourselves within the text of scripture. Justice, like truth, is not just “a good thing.” Both are universal things or absolutes. They exist everywhere and touch every subject.

Most people get this with truth.  What is actually is and what is true corresponds to reality, whether we believe it, understand it, follow it or know it. Truth is a rightness or a certain rectitude between a concept and what exists in the fabric of reality.

Justice, likewise, corresponds to what ought to be in the fabric of relationships.  It is what God intended for his creation. Oughts and musts exist whether we believe them, understand them, follow them or know them. Justice is a rightness or certain rectitude between people and societies, structures, policies, cultural norms and laws.  Injustice is the breakdown of what ought to be and justice is the existence or the promotion of what should be.

Truth and justice are universals. They are hallmark aspects of creation.

Justice, therefore, is not just a good thing. Rather, justice is a lens by which we look at and evaluate other things. It is a standard God intends to have as a part of his Kingdom.  Scripture says it is the foundation of God’s throne and justice is the scepter by which he rules.

Our understanding of God should compel justice. And our understanding of justice is one of the ways by which we are meant to understand God more clearly.

As the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is known by his justice.” (Psalm 9:16)

When a child walks with, cares about and participates in something the Father does, cares about and works for there is a degree of “like-mindedness” that otherwise wouldn’t be there to the same degree.  We know God better as we understand justice. ”For the LORD is a God of Justice.” Isaiah 30:18

Put another way, when we study justice we learn about God.  And when we study God we learn about justice.  Since justice is rooted in the character of God and flows from the heart of God, they are inseparable.

The question, then, is whether social justice is part of the Biblical mandate for justice. Meaning, does it fit with what the Bible says about God’s justice more broadly?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Social justice has to do with protecting and standing with the vulnerable in society.  This, understood rightly, is a lot more about empowerment, voluntary service and restoring dignity to the person.  Helping fight trafficking, standing against gender violence, caring about AIDS orphans and recognizing that poverty, however earned, is still something worth caring about because of the worth, the Image of God, in every person.

“If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

The verses above are familiar ones, but more to the point of social justice are verses in scripture talking about workers rights such as:

“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor…But your eyes and heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.” Jeremiah 22: 13, 17

“’Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” Isaiah 58:3

“Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” James 5:4-5

There certainly are other issues in addition to justice, but justice is, I believe, a theological necessity, an ethical imperative and certainly more than just “another good thing.”

For all the tension and debate around the conversation and term social justice, what we can’t miss is that justice in the social arena—or social justice—is part of a biblical justice mandate. We can debate strategies, political platforms, best practices for economics, job creation, and aid programs but at the end of the day, God’s heart for justice reigning at the center of our cities and as a part of his kingdom is something that is non-negotiable. God desires social justice as much as spiritual growth, compassion as much as confession and giving as much as receiving.

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Categories: Features,Justice & Culture

Theology and Culture