Social Justice And The Christian
Spend any amount of time on social media and the term “social justice” will make an appearance on your timeline. In our age of buzzwords, this is one of the buzziest of words. Social justice is a hard word to nail down, even among social justice warriors (SJW) and their opponents. Your worldview will not only shape how you view the concept but how you define it and live it out. This blog will by no means settle the debate. My goal is to provide a historical framework for the term, how it relates to Biblical justice, and how we can avoid its modern pitfalls.
Put On Your History Goggles
Social justice is a fairly modern concept, the term first appearing around the early 1800s. However, the ideas of our modern conceptions of social justice date all the way back to Aristotle and the concept of distributive justice. Equality, i.e. justice, is found when societal assets are distributed according to merit.
Throughout the centuries, philosophers began to understand this concept of justice as a societal burden. Meaning, society should institute or promote the flourishing of equality by giving everyone a chance. Society and government should promote the common good of all. But questions began to arise, how does one define equality? What is the common good?
One of the first major works addressing social justice was Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, “of the new things.” Pope Leo XIII wanted to make clear the Catholic position in the new order of the world during the turbulent 1600s in Europe. He directly addressed the societal shifts away from farming families to wage-based labor, which created a crisis for the family. For the Pope, this was an intensely theological issue. Social justice was seen as a virtue in that the working class was cared for by the employers.
Yet in the 19th and 20th century, the debate evolved around whose responsibility it was to care for the outcasts of society. The concept of economic justice per Leo XIII began to form into broader conversations of human dignity, equal opportunity, and rights. Social justice as a form of economic justice has now shifted in our modern times to be affiliated with reproductive rights (i.e. abortion), systemic racism, health care, sex trafficking, environmentalism, LGBT+ rights and much more. Yet, this evolution makes sense considering the worldview of social justice. It’s the idea of society enacting justice for all. From Aristotle’s distribution of societal assets to today’s abortion debate, the worldview of social justice has remained surprisingly consistent. Today, the question revolves around whose responsibility is it to promote social justice? The individuals or governments? Should we promote social justice, either as a government mandate or virtue? I hope to help us navigate this by comparing social justice to Biblical justice.
Biblical Social Justice?
To recap my first blog on the subject of Biblical justice: Biblical justice is all about wrong-righting (restorative) and right living (righteousness). To do both, we must first be made right before God through the cross of Jesus Christ. God’s justice was satisfied in Christ on our behalf and all who believe and trust in Christ will be saved. We now take this good news to the ends of the earth living rightly first before God and secondly before others. Our foundation for justice is that the problem begins with us. We are sinful creatures in need of a savior. Even after we are saved, sin still infects us and our world today. The roots of sin go deep. Deep into our hearts and deeper still into the cultures and societies we create. Before we can even begin addressing societal issues, we must first recognize our great need. Only then can we be true advocates for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, exercising “pure religion.”
This is admittedly a hard balance to walk! On one hand, we know that enacting laws and changing the culture will by no means have the final word. On the other hand, we know that societal level change cannot come without true heart transformation by the Holy Spirit. But this by no means excuses us from never engaging with the culture around us or advocating for just laws in the public square. We are the salt of the earth, a light in the darkness. To be salt means we are distinct from the world and the culture at large because our foundation is the word of God. To be light means we shine brightest in the darkness. If we were to cut our light off from the world, we would become spiritually fruitless to our neighbors.
As we are led by the Spirit, we begin to speak up. We vote. We run for political office. We advocate for legislation. We let our distinct light shine. When our culture ignores issues of systemic racism, we can speak up with the truth. When our culture praises the death of the unborn, we can reveal it for what it truly is. When our culture dismisses the cries of the poor, immigrant, and refugee, we can powerfully apply God’s word to our lives and do something as we are able. Christians can and should advocate for societal change. It may look different for each person, and our solutions/approaches might be wildly different, but we are to advocate for justice because our God is a God of justice (Psalm 33:5).
Roadblocks To Change
On the flip side: social justice, without proper definitions, can be an intolerant and divisive weapon. It has been wielded to push for loose abortion laws. It has been used as a club against religious freedom and has turned many of our university campuses against free speech.
Does that mean we dismiss it entirely? Absolutely not. Like postmodernism allowed us to see that we approach topics from different perspectives, so social justice can remind us that society should have a role to play in taking care of the outcasts of society. At the very least, it should allow room for the thriving of churches and organizations to care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. We must be quick to define social justice and how it does and does not relate to Biblical justice. Just because something is labeled as a social justice issue, does not, in fact, make it a Biblical justice issue. Like many buzzwords, social justice comes with its own set of roadblocks to enact true change. Here are three pitfalls we must avoid when addressing social justice issues:
1. We cannot let the name of Jesus become detached from our actions. Economic prosperity and racially just laws are good things to pursue but if we forget to do it in the name of Jesus, (i.e. we don’t make the proclamation of the gospel a priority in our advocating for just laws,) we are meeting physical needs without meeting truer spiritual needs.
2. We cannot pursue justice issues apart from pursuing holiness. Our God is a God of justice but He is also a God of holiness. You can post a photo of your red “x” on Instagram to end sex trafficking, but if you are indulging in pornography you are nothing less than a hypocrite. Our pursuit of justice is also a pursuit of holiness.
3. We cannot be involved in every justice issue. Today, many social justice movements are started on social media. They can feel disconnected or can provide a false peace if you just tweet the hashtag. Our calling cannot be to involve ourselves with every piece of legislation under the sun or with every organization dedicated to fighting “x” cause. We must be wise and discerning with not only our gifting but our time. Examine your context around you. Who are the most vulnerable? What can you do today to fight for their voice in the public square? What can you do today to pray and witness to them about the powerful good news of Jesus Christ? Issues of justice are not strictly regulated to societal level changes. Is your neighbor a refugee who needs help getting to the grocery store? That’s a justice issue. That young woman in your congregation who has a surprise pregnancy outside of marriage and has no resources to care for the child? That’s a justice issue.
In all these things pray. There is much more to be said about social justice, freedoms, and rights. These conversations require a wisdom from the Spirit of God. Our role in pursuing justice issues requires discernment from the God of justice. Taking our first steps in speaking up requires Biblical counsel from trusted friends and pastors. We are not allowed to sit on the sidelines when it comes to issues related to social justice and social action in our context. Gotquestions.org says, "Social action for Christians means we live our faith 24/7 whether at home, at our jobs, or at our places of worship. There is no switch to flip off our 'light' whenever we feel like it.” Our calling is to be salt to the earth and lights in the world crying for justice. And we pray for the final judgment when all will be made right when the King returns.