Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is Social Justice?

Everywhere I go in Evangelical circles these days I hear people talking about "social justice." Whether it is a session on the "Missional Church" at AAR or a website promoting the "Emergent Church" the talk is not of how to evangelize, but how to promote social justice. Many of the books Evangelicals are reading by authors from Jim Wallis to Ron Sider to Rick Warren to Tony Campolo promote the view that the Evangelical churches have neglected social justice for too long and have a long way to go to "catch-up" with the liberal Protestants and other "progressive" movements.

So what exactly is social justice? It seems to me that two related but not identical themes are often conflated confusingly in the minds of those talking about social justice. Evangelicals, of course, are congentially sympathetic to the argument from Scripture; if you want to convince Evangelicals of the rightness of your view, appeal to Scripture. And advocates of social justice do that. They speak frequently - almost ritualistically - about the huge number of verses in the Bible that talk about the poor as compared to whatever issue is being proposed as the priority for Evangelicals. So, for example, there are more verses on poverty than homosexuality or abortion or whatever, therefore God's highest priority is social justice.

The Charitable Imperative
So what about all the verses that talk about the poor? It seems obvious that we can break them down into two distinct groups. The first group talks about neglect of the poor by those who have means to help but who don't choose to do so. This is a sin of ommission; it is apathy. So, for example, we have a passage like James 2:14-17.

"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

This passage is clearly teaching the same message as Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan: namely that charity is a duty for Christians. We must not be so hard-hearted as not to share with our neighbour out of the abundance with which God has blessed us. We should personally make sacrifices in order to help the poor.

The Condemnation of Injustice
There are many other verses, on the other hand, which condemn the oppression of the poor. The classic one, I suppose, is the powerful story of Nathan confronting King David over his adultery with Bathsheeba and his murder of Uriah. In the story (II Samuel 12) Nathan tells the story of the rich man with many flocks and herds and the poor man who owned only one little lamb, which was a pet for his family. The rich man stole the poor man's lamb just because he could and for no reason other than the raw exercise of power and selfish will. Nathan condemns the king because he oppressed the poor by unjustly taking what was not his.

We know that during the time of David there was a great deal of centralization of land ownership, corrupt law courts that allowed the rich to cheat the poor and a growing number of impoverished people who were disconnected from the land. Surely, Nathan was making multiple points simultaneously with this powerful parable; adultery and murder are wrong, yes, but in addition so is cheating the poor who don't have the power to protect themselves. The king is supposed to be the shepherd of the flock and supposed to protect those who are unable to protect themselves. It was a personal morality point and a poltical point all wrapped up in one story.

Many of the condemnations of the prophets concerning the treatment of the poor have to do with cheating the poor (dishonest scales, bribery of government officials, corrupt courts). The main point of such preaching is that the poor man deserves equality before the law; no one is above the law. The poor deserve justice. This idea is not an invention of the French philosophes and it is not a modern idea; rather, it is rooted in the 3000 year old Judeo-Christian tradition.

Natural Justice versus Social Justice
Now, the idea of justice here is one of "natural justice" by which I mean equality before the law and equality of opportunity. No man is to be cheated, held back or have justice withheld from him just because he is poor or from a lower class. This is distinct from the peculiarly modern notion of "social justice," which states that if all men are to be equal they must have relatively equal wealth or status. This vision is democratic, levelling, and socialist. The minimum requirement for "social justice" is the bureaucratic welfare state that uses social engineering to administer all areas of life in order to create equality in status and wealth between all members of society.

"Social justice" is a concept distinct from both charity and natural justice. It is a distinctly modern idea and it is incompatible with limited government, a market economy, individual freedom, and a strong and flourishing civil society including strong families, churches and voluntary associations. "Social justice" is incompatible with "natural justice" rooted in the concept of man as created in the image of God and with the ideal of "charity" as taught in Scripture.

The Bible Does Not Teach Social Justice
"Natural justice" is incompatible with "social justice" because people are not by nature equal in IQ, work ethic, physical strength or genetic background. Additionally, people are born into vastly different socio-economic circumstances and different kinds of communities. All this natural inequality of endowment, however, is not incompatible with equality before the law and equality of worth and value as God's creatures. But it does have to be eradicated by a process of social engineering if equality of status and wealth is to be achieved.

And part of that social engineering will require that the law treat wealthy and poor people differently, taking from the former and re-distributing wealth to the latter. The rich cannot enjoy the same equality before the law as the poor or else wealth simply could not be re-distributed. Either the ideal of the law is that Justice is impartial and blind, or the ideal is that she is the bureaucratic nanny state which seeks to take from the rich and give to poor so as to create an artificial equality that nature has not been able to produce.

(If you believe that the Bible supports socialism or the redistribution of wealth, you are of course perfectly free to make that argument. All I am saying is that an exegetical argument needs to be made; you cannot assume from the charitable imperative and the condemnation of injustice before the law that the Bible is thereby saying that the welfare state is either just or required.)

The social justice ethic also scorns and ultimately undermines charity. The idea that the well-off should give of their personal resources and that civil society should foster a wide range of private charitable organizations (something Evangelicals have historically been very good at) is pooh-poohed as too little and too weak a response. Only the State has the power and the resources to make a real difference in the area of social justice; hence, Christian mission becomes basically one of trying to lobby the State so as to stir it to action and then to steer its efforts in the right direction.

So the Bible teaches the charitable imperative, i.e. the command to be charitable to the poor, and it strongly condemns all forms of injustice toward the poor. It teaches that all of us are equal in the sense that we are created in God's image and therefore all of us enjoy equality before the law. Justice requires that all be treated in the same way by the State.

This means that the relief of the suffering of the poor is the responsibility of the Church (and of all individuals whether Christian or not who have means to help) and this responsibility cannot be shuffled off onto the State. The State's responsibility is to ensure natural justice, i.e. equal treatment of all before the law. But the modern ethic of social justice, which requires a bureaucratic welfare state committed to social levelling is not the "obvious" implication of the extensive biblical emphsis on charity and justice for the poor.

Liberal Protestants have re-defined sin as economic inequality, salvation as social justice, eschatology as progress and the Kingdom of God as the welfare state. This is the program of the 19th century liberal "Social Gospel" movement and I fear that many contemporary Evangelicals are repeating the same decline into heresy as many of their forebears did a century ago. To read the modern idea of "social justice" into the Bible is to co-opt the Bible in suport of an alien agenda and to misconstrue it.

I know that many Evangelicals who talk about social justice do not consciously do so with the distinctions I have made in this article in mind. So it would be easy to brush this aside and say, "Well, that is not what I mean by social justice." But in the interests of clear communication and clear thinking, we ought to make sure that we are using terminology consistently. And I think you will find that if you make an effort to talk about natural justice and charity in certain circles, and are careful to make yourself understood, you will run into resistance and disagreement that you never realized was there before. Then it will be up to you to decide what you believe.

1 comment:

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