What is Christian Social Justice?
The two articles below serve as fitting introduction to the conversation. First, a quick clarification:
The Just Life as a ministry is about more than what is commonly understood as social justice. Yes, Christians should be involved in social justice, however, “social justice” is simply not a big enough term for our God and is not an apt description of what we are called to as Christ followers. The heart of Christian social justice is in the way that a personal faith in Christ can transform people into a new body of believers where there is no social, economic, racial, or gender division (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:10-11). Doing justice is about repairing the fabric of society where it is torn apart – restoring the Shalom of God.
by Raymond Aitchison
It is a pity that the response of some evangelical Christians towards issues of social justice and social concern has been so often negative. To some extent this has been a reaction against the emphasis placed in “liberal” circles upon the so-called “social gospel” at the expense of the Biblical Gospel of justification by faith. This does not, however, justify a negative response, which avoids issues instead of facing them. Happily there is today a growing positive attitude among evangelicals towards social concern and social justice, an attitude for which we have outstanding examples in such eminent evangelicals as Wilberforce,Barnardo, George Muller and William Quarrier.
There is no doubt whatever about the clear Biblical injunctions that impose a social responsibility upon the Christian, and especially a concern for the poor and underprivileged (as e.g. in James 2:14-16 and 1John 3:17, and numerous passages in the Old Testament). These do not, however, require us to follow headlong in the train of every person or organization or body of opinion that claims to be promoting social justice. Not only has God clearly imposed social concern upon us in the Scriptures, but in them He has also given us guidelines to direct us.
What, then, is social justice in Biblical terms? “Justice” and “righteousness” are part of a way of life which God expects of us as His people (see e.g. Micah 6:8; Ps. 11:7; 1John 3:7). This stems from the kind of character which we possess, and is in turn the reflection of what God Himself is and how He acts (1John 3:7). Social justice is essentially the outworking of this way of life in our relationships with others. It is thus not an option that we may accept or avoid at our choice; it is a necessary part of our practical Christian living.
What are the Biblical guidelines to direct us? A basic one is Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. This was quoted with emphasis by our Lord on one occasion (Matt. 22:39), and on another occasion gave rise to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also reinforced by both Paul (Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14) and James (ch. 2:8). Both our Lord and Paul declared that this commandment summed up the Law. It can therefore be taken to sum up the social duty of the Christian. And its Biblical implications are both wide and demanding. The injunctions in both Testaments to be concerned for the poor and needy, and to be upright. just and merciful in all our dealings with others, are written plain for all to see. Our Lord also summed up social responsibility on another occasion by saying (Matt. 7:12): “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.” And the Christian’s social responsibility does not end with his fellow-Christian, though this is his first priority. The example of our Lord Himself, and Paul’s remark in Galatians 6:10. make it clear that this responsibility extends to everybody.
The Biblical directives in respect of the Christian’s individual responsibility are therefore perfectly clear. But how should we react to those (including a number of evangelicals) who are declaring and even demanding that Christians and churches should be actively and publicly working together with others to achieve a “just society” and to address the problem of “structural injustice” (as the popular phrase goes)?
In considering this let us take note of one or two basic issues. First of all, what is a “just society’? Whose concept of such a society are we to adopt that of Marxist ideology or that of the humanistic philosophy of Western liberalism? Both of these differ in certain basic respects from the Old Testament principles of social justice in Israel as these are set forth in the Law and the Prophets. But further: in describing a ‘just society’, are we to confine ourselves merely to socio-political and socio-economic matters and “structural injustices”, or do morals in matters of sex, honesty in business, truthfulness in public statements and in the media, and similar matters, have any place? To what extent are the Ten Commandments, for instance, to be taken into account? Their terms and requirements do not seem to loom very large in the schemes for a ‘just society’ that are being set forth by a number of protagonists of “social justice”. Where does this elusive entity known as a ‘just society’ begin and end?
But there is a still more fundamental question. What is the root cause of an unjust society? Is it essentially the structure of society, or is it the nature of man himself? Marxist ideology and Western humanistic liberalism both have their answers, and these differ fundamentally from that of the Scriptures. This answer states plainly that man is a fallen and sinful being, who is in rebellion against God, and who is by nature incapable of pleasing God (Rom. 8:7,8). His sinfulness will therefore make itself evident, whatever his circumstances may be, and an unjust society is ultimately unjust because man is sinful arid unjust. It is right and necessary that public injustices, which may exist in a given society, should be rectified by those who hold the reins of government and by the members of that society. But merely changing the structure of a society will not finally remove every kind of injustice because it will not change the sinful nature of man. The state of the world in general, and of Africa in particular, bears this out.
God’s way of promoting social justice in this present age is to increase the number of people who pursue justice and righteousness in their social relationships because they have received Christ by faith, and through the indwelling Holy Spirit have been “created anew in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
If we are aware that there are existing public evils or injustices in our own society which should be rectified, then it is right, and will commend our Christian testimony, for us to pursue this through the constitutional channels that are available. But let us also at all costs keep our priorities right. Man’s prime need is to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ; and only in this way will the root cause of social injustices be effectively dealt with. Biblical principles of social justice do not require us to “Christianise” society. A comment by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is to the point here (from “The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times”). He says, “The world can never be reformed. Never! That is absolutely certain. A Christian State is impossible. All the experiments have failed. They had to fail. They must fail. The Apocalypse alone can cure the world’s ills. Man even at his best, even as a Christian, can never do so. You can never make people Christian by acts of Parliament. You can never Christianize society. It is folly to attempt to do so. I would even suggest that it is heresy to do so. Men must be ‘born again’. How can they live the Christian life if they have not become Christians? Good fruit can only come from a good tree, a good root; and the idea that you can impose a Christian life or culture upon non-Christian people is a contradiction of Christian teaching. Nevertheless, government and law and order are essential because man is in sin; and the Christian should be the best citizen in the country.”
There are those who talk about the “whole Gospel”, by which they mean that social justice is part of its message. This is a misconception. Justification by faith is not half the gospel; it is the whole Gospel. Social justice is an essential part of Christian teaching for those who have first received Christ through faith, it is a necessary by-product of the Gospel, as all Christian character and behaviour is a by-product. It is a result which should of necessity follow in the life and behaviour of the man or woman who has been justified by faith, and who is motivated by the love of Christ wrought by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and guided by the Word of God.
Christian Social Justice: “Life is Just not Fair!”
by John Wheaton, J.D.
Life is just not fair.
Is it fair that Tiger Woods makes millions for playing a game of leisure while the average person struggles to pay the bills working 50-60 hours a week? Even worse, is it fair that some people are born into extreme wealth and freedom while others must live and often die in dire poverty or under severe oppression? No, life is not fair; unfairness is inherent in the human condition. But life can and should be just. When human acts or omissions are at the heart of these inequities and suffering, then social injustices have occurred. Unfortunately, these injustices shame and scar our world every day. This begs the question: What should a Christian do about it?
In matters of social concern, the biblical Christian should know God’s heart well. God has a special interest in the welfare of those at the lowest end of the social ladder: widows, orphans, legal aliens, and others who are oppressed or disadvantaged in society (Jeremiah 7:5-7). Recognizing this, modern Christians must lead the world in striving for social justice by clearly 1) defining “social justice”, 2) determining key biblical principles of social justice, and 3) developing a strong position on state-sponsored social action especially as it relates to addressing the major social problems of the early 21st century.
What is Social Justice?
First, it is essential that Christians clearly define what social justice entails. On its face, the term has a positive connotation that conveys a seemingly strong sense of virtue and morality. Basing a claim on an appeal to “social justice” provides the claim holder with a degree of persuasive advantage – a kind of moral blessing on his or her political, theological, or social ideas (Nash 6). However, social justice involves much more than a superficial label or feelings of compassion. It must involve a clear understanding and delineation of each social problem, the root cause of the problem, and the best solution for the problem. In short, “Good justice requires good judgment” (8).
Generally, social justice has two key components:
- social – “living together in communities or organized groups”, and
- justice – “the upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law” (American Heritage Dictionary). Combining these two concepts, an apt, working definition might be, “Social justice exists when people get what they are due from their particular group or community.” Conversely, a social injustice occurs when people do not get what they deserve. This begs another important question: What do people deserve from their particular social group or society? Some say each person deserves an equal opportunity to work and acquire their society’s resources; others say each person deserves an equal share, or at least a basic share. As America’s founders recognized, people deserve from their society at least three basic inalienable rights specified in the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While these rights are not directly protected by God – He even permits some people to be born into social conditions that threaten their life, liberty, and opportunities – it will be shown shortly that He expects human societies to uphold these rights and that He holds people accountable for failing to do so.
More specifically, social justice deals with three areas of social concern:
- economic justice,
- remedial justice, and
- distributive justice. Economic justice involves a society’s rules and procedures for maintaining productive, efficient, and fair commercial markets. Remedial justice, similarly, involves just and fair rules and procedures pertaining to civil and criminal (legal) matters. Put in terms of the aforementioned operative definition, economic and remedial justice assure that every person is given fair and equal opportunity to access a society’s economic resources and its political and legal systems.
While economic and remedial justice systems focus on just procedures (i.e. due process), the third area, distributive justice, focuses on fair outcomes. It is concerned with relative fairness – that all people within a society actually possess a certain portion of that society’s “benefits and burdens” (Rawls 50). Put in terms of the aforementioned operative definition of social justice, every person deserves a certain fair share of society’s benefits and burdens. Even though all three forms of justice deal with social concerns, it is this last concept of distributive justice that is most often the central topic of debate surrounding social justice issues today – that is, how should a society be structured to assure a fair distribution of burdens and benefits among its citizens?
What are the Key Biblical Principles of Social Justice?
With a clear understanding of what “social justice” entails, the next essential step for the Christian is to determine what the Bible teaches about it. While the scriptures have plenty to say about justice, it is important to distinguish passages concerning the “outcome fairness” required by distributive justice from passages involving the “procedural fairness” required by a society’s economic or remedial justice systems. It is even more important to consider each “distributive” passage in context – to understand that some social action can be mandated and performed by the state while some is to be done lovingly and voluntarily by private groups (including churches) and individuals.
Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” This and many other biblical passages make it clear that every human being has a God-given, unalienable right to life and liberty in society, which includes the right to be free from oppression and affliction, whether at the hands of human or natural forces.
Conversely, every human being, especially society’s leaders, has a God-given moral duty to protect fellow human beings from social injustices whenever and wherever it is practical to do so (Prov. 3:27-28). The prophets Amos and Micah spent much of their ministries condemning leaders in Israel for failing to practice social justice. They stressed the “integral relationship between true spirituality and social ethics” (The New Open Bible 1003). Scores of other scriptural examples and passages abound on social action and justice.
The fundamental basis for pursuing social justice goes back to the fact that every human being is created in God’s image and thus has intrinsic value. Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear that God’s law can be summarized in two commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). He explains further that “love thy neighbor” means helping people in need until they can become self-sufficient as illustrated by the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, all people have a moral duty to help other people who are disadvantaged in society. According to scripture, the church and the state play distinctive roles in addressing those needs.
On the one hand, the theocratic nation of Israel had a responsibility to practice distributive social justice in a statist sense as prescribed in the Mosaic Law (Old Covenant). Deuteronomy 15:1-11, for example, details how debts were to be forgiven every seventh year as one means of providing for the poor. This shows how Israeli society was expected to relieve the burden of debt on those who were unable to succeed in the marketplace of that day.
Another example of state sponsored distributive justice in Israel involved one form of tithing. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 states,
At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.
This tithe was in essence a welfare tax whereby Israeli citizens were to give the equivalent of 3.3% of their annual incomes to help the disadvantaged in society – those who could not meet their own needs through agrarian or commercial means.
Even gentile nations, it seems, were expected to practice some form of distributive justice. For instance, Israel was condemned for committing another kind of “sodomy”; specifically, failing to help the poor and needy. “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek.16:44-50).
On the other hand, the church and individual Christians under the New Covenant of grace have somewhat different obligations of distributing resources. Since New Testament times, Christians have operated under various forms of governments and economic systems. While the church and individual Christians must be in subjection to these governing social systems, and may be able to influence civic leaders to be more just and fair, their first priority is to practice the law of love directly on their fellow man. This means to give care to anyone in need, beginning first with one’s own family (1 Tim 5:8), then fellow believers (Gal. 6:10), and even to every human being (Gal 6:10; James 1:27-2:26; cf. Rom. 13:1-10). Sharing the love and good news of Jesus Christ can and should be a part of the Christian’s sharing ministry (Matt. 28:18-20; cf. Acts 3).
Early Christians, for example, demonstrated how a system of distribution could be set up to meet the needs of everyone within a local church community (Cf. Acts 2:43-45, Acts 5:1-11, Acts 6:1-6). This communal sharing was a voluntary method of meeting pressing needs within the church. Of course, this was a far cry from the politically driven socio-economic Marxism, communism, and socialism that exist in present times, all which grant citizens the right to possess a large share of society’s burdens but only a small (though equal) share of its benefits.
The Apostle Paul similarly demonstrated how voluntarily meeting the needs of Christians in other church communities was important (cf. Acts 11:29-30, Gal. 2:10, Rom. 15:25-27, 1 Cor. 16:1-4). In fact, unlike the tithe of Israel, Paul showed that Christian giving for needy brothers in Christ was to be generous, voluntary, equitable, cheerful, anonymous, and in the name of Jesus Christ. This giving out of love instead of obligation truly glorified God. (cf. 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8-9, Matt. 6:2-4, Col. 3:17, 1 Cor. 10:31). It is helpful here to reiterate that, under the New Covenant, Christian charity was to be voluntary, not coerced by the state or any other institution.
Finally, it should be noted that the early church used great care in discerning who should receive their social support. For example, a widow was to be put on a list for permanent, life-time support only if she met certain criteria. Paul sets these down clearly in I Timothy 5:3-6: she must be at least 60 years old, “left alone” without family or presumably any other means of support, a woman of prayer, married only once, and a reputation for good works, among other things. In contrast, Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to withhold their social care to those unwilling but able to work: “if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (II Thess. 3:6-15).
All of these scriptural examples show how God is not as concerned with perfect equality or fairness as He is with the just treatment of those who are unable to support themselves in a local community and in society at large. In this sense, life really is meant to be just… not fair. On the one hand, able bodied people are expected to support themselves. Those unable to support themselves, depending upon the severity of their condition, are provided with social safety nets beginning first with the family, then the church, and lastly, as will next be shown, the state.
What Should be the Christian’s Position on State Sponsored Social Action?
It is evident that pursuing social justice is one of the highest moral responsibilities of the church and of the individual Christian. Recognizing that life can and should be just, though not necessarily fair, Christians should be at the forefront of the effort to pursue social justice through voluntary church and charitable social work. While it is important for every believer and church to practice private, voluntary acts of charity and social justice, it is also essential that every Christian develop sound convictions regarding social action by the state.
Christians should be at the forefront of encouraging state-sponsored, democratic and, what some would deem “conservative” social values. Not only the value of giving wealth and resources to aid the truly needy in society, but also, to name a few, the just and biblical values of protecting private property rights and ownership, maintaining a small but efficient governmental bureaucracy, encouraging a strong work ethic and a free market economy, defending the traditional family and the rights of the unborn and infirmed, promoting a strong national defense and a protective foreign policy that preserves our national interests while defending human rights, and promoting free speech and religious tolerance. [Though I would like to defend these conservative ideals as decidedly biblical and Constitutional, present time and space limitations do not permit me to do so here – perhaps in a future paper.]
Of course, Christians have little or no influence over state policy in most non-democratic societies. In such cases, unfortunately, the Christian has no choice but to quietly acquiesce to the governing authority – except in matters of conscience – or risk the loss of life, property, or the limited liberties he or she may have under the regime.
However, in a free and open society like the United States, Christians can and should influence social policy through their voting, being involved in party politics, forming public interest groups, serving in government, and participating in lawful demonstrations.
Many Christian pro-life groups, for example, are committed to using political means to end the abominable injustice of killing unborn children in America. In fact, immoral abortion laws will never be overturned in the U.S. without rigorous and legal political action being taken by a powerful coalition of Christian and other anti-abortion groups.
Some argue, however, that Christian individuals, advocacy groups, and churches are too involved in American politics. They say spreading the gospel, not gaining political power, should be the primary concern of the Christian and the church. Of course the gospel should be primary, and Christians must not seek to build a theocracy or wield their power and influence in a way that shames God or the gospel. But it is not an either-or proposition. Relinquishing governmental control to others so that Christians merely have “power under” as popular scholar and pastor Greg Boyd suggests, is altogether foolish and immoral (Goodstein, “Disowning Conservative Politics”). It imprudently puts Christians outside the gates of democratic power and influence – a place they have every right and responsibility to be, and a place where they can effectively protect the rights of their families and their fellow man, most notably, the poor and oppressed (cf. Prov. 31:8-9). As one parishioner asked rhetorically after hearing Pastor Boyd’s recent assertion that the church should step out of politics, “So why NOT us? If we contain the wisdom and grace and love and creativity of Jesus, why shouldn’t we be the ones involved in politics and setting laws?” (Goodstein, “Disowning Conservative Politics”). Another disgruntled parishioner exclaimed, “You can’t be a Christian and ignore actions that you feel are wrong. A case in point is the abortion issue. If the church were awake when abortion was passed in the 70’s, it wouldn’t have happened. But the church was asleep” (Goodstein, “Disowning Conservative Politics”).
The church and individual Christians in America must be citizens who are fully awake and aware, engaged in the political process at every level, raising their voices, their dollars, and their hands to elect candidates and support just lobbying efforts. Christians can also support state social action and policies where individual, church and charity actions fall short, such as using public money or manpower to rebuild infrastructure after a disaster like Katrina. Furthermore, Christians can also support state action, such as President George W. Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which directs public monies toward private church and charity programs. These programs can often do the work of helping people much more personally and effectively than the unwieldy bureaucracies of government.
…every Christian – whatever his or her political stripes – can and should influence state policy regarding life-giving social action.
… Christians must exercise careful discernment when considering the problem, root cause, and best solution for any social concern. Christians should be very careful not to jump on a bandwagon of questionable validity. Not every social action is necessarily good and positive even if it springs from sincere and good intentions. Some examples of seemingly helpful actions – distributing condoms in Africa, clean needles to drug addicts, or incremental welfare to unwed mothers – may address immediate or surface problems, but over time, they can lead to much worse social problems. It has been widely shown that distributing condoms, clean needles, and incremental child welfare only perpetuate the social problems those state distribution programs are attempting to alleviate. Christians have a duty to offer prudent and wise solutions.
“… [G]ood and just results are the ultimate test. Sound and logical principles must be at the heart of our feelings and acts of compassion, or we risk making bad situations worse” (Nash 2). We also risk shaming the good name of Jesus Christ if we offer solutions, such as those just listed, that are illogical, impractical, and just plain ridiculous.
A word of caution about socialism (democratic or otherwise) is in order here. Should Christians advocate a state political and economic system that to some extent redistributes wealth in order to bring about equality and lift up the poor? This temptation to use the state as a collectivist Robin Hood that steals from the rich and gives to the poor must be avoided at all costs. In fact, socialism, in any form, only hurts the poor in the end. Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute clearly addresses the dangers of socialism in his paper, “Capitalism and Christianity: an Uneasy Partnership”:
In the 20th century, capitalism proved superior for meeting human needs than socialism. Yet many Christians, rightly concerned about the poor, blame capitalism for the world’s ills…. While some government safety nets may be in order, government redistribution of wealth is usually a disincentive for production, lowering economic production and exacerbating social problems. Equal opportunity to succeed in a free society is what is required. Christian men and women can help people in poverty by ensuring they get the education required to prosper and that they are not kept in poverty through the unjust action of others. (Capitalism and Christianity 39)
Bandow’s article concludes,
Is capitalism Christian? No. It neither advances human virtures (sic) nor corrects ingrained personal vices; it merely reflects them. But socialism and its weaker statist cousins exacerbate the worst of men’s flaws. By divorcing effort from reward, stirring up covetousness and envy, and destroying the freedom that is the necessary precondition for virtue, socialism tears at the just social fabric that Christians should seek to establish. A Christian must still work hard to shed even a little light into a capitalistic society. But his task is likely to be much harder in a collectivist system. (55)
In regard to social justice, Christians must have a clear intellectual grasp of what social justice entails and the biblical principles that guide the Christian in his or her support of individual, church, and state social action. Christians also have a duty to wisely apply those sound principles to the major social problems of the early part of the 21st century. How individual believers and the church at large address these issues will impact many lives and bring great glory (or shame) to the name and gospel of Jesus Christ. It is of course axiomatic that any social action be motivated and implemented in a spirit of true Christian justice, grace and love.
In the final analysis, recognizing that life can and should be just, though not always fair, Christians can take the lead in church and charitable work and in advocating the careful application of state sponsored social action. Only Christians can offer the disadvantaged (both in the church and society) true love and spiritual healing, and, ultimately, only Christians can give God the glory in the process. By doing so they thus “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, 10).