Friday, May 16, 2014

The Tangled Topic of Social Justice

Photo by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
I've been silent again for awhile. Part of it has been the book I'm finishing. Part of it was attending the Evangelical Press Association convention and having a house guest from Canada. But a far bigger issue has been trying to wrap my mind around the whole idea of social justice. Hang with me, and see if my logic makes sense. 

"Social Justice: the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society." That's's simple definition for a very complex subject. Thinking about the redistribution of the advantages reminds me of the Marxist slogan: "from each according to his ability to each according to his need." And, mainstream America used to find that idea pretty scary.
Regardless, this definition of social justice also brings to mind poor children, maybe without fathers in the home, growing up with an inferior education. The lack of opportunities might cause them to end up on drugs or committing crimes. Or maybe that poor child runs away and becomes homeless digging in a dumpster for food. Or perhaps she becomes a trafficking victim. So the privileged feel compassion (or guilt), get involved, and contribute time and money trying to untangle this mess of society's making. 

Yet I wonder if trying to put society's ills under the social justice umbrella doesn't just tangle the mess even more. Oh sure we see bright flowers here and there produced by marvelous organizations who educate the poor and give them resources that improve their lives and the lives of the generations to come. That's wonderful as far as it goes, but so much more needs to happen.

That why I believe a true biblical viewpoint of justice encompasses a much bigger picture and offers far better solutions based on the transformed hearts of the problem solvers. Another definition from equates justice to righteousness. That makes biblical sense. Searching Bible Gateway for verses sharing justice and righteousness yields 52 results in the New American Standard version.

A few examples from the 32 set forth in the New International version include: 
Psalm 36:6  "Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep. You, Lord, preserve both people and animals."
 Psalm 50:6 And the heavens proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice
Amos 5:24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Transformation of the heart brings the righteousness of God into the equation. Too many times even those who claim to promote "biblical justice" leave out this critical factor. Yet see what happened in the life of  Zacchaeus after he had a personal encounter with Jesus that transformed his life. Luke 19:8-10 says:
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Saving the lost sometimes doesn't look like "social justice." What kind of justice is it to save a wealthy tax collector? When a homeless person refuses to work and expects someone to support him, isn't it better for him to receive the consequences of his choices? If someone suffers for any reason, might there not be a grander plan than a mere mortal would put in place? I'm all for justice, that's why I write this blog. But it seems to me that if justice stems from the righteousness of God (not man), the result is grace flowing out through compassion and empathy rather than guilt-driven or self-righteous works.

Perhaps Zacchaeus demonstrates the power of God in response to the cries of those like David in Psalm 143:1, "Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief."

A transformed Zacchaeus wanted to come to the aid of the poor because of the righteousness of  our great God at work in and through him. What else can explain why this greedy tax collector would give half his possessions away. Some who experience a relationship with Jesus may not give money but may be led to love a prostitute, a pimp, and/or a John and pray for the power of God to get them off the street. Another may hold a vomiting girl who's on ecstasy at a rave making her a prime target for a trafficker. Social justice somehow seems far too small to accomplish this level of compassion combined with the insight and wisdom to administer it in the most effective ways. It seems to me that the idea of social justice too easily leads to abuses such as judging who is doing what instead of focusing on what really matters--a relationship with the living God, who empowers us to be more like Jesus. Only a life dependent on Jesus Christ can love their neighbors in the best possible way, whatever that may be.

So what do you think about social justice? Am I missing something?


  1. Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! The term "social justice" is so broad that it can apply to almost anything yet it explains almost nothing. The biblical case that you outline here is a great place to start. Thanks for being brave enough to have this conversation.

  2. Another issue to consider – I rarely hear social justice advocates grounding their views of helping the poor in a solid theology of work and the image of God. Yet, this is historically the way that conversation proceeds, yet it's virtually absent in contemporary discussions of social justice. Popular concepts and practices under the banner of social justice are an inch deep and a mile wide. It's a mantra of, "Let's help the poor" with little regard for the most effective way of going about it.

  3. Thanks for your comments Child of God. Some organizations make work a high priority--I'm thinking of That is definitely a component worth addressing. Paradigm Shift developed their approach to microfinance in South Africa along these lines. So did Empowering Lives International in DR Congo, Kenya, South Sudan and Tanzania and their work-based projects among the nationals in those countries. I fairly certain this is also true in the U.S. with some organizations, but I haven't read anything related to the theology of work and the Image of God from social justice advocates. Do you know of anything written on the topic?