The Social Justice Debate

What a fascinating fight has emerged in our society. And the really intriguing part is that currently it is being fought on the battleground of the Christian community. The issue under dispute is actually not a surprise among Christians who are actively engaged in culture war battles. But it seems to have caught the average Christian by surprise. In fact, most have not even been aware of the significance, and perhaps even the existence, of this battle until it suddenly burst forth in the public arena. This fight has to do with the topic of “social justice.”

When a national talk radio personality recently made disparaging remarks about churches which promote social justice, the water hit the fan. At that point, a group of Christians reacted vehemently against him – particularly those who were associated with theologically liberal forms of Christianity. But, to be fair, there were a lot of other Christians who reacted, as well. So, why the strident reactions? Seemingly, the reasons are twofold. One reason relates to uninformed Christians who didn’t realize the special meaning of the term social justice, and the other to the theologically liberal Christians for whom it has a very specific meaning.

The real problem is in the term, “social justice,” itself. On the surface, this seems to be a benign reference to something that Christians are admonished to, and have been involved in, from the very beginning of the faith. Christians have always been engaged in serving and helping the poor. And when applying that kind of meaning to the term, no Christian would have any problem with it. But for those who specifically build the practice of their faith around the term “social justice,” an entirely different meaning emerges.

This term was actually coined by a Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli in the 1840s and came to describe a particular means of moving towards a socially just world using government mechanisms. This particular approach related to politically left, and even socialist, ideas of moving society towards social equality, and was based specifically on a Naturalistic worldview foundation.

Over the next several decades the concept of social justice was expanded to include such ideas as a living wage, human rights, economic equality through progressive taxation and the redistribution of income and property by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In effect, it put a focus on achieving equal outcomes for all people rather than on equal opportunity. Social justice worked its way through various left leaning political, educational, and social institutions before eventually making its way to liberal churches whose theology centered around a social gospel rather than on salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

The interest Biblical Christians have in this topic relates to the worldview foundation that informs the two different approaches. In a Biblical worldview, it is not just the ends that matter. For Christians, it is not okay to use bad means to accomplish a good end. For instance, it is not okay to murder abortion doctors in order to prevent abortions. By the same token, the means of providing social justice is as important as the end result. You can’t do the work of God using methods which run contrary to God’s character.

The liberal Christian version of social justice believes that it is right to achieve social equality by taking from those who have and giving it to those who are less fortunate. In order to achieve this, they believe that using the government as the mechanism to accomplish this goal is okay. The concept is to support the transfer of wealth using high taxation of those who are productive in order to provide food, shelter and medical care to those who are not productive. In any other arena this would be called stealing. But this kind of “taking from the rich to give to the poor” is somehow justified in their minds if it is done by the government rather than by private individuals. Regardless of the mechanism, this does not come from a Christian worldview.

Another problem with this approach is that the focus is put completely on the physical as opposed to the spiritual needs of the individual. Based on a Naturalistic point of view, the physical needs of individuals are an end in themselves. This perspective, also, is not derived from a Christian worldview.

The Biblical version of social justice certainly asserts that Christians ought to do what they can to support those in need. But rather than using the government as the instrument of that help, emphasis is placed on voluntary aid given by individuals who do it because they want to. And Christians, because of their desire to follow the teachings of Christ, want to. As such, Christian believers have been instrumental throughout history in providing for and helping with education, health care, disaster relief and many other kinds of aid. And all of this is not done simply to make physical life easier for those who have less, but as a part of sharing with a lost world the love of Christ.

The Bible is very clear that the purpose of God for the people of the world is not centered in the material. In Matthew 26 we read the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. Immediately, the disciples became very indignant that this perfume was wasted since it could have been sold and the money used to help the poor. But Jesus, himself, fired back in defense of the woman and said, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” In saying this, Jesus was not implying that the material situation people live in is irrelevant. But he was asserting that it is secondary to the real purpose of God – which is to know him.

Christians are admonished to be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted us with. We are to use those resources to accomplish every part of God’s purpose, which includes helping those in need. But in helping them, the real goal is to build the kingdom of God, not merely to provide for people’s physical needs.

Ultimately the Christian expression of social justice comes down to purpose. The liberal Christian sees it as an end in itself. But the Biblical worldview asserts that it is an expression of the purpose of God in building his kingdom.

And the end result of each purpose is dramatically different. The social justice of the liberal Christian takes from one to give to another in order to make earthly life more comfortable for the one who has less. The social justice of the Biblical Christian serves God as individuals steward his resources in ways which build his eternal kingdom.

When it is defined in a way which runs contrary to a Christian worldview (which is the case in liberal Christianity), social justice does nothing to bring people into relationship with God, and actually becomes an evil means meant to promote a good end. When defined based on a Christian worldview, God uses his people to accomplish his eternal purpose using means which correspond with his very character.

© 2010 Freddy Davis