I’d like to make a modest proposal for Christians of all theological and political persuasions: don’t use the term “social justice” without explanation.

The term is unassailable to some and arouses suspicion in others. For many Christians, social justice encompasses everything good we should be doing in the world, from hunger relief to serving the poor to combating sex trafficking. But the phrase is also used to support more debatable matters like specific health care legislation, minimum wage increases, or reducing carbon emissions. If something can be included as a “social justice” issue then no one can oppose said issue, because who in their right mind favors social injustice?

But what are we actually talking about when we advocate social justice?

John Goldingay, in his book on Old Testament ethics, highlights the problem:

The notion of social justice is a hazy one. It resembles words such as community, intimacy, and relational, warm words whose meaning may seem self-evident and which we assume are obviously biblical categories, when actually they are rather undefined and culture relative.

After discussing the origin of the phrase “social justice” in nineteenth century Roman Catholic thought, Goldingay explains how the phrase came to be used subsequently.

“Social justice” then implies the idea of a “just society,” one in which different individuals and groups in society get a “fair share” of its benefits. But Christians disagree about what constitutes a just society and how we achieve it (for instance, how far by governmental intervention to effect income redistribution and how far by market forces and the encouragement of philanthropy)…The meaning of the phrase social justice has become opaque over the years as it has become a buzz expression (Israel’s Life, 500).

In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell explains the difference between the constrained and unconstrained view of justice. In the unconstrained view justice is a result so that wherever people don’t get “their fair share” or don’t have as much as others there is injustice. If Goldingay is correct, most people assume this unconstrained view when they speak of social justice. For example, the RCA (my denomination) in one of its official study materials includes a glossary which defines justice as “The fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons, especially in law. Includes concepts of right relationships and equitable distribution of resources.” By this definition the inequality of opportunities, income, or outcomes is considered an injustice, a situation that in and of itself is sinful, implicates all (or most) of us in society, and demands immediate redress. In the unconstrained vision, the society has a lump of resources and if they are not shared roughly equally, then we do not have social justice.

In the constrained vision, by contrast, justice is a process where people are treated fairly (the first half of the RCA definition). The goal here is not forced redistribution; no one distributed the resources in the first place and no one is wise enough to allocate them for the good of everyone. Justice, in this vision, is upheld through the rule of law, a fair court system, and equitable treatment of all persons regardless of natural diversity. This doesn’t mean that in the constrained vision we shouldn’t care for the poor or that we simply shrug our shoulders and say “oh well” when we see people struggling through life with far fewer opportunities and resources than the rest of us. The Christian must be generous and should care about suffering and the disadvantaged. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of compassion, charity, and love, not automatically an issue of justice.

I happen to think the constrained view of justice fits the biblical definition better. But arguing one way or the other is not the point of this post. This is only a “modest proposal” after all. I simply want Christians to be more careful and more precise with their language. We don’t all mean the same thing by social justice. So when we use the term we should explain it and take pains to demonstrate why our conception of social justice is supported by Scripture. However we use the phrase “social justice” we should be slow to insist that any Christian who disagrees with our policy solution is obviously a spiritual miscreant.

“Social justice” in common parlance is often  ill-defined warm fuzzy. Careful exegesis is needed if we are to unfold what the Bible means by justice instead of assuming a definition that we may or may not all agree on. And that means more than an appeal to broad themes like “God cares for the poor.” Yes, we all see that. But who is responsible to care for the poor? And how? And does it matter where they are or how they got there? I don’t mean those as rhetorical questions. They are real questions that evangelicals need to consider more carefully. At the very least it would be good to recognize that using an ambiguous phrase like “social justice” to rally for our cause or defend our side without helping each side know what the other is really talking about is not terribly helpful.

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33 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal”

  1. Chris says:

    Thank you. This is excellent.

  2. It’s a hopeless plea, though not an unworthy one. You can’t restrict word usage to specifics. Since the burden of interpretation always lies with the hearer, the best you can hope is that hearers will seek to deduce meaning from context. People will be as clear as they want to be, depending on their hue, mood, political persuasion, and intention. You might as well ask for people not to use the word “good” without defining it. (cf Jesus in Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19) The proposal might be more quickly put: say what you mean. People do, but they don’t always mean what they say.

  3. Chris Horst says:

    Dr. Jay Richards had some interesting and related thoughts on this topic as well: http://blog.american.com/?p=6010.

  4. Marshall Johnston says:

    Insightful post. I was thinking about this very issue today. I would include “oppression” as one of the terms that should not be used without explanation. For example, from the perspective of (in Sowell’s terms) an unconstrained view of justice or what others call distributive justice, the fact that I may have considerably more resources than my neighbor means ipso facto that I am an oppressor.

  5. Andrew says:

    That’s a worthy proposal. Even if – as commenter ED contends – the plea is hopeless, it’s challenging to me as a reader and listener: it’s unwise for me to simply assume that the speaker/writer/conversational partner and I have the same definition in mind.

  6. CT says:

    I’ve come to suppose that “social justice” is an intentionally broad category which includes distributive justice but excludes retributive justice (at least of the divine sort). Not only are broad categories often helpful (compare, “moral”, “fair” and “political”), I don’t see that there’s much reason to struggle against semantics and ordinary language. So, let’s concede (for example) that health care legislation is an issue of social justice and move forward with the more substantive question of what should be done.

    Also, I would have supposed that most liberal-egalitarians understand fair shares only in terms of equality of opportunity and the “equitable treatment of all persons.” Thus, there is no contradiction in using redistributive taxation (e.g., estate taxes) to help alleviate such inequalities. Moreover, there is no obvious reason why redistributive taxation cannot be part of a fair “process”.

  7. Jim Plagge says:

    Hi Kevin-
    Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College in your fair state, rather provocatively defined “social justice” in this way, “Abraham Lincoln was right when he spoke of slavery as that old black serpent of a principle in human affairs that says ‘You work, and I will eat.’ THAT is the principle of social justice.”

    You are correct when you state that the term arouses suspicion among some people.

  8. David Murray says:

    Thanks Kevin for the incisive post. Slightly funny video and some helpful quotes here: http://bit.ly/7q6Ozb

  9. I would also add that a “constrained” vision of social justice places relationship at the center. An “unconstrained” vision tends to focus on the material inequalities, but a more constrained vision recognizes that the “injustice”, if you will, lies in the broken relationships that oftentimes manifest in the material– atleast that’s mainly how we see it played out here in America. For more on this definition, check out http://www.seeksocialjustice.com.

  10. Randy Buist says:

    So, we can loose the term ‘social’ and revert back to the prophet Micah. “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

    If this is what it means to follow Yahweh, then it seems that their is little that is constrained about justice. If we set aside our personal love for democracy and our own political parties, I am not sure there is much that is constrained about the way that Jesus lived into the call of Micah to do justice.

    The Good Samaritan, the Rich Young Ruler, a particular tax collector… these stories of Jesus calling his people to a different way of being human… they seem to be more in the line of restorative justice than a constrained perspective.

    If we really believe the kingdom of God to be at least a partial reality in this life, then it seems we would want to live into that reality as well. A constrained view of justice means that our laws of the land are enough to appease the prophet Micah as well as Jesus callings on our lives to follow.

    Frankly, I find a constrained view of justice to be inadequate for the demands of the biblical text. And if our American version of justice is the best we can hope for, then our gospel certainly isn’t all that impressive. Perhaps as followers of Jesus, we should expect that we can be more faithful than the laws of our country require of us?

  11. deborah hamilton says:

    The Heritage Foundation has a great program for the Church at http://www.seeksocialjustice.com. They teach the real meaning and take back the phrase from those trying to seek socialism.

  12. Kevin,

    I agree that the term is used in a manner that is careless at times and reckless at others. But, as someone both convinced of a reformed manner of looking at scripture and one who is “in the trenches” so to speak working in a ministry that seeks to work for justice among the poor, it is important to not jettison the term as if we’ve felt marginalized by someone else’s use of it.

    I also agree with the implication of quoting Sowell that (as Kuyper contended) Christians know far to little about economics. However, I would be careful about solely using an economist to define our terms.

    I take the word on its face: “social” points to society, that is, groups of folks at various levels. . . so, adding the concept of justice, we are generally speaking of institutional or societal issues that intersect or deviate from the topic of justice in some way. That is a good place to start thinking about what social justice/injustice might be.

  13. steve says:

    They say “social justice” I hear Karl Marx. By replacing Biblical categories and terms with vague phrases such as social justice, (or even emergent or missional) then the church can be analyzed and controlled by vague and unBiblical means: such as the Social Sciences. (Speaking of Sowell, I just finished his Intellectuals and Society. It might be aptly applied: “Intellectuals And The Church) The church can then be taken over by businesses like Church Innovations and Partnership For A Missional Church.

    When you enter into their alliances you are at the mercy of their interpretations, terms and theories. And they are not Bible based. Like Diffusion of Innovation Theory or “discovering the psychographics” of the congregation. Now we must lay down the Bible and consult the sociology and psychology departments of the secular university that mostly opposes God. The Cross Of Jesus The Christ Of God is lost.

  14. Randy Buist says:

    Steve,
    Then perhaps you need to drop the idea of social justice and hear the words of the biblical text:

    Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
    James 1:26-27

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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