Very recently, a very dear Christian friend wrote to me to ask just that question. His query came right on the heels of a conversation my wife and I had around the supper table. My wife’s friend had told her that her pastor was being severely criticized by some of the young people in that church, who felt he should have called for God’s people to protest against the injustices perpetrated on blacks, both in the United States, but also in Canada.
What is the Christian view of social justice? Before we seek to answer that, it is important to understand our terms. What is meant by the term “social justice”? Is the adjective, “social” important? That is, is “social justice” the same thing as “justice.” We need clarity, before we respond.
It is a truism that Christians believe in justice. We believe that the innocent ought to be defended and that the guilty should be punished in a just manner. That is, the punishment for crime must be in accordance with the crime that has been committed. The Levitical principle of an eye for an eye is not a formula for personal vendettas. Rather it is an attempt to limit the punishment to being no more than the crime. Justice can only be justice if the punishment actually fits the crime. And so, as we have seen in the U.S., when a police officer kills a man during his arrest for trying to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill, or when a police officer kills a man as he runs away from him, justice has not been served. Injustice has been committed. And injustice also demands that justice be done.
But for Christians, justice is not limited to crime and punishment. Psalm 10:17–18 says, 17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear 18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
From Psalm 10, from many of the prophets, and from Jesus himself, we learn that God is deeply concerned for the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Psalm 74:21 says, 21 Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.
When the Christian faith functions in the way it should, Christians will take leadership in defending the cause of the one who has no defender. William Wilberforce and other English Christians fought a heroic battle to end the slave trade, which had utterly oppressed so many. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in trying to rouse German Christians to work to save the Jews in Nazi Germany made much use of Galatians 6:10. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Bonhoeffer argued that even while we have a special duty to the people of God, that duty cannot be achieved if we neglect the wider duty to the “all” that the apostle speaks of. And so, Christians were duty-bound to house persecuted Jews, without asking their standing in justification and redemption.
Yes, these are the parameters of the Christian call to do justice. But what of social justice? Why is there a need for an adjective to be placed in front of the word, “justice”?
Social justice is the view that demands that everyone deserves and equal economic, political status. The United Nations defines the term as related to the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruit of economic growth. To that end, social institutions must be reorganized, so that there might be a more fair and equitable redistribution of wealth.
This second view of justice is what is under discussion. For, rather than seeking the punishment of evildoers and the protection of the righteous, and rather than defending the cause of the widow and fatherless, social justice works at a systemic reordering of all societal structures. Is this something that biblical Christians can support?
More to come.