American Vision flash position paper No. 3
A reader asked me to state clearly what I mean when I say “social justice.” I have intended to do just that anyway, so, let me state clearly what I mean.
When I say “social justice” in a positive light, I mean biblical justice according to God’s law. I am referring to doing what is right, biblically, in both the social realm and individual realm. Justice is biblical justice, and biblical justice is inescapably social—between people and God, and between people and people.
When I have, in the past, said “social justice” in a negative or critical light, I have meant the traditional usage of that term as a Socialist, liberal progressive, or “Social Gospel” term. I wrote a book called God vs. Socialism: A Biblical Critique of the New Social Gospel, in which I make that critique clear. Despite what some people may think or say, neither I nor American Vision have departed from that view, nor have we changed on it.
Indeed, it is actually the consistency with that view—consistency and thoroughness in applying God’s law—that has led me into discussions of slavery in American history, “race,” etc., which have made such people so uncomfortable.
The reason for that is simple. Too many Christians and conservatives think tribally in terms of political parties, movements, or labels. This is not wrong in and of itself, but it can create real problems when the categories take over and start driving the reality. If, for example, something like “social justice” historically gets categorized as “liberal,” then suddenly any use of that phrase is immediately dismissed as political leftism. In that case—which happens too often—a general and loose label is made into a universal and an absolute. This is a fallacy.
The problem is that that biblical justice has many aspects that are neither political (civil) in general nor politically left in particular. Biblical justice often cuts ruthlessly across both Republican or Democrat, traditionally-conservative or progressive ideals or policies, and it certainly does so when any such proponents on any side call for civil government solutions where the Bible does not.
The Bible demands justice in all governments—self-government, family government, church governments, and civil government. Biblical justice would not allow the civil government, for example, to take money from some groups and redistribute to others in the name of welfare. It would, however, not only allow but demand forcing money to change hands to pay restitution for theft, for example.
Biblical justice also, however, demands that we love our neighbors, even our enemies, in certain ways. We must help even our enemy recover his donkey from the ditch, in the name of love (Ex. 23:4–5). This broad category of requirement does not involve the civil government, and thus many people may not think of it as “justice,” but it most certainly is. In fact, it is this broad category of voluntary action and charitable action that constitutes the majority of what real social justice is.
This does not mean, however, that social justice in no way can involve the civil government. In can in two broad ways. First, civil justice is by definition always social justice also. To the extent that any civil case leads to restored relationships, restitution, proper punishment, social fear of crime, social satisfaction of right, and thus fulfils its God-ordained purpose, it has to that same extent served justice socially. The proper application of God’s law in specific cases of “individual justice” is simultaneously social justice. In fact, you cannot have social justice without proper individual justice.
Second, social justice sometimes requires civil government in broader ways. There are a variety of offenses, both history and contemporary, which simultaneously affect whole groups or even classes of people, and which would call for a civil government remedy. In such cases, we should not shy away from saying so. Cases of terrorism and just war are obvious examples here. Consider also class action law suits, certain cases of pollution or poisoning, causing epidemics, large scale damages, genocides. There is much more.
Yet despite the necessary role of civil government, it is still the minority aspect of social justice in the Bible. When we contrast the tiny, limited role biblical law gives the state over against that broad, open-ended baseline category of private, family, and ecclesiastical social interaction, we can get a better feel for the proportions.
Christians must also increase their faith in this area in terms of both acknowledging and trusting the role of God in judging society. One reason we Christians (of nearly all political persuasions) trust in civil government too much for social justice is that we feel so strongly about our social values, we feel so strongly they are right, we cannot stand to sit by and watch them ignored, trampled, denigrated by those who neglect them or disagree with them. We naturally default to the seemingly easiest or quickest way to bring “justice” to pass: force. We naturally desire to impose our broader view of justice through coercion. This, however, is itself a social injustice! We need to spend as much or even more effort at decentralizing power, networking, sharing, giving, sacrificing, volunteering, donating, and especially doing business, in order to address social issues voluntarily. Where true crimes are committed, we need civil remedies, true; but where they are not, we must humble ourselves and trust God.
God will certainly judge societies in history. This is true regarding both main failures just discussed. When we resort to civil government remedies like socialism in attempts to address social injustices, we compound ungodly injustice on top of injustice. God will judge us, most likely through the very form of tyranny we are imposing upon ourselves. Likewise, when we fail to love one another, ignore the needs of our neighbors, ignore the injustices before our eyes, and worse, go on to live selfishly, covetously, and indifferently, God will bring fit judgment upon us. As Jesus prophesied of his own wicked generation, “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12), so it happens in any wicked generation. There is a reason that generation was under Roman government tyranny, and why the Jews suffering under that tyranny nevertheless sought a powerful, military Messiah to deliver them; and there is a reason why Jesus said his followers must be like neither, but rather rule by serving.
This is why Jesus also says that the commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves are the two greatest commandments. On these two hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:37–40). Whoever loves fulfills the whole law. As such, love is the greatest and only debt we are to have to our neighbor (Rom. 13:8–10). But this means it is a true debt which we have and which we must pay. Love must govern all of our actions. It is the broad baseline for what social justice is supposed to be.
The broadness of this commandment should in no way lead us to leave the application of it vague. Just because Scripture does not specify each of the countless ways these commandments could apply does not mean those ways are not concrete. They are very concrete, real, and they demand real human action. Each involves various levels of effort, risk, cost, time, and, among other things, actual engagement and interaction with other people, often people who have real problems.
This is what I mean when I speak of social justice in a positive light. Granted, “social justice” has historically been a leftist buzzword. I have written about this and taken a hard position against it in the past. But this is actually not the best approach. Part of dominion involves the reclamation of language and the social sphere to serve Christ. This means we must also redefine the true, biblical meaning of phrases like “justice” and “social justice.” Thus, we must not be afraid to say it.
A big part of the reason “social justice” has been a leftist catchphrase is that conservative, Bible-believing Christians long ago largely abandoned social justice altogether and let the left have it by default. We gave social justice to the left, then complained that “social justice” is leftist. Shame on us. It is time to take it back. That means we need to get busy writing and applying social theory, social order, and indeed, social justice from the Bible. This means we need to start saying what social justice really is. This means we need to quit being afraid of saying, “social justice.”