What Do You Mean by 'Social Justice'?

What Do You Mean by 'Social Justice'?

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You've probably seen some of the reports about younger evangelicals' abandoning the Republican Party during this election cycle, disillusioned as they supposedly are with the GOP's governance during the past eight years. (Some aren't so sure of this trend to start with, but that's a subject for another day.)

While some of these young evangelicals say they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate this year, others aren't sure what they're going to do, seeing problems with both major parties. I'm not going to talk about the merits of voting one way or the other. Rather, I'm bothered by a recurring idea expressed in these and similar reports: "social justice."

"We're helping churches to build the capacity to couple social justice with the things they're already doing well," says one person. "It's changed our perspective," says another young evangelical. "Each generation chooses their cause, and ours is AIDs in Africa, or poverty or social justice."

Now, I'm not against the idea of "social justice," as such. It sounds nice, but what in the world does it mean? It's one of those empty, formless political buzz phrases that mean everything and nothing, depending on what meaning the reader brings to it, not the speaker. Oftentimes, I suspect, even the speaker is not precisely sure what he means. It's one of those buzz words that trip so easily from the tongue, easy to say without having to think too hard about it. (And shame on lazy journalists who mindlessly allow such phrases to be spoken or repeat them themselves without bothering to clarify.)

Another example of this is "working families." You’ll hear this empty phrase most often spoken by politicians on the leftward side of the spectrum. Think about it: everyone from the highest paid Wall Street broker to the lowest paid ditch digger belongs to a "working family." But that's not what the politicians mean. Rather, they're often referring to those in the lower salary rungs, usually blue- or pink-collar workers. But fearing that saying so explicitly will come across as condescending or perhaps call attention to the obvious, politicians resort to this empty, meaningless phrase to avoid having to say what they really mean. It's politics by nudge and wink.

So back to the point: What do you mean by "social justice"? Helping the poor? Everyone's in favor of that. The chief disagreement is on means, not ends. Is just handing out money "helping the poor"? Giving them job training? Working in a soup kitchen? Creating economic conditions that encourage job growth, thus boosting the employment rate? Again, I'm not going to argue specifics; my point is that there are many ways, some better than others, to do "social justice." But remember: if that's what you mean by "social justice," even political conservatives are for it.

More important, would these same people consider protecting the life of the preborn in the womb doing "social justice"? After all, one of the bedrock foundations of justice is the protection of innocent life. We hear much less about this from these same young evangelicals.

Which leads me to believe that, in the end, "social justice" really means "not a conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage conservative who is easily caricatured in the popular culture."

The least they can do is say so.

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  • Comment by  Carrietheoriginal:

    "The least they can do is say so."

    Tom, you know as well as I do - perhaps better - that people like to admit their wrong. My step-dad and I got into a discussion about global warming (actually it's an on-going discussion) some time ago. I cornered him about his position and said "So, humans are a cancer to the planet?" when responding to his statement that parents should only have 2 children because there is no gaurantee that they can actually produce responsible citizens.

    When people are confronted by the ridiculousness of what they believe, they won't admit it. Especially if they are educated.

    There's this thing in innate to humanity that prevents us from recognizing truth. I'm sure the Fall had nothing to do with it! :)

  • Comment by  obewan:

    The blog said:

    “---in the end, "social justice" really means "not a conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage conservative who is easily caricatured in the popular culture.---"

    And whose fault is that?  Reality is that we have a polarized two party system where voters are forced into an all or nothing position on many issues when they are forced to vote the party ‘platform’ at the polls.

    On the issue of social justice, there is only one party that has for nearly two decades consistently blocked fair and urgently needed raises to the minimum wage.  The minimum wage of the 1970’s would be worth well over $9 an hour in today’s money if it were adjusted for inflation.  That same party hangs their position on the false claim that by holding the working poor down, we help overall economy by keeping ‘inflation’ in check.  Actually, if the working poor had a higher wage, perhaps they would go out and buy a new economy car and HELP the overall economy.

    Even my current employer starts out new aerospace manufacturing technicians at $9 an hour with no medical benefits.  I did the math for my own case, and with asthma to be treated, and no car payment, and an entry-level apartment at $650 a month, I come up $250 a month SHORT every month as a SINGLE.   I don’t know how the families of those who work here are even supported.  I was a radical conservative for most of my life until I was laid off and unfairly unemployed for several years.  Now, I am a union sympathizer.

    The Bible has over 2000 verses that speak to justice for the poor.

  • Comment by  LeighAnne:

    Wow, this is really off-base, in my opinion.  I choose to read Boundless for the Christian perspective on things, not the Republican perspective (and they don't have to be synonymous).  

  • Comment by  JordanPeacock:

    Which is precisely why each group wrestles with the specifics; how does one live what one professes? Does it mean opening our home to drug-abusing mothers-to-be to protect them and their unborn child, and if need be adopting one or both? Does it mean helping find work for ex-convicts, or building bridges with immigrant families, or living more humbly in order to help more? Does it mean nannying our gay friend's adopted daughter, or joining a Christian Peacemaker Team?

    The 'social justice' tag can mean generic, feel-good, I'm vaguely involved in something that matters somewhat, and to the degree that it does, you are absolutely correct.

    But more so I see people using it as a diving board from which questions and answers arise out of hard work, theological wrestling, community involvement, closeness of relationships, and divine love through the church. And these answers can, and should be, less than mere political pandering and empty slogans, and have little or nothing to do with the voting structures.

    It has everything to do with how we live.

  • Comment by  nathan:

    Thanks for this Tom.  I think you're spot on, because a lot of the discussion about social justice is fairly ill-defined and often a reaction against a certain caricature of conservatives as being pro-big business and uncaring about the little guy.  And it's probably true that there are some conservatives who are terribly proud, convinced that they got to where they were solely by their own effort and that the poor are in their situation because of their own faults.  But a reaction against some extremes is losing the Baby in the bath-water.    

    I've tended to think that the 'social justice' reaction against conservatives was more visceral than intelligible.  Or, perhaps that is too harsh, the reaction was against certain conservatives or certain parts of the Republican Party.

    BTW, why does nobody talk about President Bush's compassionate conservatism.  It may not have worked out as perfectly as we would have liked, but I thought that was a genuine example of a conservative commitment to helping the least in society.

  • Comment by  passtheammunition:

    I go to a Catholic, Jesuit university where social justice is HUGE, and I have actually taken a "social justice" class. While this might seem like I am defining a word with the same word, social justice means working to correct injustices you see in society.

    And you are correct--both liberals and conservatives can be involved in social justice when defined in this way. On my Catholic campus, abortion is a social justice issue. If one works to correct social injustices, it makes sense that you would lean Democratic if you are in favor of government involvement in fixing social problems. If you think it should be up to the private sector then you would more likely lean Republican.

    My campus is a perfect example of the young people you are talking about. Our chapter of Students for Life is HUGE, but unlike at most schools these are the same students getting arrested to protest the War in Iraq, leaders of the Gay/Straight Alliance, leaders of the feminist organization, and studying abroad in Haiti or Latin America instead of London or Spain.

    Many of theses students come to college as Republicans, but after seeing how wide spread these problems are, after working with charities that continuously run into government roadblocks, they begin to run to the Democrats. Although Republicans may support many of the issues, the politicians hardly talk about them or make those issues the centerpiece of their campaigns, like Edwards or Obama have. When conservative politicians talk about "personal responsibility" it turns them off--because they have seen firsthand how just a little help can go a long way.

  • Comment by  mindlab:

    I hope you've got your Nomex suit handy, I predict you'll need it.

    At least in the contexts that I'm familiar with, "social justice" is a friendly sounding code word for 'wealth redistribution' (which is a friendly sounding code word for 'armed robbery'), and the infringement of positive rights (i.e. the right to own property) in the name of negative rights (i.e. the right to not be offended).

    Well. . . that offends me, and I demand my rights!

  • Comment by  marykate:

    yes, social justice has become a buzz word, but i think its roots among young christians are valid. many of us are tired of hearing people quote scripture about god and love and being kind and giving people the shirt off your back, and then turning around and hearing the same people talking about how god hates queers or aids is god's judgement on mankind. or how many upper middle class evangelicals refuse to get their hands dirty helping people who had the bad judgment to be born somewhere like south africa or china or haiti. at least, that's my take.

    as for why you hear less from us on abortion, in my opinion it's because people at places like FotF and other large evangelical groups are already all up on those causes.

  • Comment by  DerekWong:

    As a fairly conservative person myself, I like this take on things.  I think that I've said the same in much less elegant terms when I've discussed this with people.

  • Comment by  DrRansom:

    "Social justice" is a phrase currently often employed by "emergent church" types who, in their reaction to the Church's nonparticipation (actual or perceived) in the world, suddenly believe they're the only ones interested in helping the poor and feeding the hungry.

    Apparently among many, these problems -- and the world entirely? -- are viewed to have begun yesterday. There's no perspective of history, the fact that people in both the Church and governments have been aware and trying to alleviate poverty before -- especially when it comes to the failed attempts of federal governments to overextend their constitutional (and worse, Biblical) bounds and take the place of the citizenry and religious institutions in terms of charity.

    Among such "social justice" advocates, there's also very little perspective of the actual Scripture in these quasi-utopian visions, which indirectly contradict the Bible's portrayal of the rest of human history.

    Christ-followers certainly disagree on what end-times events occur when, but there is (or was) an overall consensus against the notion that people would eradicate poverty, hunger, all that sort of thing, without Christ or at least before He comes back to take a look at our planetary renovations.

    But now we're back to the same stuff -- and while it's very, very true that Christ-followers are to be a means of "common grace" toward the poor and abused among nonbelievers, this is not the be-all-and-end-all of the Gospel. "Social justice" is only an outgrowth: at the center should be the actual truths of God as Creator, humans as rebels against Him, and Christ as redeemed. Are these professing evangelicals using "social justice" as a means toward proclaiming the Gospel? Or do they operate completely the opposite?

    As it is, many of them are advocating a clone religion of Christianity And, as His Utter Subliminity Screwtape (from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters) said is such an effective strategy. In this case, the "new" idea is Christianity And Social Justice -- and it's not so new, either; it's a mere strain of "liberation theology" liberalism that's somehow been accepted as legitimately evangelical.

    This next is from a recent review (mine) of Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be):

    I wrote:

    The emphasis of emergent authors [is often] living our best and most moral lives now on this Earth, cleaning up the environment, beating back poverty (because apparently no one else has ever tried that before) and restoring “authentic” spirituality. So the past 2,000 years of Church history mean little or nothing, and what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” runs rampant as such writers and leaders proclaim their own religious practices as the answer to all the world’s ills. Heaven and Christ’s return are nowhere in sight, [author Kevin] DeYoung contends:

    [E]mergent leaders are hoping for heaven on earth before Jesus returns to earth to bring the new heaven and new earth. Emergent leaders dare us to imagine a world without poverty and war and injustice. That’s good. We need to be stirred to have faith in the God of the impossible. But we should not expect something God has not promised, especially when He has promised the opposite. Jesus said the poor would always be with us (John 12:8) and wars and rumors of wars would continue to the very end (Matt. 24:6). This doesn’t mean we are pro-poverty warmongers. But it does mean that wars won’t go away just because we follow the secret message of Jesus.

  • Comment by  obewan:

    ‘--BTW why does nobody talk about President Bush's compassionate conservatism. It may not have worked out as perfectly as we would have liked, but I thought that was a genuine example of a conservative commitment to helping the least in society.--’

    The reason we don’t hear about it is because it failed miserably.  Only something like 10% of the money promised actually made it to ministries that serve the poor.  The person Bush appointed to work the program even resigned in disgust and wrote a book about it.  Furthermore, many organizations refused the money because of Government restrictions that prohibited religious witnessing along with providing a meal or services to the homeless.  At the same time, donations to many ministries actually went down because people assumed that the government (and their tax money) was picking up part of the tab now.

  • Comment by  Jen:

    I find buzzwords and trite phrases annoying too. However, the liberals are not the only ones who use them. What about the conservative phrase "family values?" Or "personal responsibility"? It seems those phrases mean different things to whoever's using them.

  • Comment by  TimH:

    Social justice = things that are cool to fight: AIDs in Africa, African debt, etc.

    Social Justice does not include standing up for the life of the 3000+ babies killed each day.

  • Comment by  ChristinainGreen:

    Dr. Ransom, #10:

    There's no perspective of history

    The most popular statement I heard in high school was "there's no point in history".  How many of our history teachers were sports coaches that the school gave an empty teaching position to?

    Seriously, not a whole lot of appreciation for history...kinda leads to the lack of a historical perspective =p

  • Comment by  lauragrace:

    This really all boils down to eschatology, Tom.  Do you believe that Christians have a solemn responsibility from God to work to increase the influence of the Kingdom of God on earth, even among those who will never know Christ, until his return?  Or do you believe that the Church's task is primarily (or even solely) an evangelistic one, because we're all going to get zapped out of here before the really bad stuff starts to happen?

    If we have what I'd call a "low" view of eschatology (pre-tribulation rapture, disembodied heavenly eternity), of course we would see social justice as secondary in importance or even unimportant.  Of course we would circle the wagons, focus on purely "moral" issues, tsk-tsk at the culture, and hunker down in our Christian foxholes until Jesus comes to take us away from all of this.

    But if our understanding of eschatology is that Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, entrusted his Church with increasing its radically transforming influence throughout the earth, and will return to re-create this physical globe and reign here with his people in physical, resurrection bodies for all eternity in the consummation and renewal of God's once-fallen creation... well, that paints a slightly different picture of our actions in the here and now, doesn't it?

    The question you have to ask yourself is this, Tom: if a situation will certainly not exist in the glorious (and tangible) future of God and his people in the New Heavens and New Earth, why should Christians stand by and allow that situation to continue unchecked NOW, given our responsibility to live Kingdom-focused lives here on Earth??  This addresses every issue you can think of -- homosexuality, abortion, genocide, AIDS, poverty, homelessness, stewardship of creation, oppression, war, forced prostitution, human trafficking, hunger, racism... everything!  THAT is "social justice" for the Christian -- working to bring the Kingdom of God to bear on the world around us.

    Honestly, I'm getting well and truly worn out with the Christian=Republican nonsense that pops up on the Line.  You all are smarter people and better critical thinkers than that.  Really.

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