What do you think about when you hear the phrase ‘social justice’? Feeding the Poor? Caring for widows and orphans? Black Lives Matter? Equality vs equity? Reparations for slavery? LGBTQ+ rights? Fighting sex trafficing? $15 minimum wage? Loving your neighbor? Just laws? Police reform? Those two words are loaded with meaning these days, and it is a source of bitter division in our country and in our churches. How are Christians to think of it? I make no pretense of being able to give the final word on the matter. Pastorally, I’d like to help frame the issue to assist how you think about it and recommend a recent work I have found very helpful.
In some sense the phrase ‘social justice’ should not be controversial to Christians. Justice is an attribute of God. He is righteous and does righteousness and delights in those who do likewise (Psalm 11:7; Micah 6:8). Justice is all throughout Scripture, as Christians are to be just in our individual actions, and to collectively care for widows and orphans and the poor (particularly in our churches, Jas. 1:27). Biblical justice, as we might call it, is to give to everyone what is owed as defined by God our Creator (Rom 13:7): To God we owe worship and obedience, to human authorities we owe respect and submission (until it would cause us to disobey God), and to neighbors we owe love.
Adding the word ‘social’ in front of the word ‘justice’ is meant to distinguish it from individual justice. It is evident from history and Scripture that sometimes sins & crimes are committed intentionally against an identifiable group of people: the Jews during the Holocaust, African slavery in the west, and Jim Crow laws in America in particular, or even the overlooking of the Hellenist widows in the Jerusalem church by the Hebrews in the daily distribution (Acts 6). We could also add the targeted persecution of Christians under the Roman empire during the years of the early church. In each of these cases individuals were treated unjustly, but what took place was much greater than an unconnected series of individual wrongs. A people group was treated sinfully, unjustly and so it was a case of ‘social’ injustice. So I think Christians have a historical and biblical warrant for utilizing the term ‘social justice.’
However, that is not what typically comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘social justice’ nowadays. Instead you are likely to hear the the content of that phrase defined with ideas such as dividing up all of society into oppressor and oppressed classes, calls to repent of whiteness, trans rights, a belief that evil systems are to blame for all society’s ills and they all need to be torn down, a rejection of the nuclear family and heterosexuality as normative, and so on. The social justice now promoted on social media, championed by celebrities, and advertised by businesses that normally just sell cookies or shoes is not the same as biblical justice. It shares the same righteous indignation over injustices in society that we find in Scripture, while departing drastically from Scripture’s definitions and priorities for what actually constitutes injustice.
Christians are called to live justly and pursue justice. If we are to love our neighbors, we should care about justice. It’s not really an option for the Christian. The problem that we face today is not whether social justice itself is right or wrong, it’s really what kind of social justice are we talking about? If I am against the ‘social justice’ that seems more informed by Marx than Moses, does that mean I don’t care about injustice? Certainly not.
No one is anti-justice. Nobody is marching in the streets demanding injustice:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
Everyone is searching for a more just society, but there is a drastic difference between how justice is defined between groups and individuals. It sometimes seems like we aren’t even speaking the same language. If Christians are going to continue to care about righteousness in our society, but are concerned about what is promoted as justice today, then we need to be able to distinguish between the two different kinds of justice.
Thaddeus J. Williams, Associate Professor of theology at Biola University, recently wrote a book on this very issue titled, ‘Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth’ . Williams distinguishes between a desire for justice informed by biblical priorities and definitions–he calls this ‘Social Justice A–and that which is informed by seculary ideologies, such as gender and queer theory, critical race theory, postmodern deconstructionism, and Marxism, which he calls ‘Social Justice B’. These two kinds of social justice stem from different worldviews, with competing anthropologies and aims. The author writes to Christians who are concerned about issues of justice, and he warns us against jumping on the Social Justice B boat, which has sadly shipwrecked the faith of many.
In a refreshing turn to this often contentious topic, Williams approaches the topic with humility, honesty, wit, and biblical insight. He isn’t out to ‘own the libs’, or staunchly defend the orthodoxies of the political right, or find a middle ground between two opposites. Rather, he helps Christians think through what true justice looks like from a biblical view and directs his readers to ask serious questions about social justice B, as we see it in culture. The book is centered around twelve such questions. Williams also helps us think through specific issues in the appendices, including: Capitalism and Socialism, abortion, racism, and poverty. Each chapter ends with a personal account from a contributor to the book describing how they came out of bad ideas about social justice with the help of Jesus. I highly recommend this book has a great resource for thinking through this issue in our day.
Social Justice is in the air. It not only fills the headlines, but touches sports, entertainment, and education. Justice also fills our Bibles, as we serve a God of righteousness who calls us to do justice and love righteousness. How God defines justice and how the world defines it are often not the same. So we must learn to walk in wisdom and be like the Bereans who tested what was taught against the Scriptures to see if it was true (Acts 17:11).