Distinguishing Biblical Justice from Social Justice I


Self portrait of beautiful girl in shanty town.

As Board member of the predominantly evangelical ministry, Administer Justice, a faith-based legal aid organization, I am concerned for Justice. That’s what the ministry is about.

Some skepticism is apparent among evangelicals and other conservative (or orthodox) Christians, however, about the biblical propriety of justice. To be more accurate, the concerns lie with the idea and movement that is labeled “social justice”, but the caution bleeds over into a focus on justice, itself.

Forgetting, for the moment, that a form of justice has been promoted that is divorced and disassociated from orthodox, conservative Christianity, is there any question that our God is a just God.

“His work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14).

God is intimately and preeminently concerned about justice and expects us to “do justice”.

“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause,” (Isaiah 1:17)

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

And this biblical sense of justice isn’t just limited to the exhortations of prophets in the Old Testament. Jesus was very clear in His view of justice when he said,

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others….” (Luke 11:42)

Lest we risk being counted among the Pharisees, we need to take his words to heart. We should not neglect to do justice. We should get about doing the justice God commands us to do.[i]

At the same time, the phrase, “social justice”, carries with it connotations that we rightfully consider with caution. Though we can agree on many of the evils that are the targets of social justice – hunger, poverty, human trafficking, abuse of the elderly and so on – there are some key differences we should recognize between mere “social justice” and biblical justice.

For one thing, secular social justice focuses only on the here and now; whereas biblical justice focuses both on the here and now and eternity. The secular notion of social justice that is based on “civil rights” and “human dignity” has its roots in the idea that all people are made in the image of God, but it has been severed from those roots.

Social justice divorced from the idea of a just God is “grounded” in a currently persuasive social construct created by people that is not rooted to an eternal or timeless truth. That means there is no assurance that the same construct will be continue to be persuasive in 500 years, or 100 years, or even 50 years.

But it goes deeper than that. I am not going to attempt a definitive treatise of the differences. I am going to highlight some basic differences with the help of J. Warner Wallace[ii] with the hope of bringing a little clarity that will help Christians take seriously God’s call for us to do justice without getting “off the path” into the secular weeds.

J. Warner Wallace rightfully suggests that we should start with a definition of social justice. The Oxford Dictionary online defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Indeed, Wallace observes that the phrase, social justice, seems always to focus on the unequal distribution of wealth and identifies the accumulation of wealth as a primary evil.

I would add to that unfairness in the access to opportunities and social privilege. Unequal distribution of wealth, unequal opportunity and unequal privilege are the evils the secular notion of social justice seeks to remedy.

Further, the secular notion of social justice focuses on group dynamics and systems of injustice. This can be seen in the following definition of social justice at Investopedia:

“Social justice tends to focus more on just relations between groups within society as opposed to the justice of individual conduct or justice for individuals.”[iii]

The secular notion of social justice identifies the problem as wealth concentrated in too few people (along with power and privilege that go with it). Wealth, privilege and power are the evils.

A strain of social justice with Marxists roots tends to exclude the wealthy, powerful and privileged from the solution, urging the poor, the underprivileged and powerless to rise up against the oppressors who have the wealth, privilege and power. These people would say that anyone with wealth, privilege or power is, by definition, part of the problem, and they shouldn’t even have a voice in addressing the problem. (This is the Critical Theory view of social justice.)

A more popular (democratic?) form of social justice involves some of the wealthiest and most privileged and powerful people speaking to social justice. Thus, we see many politicians, actors and entertainers talking about social justice. Ironically, those wealthy, privileged and powerful social justice warriors seem to escape scrutiny. It may be a kind of deflection effort to be vocal about social justice (and maybe a way of assuaging guilt).

Wallace maintains that biblical justice is a more robust view of what is broken. While secular social justice focuses on the wealthy, the opportunistic and the privileged few, to the exclusion of the many, biblical social justice maintains that we are all broken, including the many. The problem in the biblical view is rooted not primarily in social structures, but in individuals. The problem is sin, separation from God and man, selfishness and selfish ambition to the exclusion of others and God.

On a biblical justice standard, none are excluded as part of the problem, and none are excluded as part of the solution.

The solution for secular social justice involves changing only the social structures and laws to affect a redistribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within society. Through the social justice lens, we fix the problem by government regulation and control, whether it is accomplished through the democratic process or by popular uprising and overthrew of oppressive social systems, or both.

The fix for biblical justice is primarily in the individual and secondarily in the structures that govern individuals. Individuals must recognize and repent of sin that causes separation between them, God and others. Individual repentance, in turn, leads (or should lead) to corporate repentance and systemic change.

A biblical view of justice understands that individuals are behind the laws, social systems and political structures. We can change the laws, systems and structures we have in place, but injustice will inevitably continue as long as the real problem (sin) remains unchanged.

Laws do not change hearts. People who have not addressed the real problem of the heart (sin) will inevitably find their way around the laws.

I am reminded of Animal Farm, the classic literary work by George Orwell. The animals rise up against oppression and unequal treatment of the animals on the farm by the owners. The animals succeed in taking over the farm operations. The pigs, who led the revolt, become the new leaders of the farm. The great motivation for the uprising was the equality of all animals, but the pigs, who end up in control, decree that they are “more equal” than the other animals, and they use their power to become the new oppressors.

Without a change in the individuals, or any sense that individual change is necessary, we are doomed to repeat the cycles of injustice over and over again. Even as the wealth is being redistributed, the field of opportunity is being leveled and the privileges are being equaled out, individuals will find ways around the system to gain more for themselves to the exclusion of others – it’s human nature.

I have sought to write on this subject for about a year now, but I have found it difficult to get started. This is a start, but just a start. I hope to continue on with a discussion of the differences between biblical justice and secular social justice in the grounding of those notions next in Distinguishing Biblical Justice from Social Justice II.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[i] See Biblical Justice & Social Justice, by Christine Erickson, Director, Children-at-Risk “OneLess” Ministry Grace Church – Eden Prairie, MN posted by Shared Hope International June 4, 2018.

[ii] See What Is Social Justice? (Podcast), on Cold Case Christianity podcast with J. Warner Wallace October 30, 2019.

[iii] Social Justice reviewed by Jim Chappelow, updated Nov 8, 2019

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