Social justice. We hear about it everywhere. The term seems so “user friendly.” It elicits positive emotions and vibes. Yet, as with so many other things, appearances can deceive.
Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
HOW DOES SOCIAL JUSTICE differ from biblical justice? Is there room in the gospel for social justice? Are followers of Christ expected to strive for fairness and equality? If so, what should be done to promote these crucial concepts? Biblical “justice” means “to make right.” Justice is a relational term—people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the whole of creation. “Justice” is getting what we deserve, and might be an act of vengeance or force. “Mercy” means exercising forbearance, and it qualifies as an act of grace and compassion.
All secular political options and theories of justice, from “right” to “left” (Libertarianism, Liberalism, Utilitarianism, Progressivism, Relativism) are grounded in reductionistic worldviews. Christians should not ignore any of the rightful concerns raised, but they must not wholly align themselves with any of them. Only biblical justice is comprehensive enough to address the needs of the human condition. But biblical justice is not a mere set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines; it is not derived from political agenda. Rather, it is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.
Social Justice Stands in Opposition to Biblical Justice
In 2013, Dr. Calvin Beisner, of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, wrote an excellent booklet in which he warned about the erroneous and perilous ideas promoted by the social justice movement. Titled Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, the booklet begins with a vivid illustration from Dr. Beisner’s family life, which he uses to explain social justice. The following is an excerpt from that booklet.
Calvin Beisner and his teenage son A. J. frequently play ping-pong. Typically the score is lopsided, with one player beating the other badly. Some observers may object. Isn’t the winner being heavy-handed and hardhearted, callous and lacking compassion? Shouldn’t Beisner and A. J. simply add up the total number of points, divide by two, and assign the same score to each player? After all, both are made in God’s image. Leveling out the score would only be “fair,” rectifying the disparity between players and compensating for the strengths and weakness of both. Pride and feelings of inferiority would be eliminated, gloating and discouragement overshadowed (1).
Social justice involves the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society; individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice.
There are four interrelated principles of social justice: equity, access, participation and rights. Personally, I have never believed it advisable (or helpful) to take from the Haves and give to the Have-nots. First, this is unjust to those who built a net worth of their own. Second, this will not alleviate the problem. Those who work hard to build their wealth will ultimately look for a new way to hold on to their assets. Moreover, those who have not earned assets of their own will never learn to rise above their present circumstances. Lacking motivation, they will remain “in need,” always looking for a handout. Incidentally, I am making no distinction of race, culture, nationality, or gender. We do not need to go on a tangent about the causes of discrimination in this article. I will, however, discuss the biblical guidelines for love, humility, justice, equality, and support, the building blocks of biblical justice.
Social justice does not resemble biblical justice at all. Actually, it is injustice. I do support striving to even the playing field at the level of “equal access” to opportunity. This is different from redistributing wealth. I believe we should make it possible for all citizens to participate in college, trade training, transportation, child care, Internet access, and obtaining the necessary equipment such as a laptop computer. Essentially, providing a path to wealth and success for every citizen. Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society, which, by its very definition, is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges. Those belonging to the social justice camp present themselves as the only ones pursuing justice, to the exclusion of all who disagree with their assessments.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of social justice today it its tendency to mischaracterize Christians: on one side we have “compassionate” Christians who are concerned about justice; on the other are “insensitive” Christians who do not consider injustice in today’s society. A new breed of atheists have formed in the Western world whose fundamental belief is that Christians are elitist and narrow-minded. Although biblical justice is the key to eradicating injustice in society, the New Atheists take every step necessary to eliminate what they see as an archaic Judeo-Christian system of justice.
For generations, we have seen how difficult it is to live in harmony with one another. We are to be loving, supportive, forgiving, and compassionate with one another. Paul wrote, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25, ESV). An apt description of society. For me, if Christians were to consistently strive toward such an attitude—following the exemplar left for us by Christ—the Church would actually represent the gospel. Our “theology” and “philosophy” must be a lamp for the rest of the world. Our actions and words should exemplify our LORD. When people look to us, they should see Jesus. If we walk in harmony with the will of the Father, and strive to present His attributes, our identity will be clear: we are brothers and sisters; members of the Body of Christ.
Identity Politics is the Culprit
We should strive to live respectfully and peaceably with everyone. Who would not want to live in a society rich in equality? But what if “growth” in social justice (the “appearance” of harmony) is actually causing deep divisions; chasms in the very foundation of society? Bauchman writes, “We are right to pursue justice, peace, and unity” (4). The apostle Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18, ESV). But our society is beginning to fracture in a troublesome manner. These cracks lie in believing we can achieve a fair and just society by merely using proper terminology, or from presenting the ideal of justice through lectures and symposiums. From a worldly perspective, it is as though society is saying, “The eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt be nice,’ and we don’t believe in the other ten.”
If we look too long and hard at “social justice” without exploring the core elements of societal harmony (or disharmony), we will be sorely disappointed by the lack of improvement in society. We will be continually plagued by theories, schools of thought, philosophies, and a persistent breakdown in our communities. Unfortunately, identity politics demands that we crush injustice by attacking those holding such ideals. We know this to be true. The politics in America during the past four years has led to arguments and violence that has served to widen the gulf between class, political party, religion, and nationality. So-called “true” patriots have resorted to disruption, misinformation, smear campaigns, insurrection, and acts of violence. The foundation on which these actions are established focus solely on “identity.” Today, America is hampered by identity politics, bipolarity, and addiction.
People who subscribe to identity politics tend to form exclusive political alliances according to their religion, race, social background, and other identity, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. Rather than organizing solely around beliefs, manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination. It doesn’t take much effort to see how identity politics does not foster interaction with groups whose philosophy or suffering is not like their own. Such orientation leads to isolation and a sense of the oppressed versus their oppressors. Identity politics builds on analysis of social injustice. It then suggests ways of reclaiming, redefining, or transforming stigmatized citizens. In many instances, such groups use hundreds or thousands of years in determining identity.
As Sonia Kruks puts it,
What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (5).
Indeed, we are all different. Our personal history, culture, religion, status, and struggle is ours alone. Identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. These differences are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, there would be no distinctness and no solidity. Entrenched in this indispensable relation is a second set of tendencies, themselves in need of exploration, to conceal established identities into fixed forms of thought and lived as if their structure expressed the true order of things. When these pressures prevail, the maintenance of one identity (or field of identities) involves the conversion of some differences into otherness, into evil, or one of its numerous surrogates. Identity requires differences in order to be, and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-certainty (6).
Mitchell says identity politics is a very loud public affair (7). Further, it is making constructive public life increasingly difficult if not impossible. Consider this: alongside the amazing strides man has made in the visible economy there is an undertone concerned with one thing: weighing and measuring. But in this model, we are measuring transgression and innocence. This orientation has two glaring faults: (i) no balance of payment between the parties is possible; and (ii) there is typically a demand that all accounts be settled no matter how obscure or distant. The invisible task of quantifying transgression and innocence disrupts and mocks the well-measured world of money, time, and materials of the visible world. Under this system of social justice, no effort or accomplishment will ever be satisfactory. Indeed, this concept is plaguing America, and it perpetuates the concept of oppressed and oppressor—victim and perpetrator. A transgression has occurred, and it must be paid for in full (e.g., financial or other reparations to Black Americans for slavery).
Mitchell writes, “…identity politics declares that the deeper cause of the visible imbalance is the systemic racism in the invisible economy of transgression and innocence… identity always maintains the purity of those it considers innocents and the stain of those it considers transgressors, regardless of any visible evidence to the contrary” (8). What evidence? you might ask, then you counter with, There is plenty of “proof” that white heterosexual fundamentalists are the problem. They are either invisible or they are the hidden cause of every visible transgression in the world! But no one wants to have an honest discussion about this paradox; this fixation. The predominant account of identity politics, says Mitchell, treats identity as if it pertains to differing kinds of people. He adds, “…as we become more disconnected and our lives get smaller in the democratic age, the temptation to make distinctions between others and ourselves grows” (9). If democracy morphs into socialism, the individual is completely swallowed by the nation-state.
Frankly, I welcome a diversity of friends and want to feel safe among my fellow citizens, but this is impossible under the current system. Identity politics is about identifying and blaming so-called transgressors. Its reach goes beyond the willful perpetrators, beyond the racist police officers and those who deliberately use the system to oppress others because of race, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. It tends to blame all “us” for the ills suffered by “others.” It reduces all of mankind to “the stained” and “the pure.” It does not take much to see stained versus pure as an unworkable criterion. God is nowhere to be found in the identity-politics accounting scheme. Neither is forgiveness, which (if sincerely applied) would erase the so-called “score” and leave us with no scores to settle. Mitchell believes Americans have not lost their religion; they have relocated their religion to the realm of politics. Consider the countless prophecies, predictions, justifications, and radical fringe groups prevalent today. We know what it looks like when a national extremist group swoops down on our democratic process!
Bad ideas, like ideological social justice, are terribly destructive, ripping the social fabric, exacerbating hostility, and ultimately destroying relationships (10). One such ideology is the Black Lives Matter movement. This simple statement, three words, is inherently flawed in several ways. The most obvious is that all lives matter. To single out one social group and apply this “logic” to them serves to promote identity politics. Blacks are the oppressed, and white heterosexual Protestant men (if not the entire white community) is the oppressor. We have already determined that not all whites are racist. Further, there are no innocents; we all sin; fall short of glorifying God. Indeed, wise and careful discernment has been hard to come by. Allen writes, “In my thirty-five years of working with church leaders around the world, from over seventy-five nations, I’ve never met anyone who endorses in any way the idea that white people were created to rule everyone else” (11).
The word “justice” comes from the Latin (justus), meaning “straight, or close.” Like a plumb line, justus refers to a standard of goodness. It is justice that aids in determining good laws or tenets from bad ones. St. Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” It is the moral law that must rule in all matters. It is not morally acceptable to establish any law, regulation, procedure, or tenet that harms any citizen or group, especially on the basis of skin color, nationality, culture, sexual identity, or gender. It violates the Law of God, which Greg Koukl calls “the Law-over-everything-and-everyone.” There truly is a universal standard to which even the most powerful are accountable: even the Pablo Escobars and Governor George Wallaces of this world.
Because God does not change, this standard of justice does not change. God is the immovable Rock whose “…work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4). God is both righteous and just. If He were not righteous, He could not be just; if He were not just, He could not be righteous. God communicates His justice and righteousness to us inwardly. He imprints His Word on our hearts. C.S. Lewis calls this innate moral code “a clue to the meaning of the universe.” As Christians, we strive to obey God not because we can behave ourselves into heaven—this is impossible. We obey Him because we want to honor Him in all our ways. We obey Him to show we love Him. In fact, God’s moral law is one of His greatest gifts to humanity, because it provides the only true, unchanging foundation for justice in human history.
Micah wrote, “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). Justice also requires that we walk humbly with one another. Genuine humility requires that we put ourselves second rather than striving to be first. Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).
Driving Out a Bad Worldview
Tim Keller (paraphrasing Aristotle),
We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Justice requires recognizing what it means to be human—that we all possess inherent dignity and worth with unalienable rights. To do justice is to treat others as uniquely valuable, and respect their God-given rights. It is loving your neighbor as yourself.
Unfortunately, the current “social justice” model is distorting the picture and taking hostages. I read an expose by a self-proclaimed social justice crusader that sheds light right where it is needed. This individual said he’d decided to find a purpose in his life: membership in a community. He found it exhilarating to call people out on Facebook and other social media platforms, accusing them of racism or sexism. It gave him a “rush.” He received validation through the thousands of “likes” and reposts he received. He decided this was his life’s purpose: fighting against white supremacy, the patriarchy, and toxic masculinity. His life consisted of trolling social media all day long seeking out transgressors. Social justice is, after all, a surveillance culture. He discovered, ironically, that in the world of ideological social justice, there is no justice for those accused of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, once judgment has been rendered against you, everyone starts gunning for you.
Millions of individuals have been swept into the puritanical cult of ideological social justice. Allen writes, “The false religion of ideological social justice lures people by providing them with a source of identity, community, and purpose,” and he counters with, “Our calling is to boldly proclaim the truth that sets people free” (12). Allen believes many of our prominent evangelical leaders have abdicated their responsibility to be salt and light by promoting many of the central tenets of a rather dangerous unbiblical worldview. This distorted, secularized definition of justice distracts us from applying biblical justice to the predicament. What we need is a true story: one that says true identity isn’t found in our skin color, ethnic background, sex, or nationality.
“If your story tells you that your primary identity is victim, your life will be marked by bitterness, resentment, grievance, and entitlement. If your story tells you your primary identity is privileged oppressor, your life will be marked by guilt and shame. However, if your story tells you that your identity is sinner, yet loved by God and saved by grace, your life will be marked by gratitude and humility” (13) [italics added].
It is critical that we reject this zero-sum ideology of social justice, where truth and love don’t exist. Instead, I leave you with the biblical passage that defines for all mankind the true sense of love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away… So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor.13:4-10, 13).
(1) B. Nathaniel Sullivan, Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel (Chattanooga, TN: Cornwall Alliance, 2013).
(2) Voddie T. Baucham, Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe (Washington, DC: Salem Books, 2021), 5.
(3) Ibid., 5.
(4) Ibid., 132.
(5) Sonia Kruks, Retrieving Experience: Subjectivity and Recognition in Feminist Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 85.
(6) William Connlly, Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 64.
(7) Joshua Mitchell, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2020), xii.
(8) Ibid., xvi.
(9) Ibid., xvii.
(10) Scott David Allen, Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Credo House Publishers, 2020), 14.
(11) Ibid., 15.
(12) Ibid., 178.
(13) Ibid., 179.