Bring up the question of social justice and you will get varied and often heated responses. There is tension around the term because of the history of theology and practice. It has been hotly debated, written about critically by scholars and is often confused to equate fully with the controversial subject of wealth redistribution.
So let’s take a moment to re-define the phrase. The most helpful way of defining a phrase is to split the words apart. In the case of social justice, it’s simply justice with a modifier in front. We use modifiers all the time for justice such as criminal justice, international justice, and retributive justice. So if we’re talking about justice with regard to immigrants, widows and orphans, poverty and exploited workers, then “social justice” is an incredibly helpful way to describe it.
The question, then, is whether social justice is part of the biblical mandate for justice. Meaning, does it fit with what the Bible says about God’s justice more broadly?
The answer is a resounding YES!
Social justice has to do with protecting and standing with the vulnerable in society. This, understood rightly, is a lot more about empowerment, voluntary service and restoring dignity to the person. Helping fight trafficking, standing against gender violence, caring about AIDS orphans and recognizing that poverty, however earned, is still something worth caring about because of the worth, the Image of God, in every person.
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
The verses above are familiar ones, but more to the point of social justice are verses in scripture talking about workers rights such as:
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor…But your eyes and heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.” Jeremiah 22:13, 17
“Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” James 5:4-5
There certainly are other issues in addition to justice, but justice is, I believe, a theological necessity, an ethical imperative and certainly more than just “another good thing.”
For all the tension and debate around the conversation and term social justice, what we can’t miss is that justice in the social arena—or social justice—is part of a biblical justice mandate. We can debate strategies, political platforms, best practices for economics, job creation, and aid programs but at the end of the day, God’s heart for justice reigning at the center of our cities and as a part of his kingdom is something that is non-negotiable. God desires social justice as much as spiritual growth, compassion as much as confession and giving as much as receiving.
(Come hear Ken present at the Mount Hermon FIGHT Conference, May 2-4. He’ll be presenting on the Theology of Justice and also on pursuing Justice by laying a foundation for a slave-free city.)