Whose Social Justice?
This past month, a bomb was dropped in the evangelical world as the growing support for ‘social justice’ among evangelicals was met with some inevitable pushback from within. One of the strongest voices of dissent was John MacArthur, a man I deeply respect, and who has been influential to me. I had been going through something of a John MacArthur renaissance–listening to his great examples of expository preaching on his app–when all the hubbub began.
MacArthur’s ministry has blessed me in many ways, and I have him to thank for many things (I’ll always recommend his biblical expositions). But like most men I admire, I’m still willing to call a spade a spade when I see one. And in this case, I’ll have to address the elephant in the room–an elephant that also comes with America’s resident donkey, both of which are often caricatured together with boxing gloves and all. This is my cheeky way of saying that our conversations surrounding social justice carry unfortunate political overtones. And to be fair to Pastor MacArthur, this is exactly why he has expressed concern.
One of my first articles was titled “Taking Back Evangelicalism“, in which I argued that “Evangelicalism” has become politicized and come to mean something far from its true meaning. In the same way, “social justice” has often become politicized and come to mean something that’s far from true social justice. Often social justice has been associated with the “social gospel” (which historically has been devoid of the true, biblical gospel) or “liberation theology” (which was really just a form of Marxism). In the 20th century, the term “social justice” was championed by philosopher John Rawls, an avowed atheist.
It’s no wonder why conservative pastors like Matt Chandler (pastor of the Village Church and president of the Acts 29 church-planting network) get accused of “cultural Marxism” when they advocate for righteous causes such as racial reconciliation. If “Evangelicalism” has often been appropriated by fundamentalists on the far-right, then “social justice” has been appropriated by secular humanists on the far-left.
Liberals believe that Christians championing social justice are just now “catching up”, and that they have in fact not gone far enough (especially on issues regarding sexuality and abortion). Staunch conservatives, on the other hand, believe that these Christians are simply conforming to the culture with disastrous consequences on the horizon.
But are either of these charges true? As usual, it helps to know the history behind the terms.
A Tale of Two ‘Social Justices’
As historians have noted, the first recorded use of the term “social justice” was found among the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church; namely, philosopher and priest Luigi Taperelli (sometimes regarded as “the father of Catholic social teaching”). In his works, Taperelli critiqued both the rising capitalist and socialist theories of his day for essentially being too “man-centered’. By 1931, the Catholic Church adopted the term “social justice” in their official teaching. However, this was later eclipsed by John Rawls’ secular understanding of social justice just decades later, and it was his iteration that would define 20th century conversation.
What distinguished Taperelli’s original conception of “social justice” from that of Rawls’? Rawls’ theory of “social justice” was humanocentric and based on Enlightenment rationalism that started with Rene Descartes, whose famous dictum cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) created a seismic shift in Western society that privileged human reason as the ultimate authority and arbiter of what is true. At the risk of oversimplifying things, this made man “the measure of all things” (instead of God). Rawls drew heavily from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, as well figures like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (whose “utilitarian” philosophy I heavily critiqued in a previous article). Though many of these men were self-professed Christians and very diverse, they all had human reason as the starting point for their respective philosophies.
On the other hand, Taperelli based his conception of “social justice” on the work of medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, who was a champion of arguments for “natural law” or “natural theology”. In other words, Taperelli started with the belief (in the tradition of Aquinas) that there is a divine, God-ordained, natural order to the universe and all of reality, which included society, relationships, and their proper arrangements. Taperelli eschewed the subjective, human-centered thinking of Descartes and appealed instead to “natural law” for objective moral values of right and wrong. As it turns out, the idea of “social justice” has distinctly Christian origins.
This is not the first time that modern values actually find their origin in Christian ethics. In his address to the British Parliament at their National Prayer Breakfast this year, American pastor Tim Keller goes at length to explain how the ideas of individual rights, intrinsic human dignity, and even freedom and liberty were inherited from the Judeo-Christian worldview. Though it was once believed to solely be the product of the Enlightenment, historians such as Rodney Stark and Brian Tiereny (just to name a couple) now believe that this never would have happened had the Judeo-Christian tradition not given Enlightenment thinkers the proper categories to think in such terms in the first place. Scholar David Bentley Hart offers a similar analysis when he critiques Steven Pinker’s (an Enlightenment aficionado) work .
And finally, world-renowned philosopher Jurgen Habermas writes:
“…individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it.”
This is why democracy arose in the West in the first place.
So you see, “social justice” has had two different streams in western thought. Philosopher Charles Taylor points out a tension that Friedrich Nietzsche noticed back in the 19th century: that western society wants the benefits of inherited Judeo-Christian values without first recognizing its distinct origin.
Not So Fast! Why ‘Social Justice’ Is Insufficient…
However, lest the Christian be triumphalistic, the story is not so simple. A further analysis of Luigi Taperelli’s works shows that he too had his “blind spots“. In making a case for a natural order in society, Taperelli could easily overlook the status-quo of certain societal arrangements, or what some today might understand as “privilege”. He would naively entrust the fair distribution of justice to those in power. For Taperelli, that meant the preservation of the aristocracy that his family of origin came from. This is exactly the type of blindness that kept the slave trade going for over 200 years (including by many Christians).*
So where does this leave our “social justice” conversation? The trouble comes when we try to define “social justice” on our own terms, both left and right. But what is “justice” in the first place? What is right or wrong, good and evil? Our propensity to try to answer these questions by ourselves stretches all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), when they tried to define “good” or “evil” for themselves (see previous post). Instead, we must rely on what God tells us.**
So what does the Bible have to say about social justice?
“You keep using that word”: Biblical Social Justice
Biblical scholars such as Peter Gentry (a Southern Baptist seminary professor) have realized for awhile now that in ancient Hebrew literature, the conjunction of the words for “justice” (mishpat) and “righteousness” (tzedakah) form a compound idea that is best described by the English word “social justice” when used in proximity of one another. This revolved around notions of equity and fairness; giving people what they’re due; punishing the wrongdoer and giving aid to the disadvantaged. It deals with both restorative and retributive justice. In other words: social justice is a biblical concept.
I have written at length before about how the distribution of ‘social justice’ was a major concern in the Old Testament narrative, especially among the Prophets. What led to Israel’s downfall was not only their failure to worship God properly (i.e. “idolatry”), but their failure to execute social justice within their society, especially for the marginalized. In other words, they failed to truly love God and love their neighbor. (For more on biblical justice, watch this video.)
But the biblical Prophets also prophesied a future king, a “Messiah” in the line of David, that would one day execute justice not just for the nation of Israel, but for the entire world. And no prophets better expounded on this than the prophets of Isaiah and Jeremiah:
“There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness…” —Isaiah 9:1-7
“In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house[a] of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.” —Isaiah 16:5
“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.”–Isaiah 42:1
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely, And do justice and righteousness in the land.” — Jeremiah 23:5
That’s why when Jesus read the words of Isaiah in Luke 4 (“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”) it came with such an apocalyptic force. I recently heard a sermon on Luke 4 which claimed that Jesus was strictly talking about people’s “spiritual” condition. But that’s missing the point of the passage. Jesus was telling the people of Israel that His ministry was signaling the dawning of a new age that will be finally realized when He establishes Himself as King to restore a fallen world, where “the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21). In that kingdom, injustice is no longer. In the meantime, He had come to show people what it was like to live in between the “now” and “not yet” in anticipation of that kingdom.
Jesus exemplified for us what true, biblical social justice looks like. He broke racial barriers and even gender barriers when he talked to the Samaritan woman at the well. He advocated for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the downtrodden to those that kept the status quo–the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. He served others. He told people to love their enemies and to treat everyone as their neighbor.
But most importantly, He died for His enemies on the cross, even while we were still sinners. He gave Himself up for us. This ethic of sacrificial self-giving love for others at the expense of oneself is largely absent from the loud, indignant voices of both the left and the right.
If you want to see true social justice, look to Jesus. It might look different than the world’s version at various times, but it is justice nonetheless.
“A Great Cloud of Witnesses…”
You may not have realized it, but Christians likewise have often been advocates for true, biblical social justice in his footsteps. As another article puts it: “Whether we use the term or not, Christians are engaged in social justice when we advocate for issues such as abortion, racial reconciliation, religious liberty, and sex trafficking.”
For example, when people from my home area work and volunteer at the Family Life Pregnancy Center, they are engaging in social justice. They are advocating for the lives of the unborn and their mothers. So if you’re a Christian who thinks that you don’t engage in social justice, think again. You’re simply selective of the type of “social justice” you work for.
With all due respect to a man like Pastor MacArthur (and much respect is due), it surprises me that he could reference his ministry partnership with black preacher Reverend John Perkins, who never shied from using the term “social justice” in his ministry, especially in the context of racial reconciliation (which he has tirelessly fought for since the Civil Rights). Or that we could forget about Billy Graham (who came as close to being “canonized” by evangelicals as anyone will ever be) when he said, “morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice.” Or that we could forget of the dozens of other Christian leaders who have preached the gospel faithfully while recognizing the need for positive change within our society.
What would have happened to the English speaking world if the great Christian, William Wilbeforce, decided not to speak against the slave trade? How different would American society be if the abolitionists of the 1800’s–many of whom were Christians–chose not to fight against slavery? Or if church leaders never challenged their brothers in Christ in the South during the Civil Rights Movement?***
The story of Saint Telemachus goes as follows: Telemachus was a Christian that felt called by God to go to Rome at the height of the Roman Empire. When he arrived, he was shocked and horrified at what he saw: slaves being thrown to the lions at the gladiatorial arenas before they were torn apart limb from limb. At the sight of the spectacle, Telemachus threw himself in the midst of a fight, waving his arms and pleading with the people to stop the madness. The crowd kept jeering and laughing at him until he was impaled by a gladiator. With his last, dying breath, gurgling up blood, he again pleaded for them to stop the fight. As one version of the story goes, the crowd fell silent, and one by one left the stadium. Not long afterward, the Roman government decided to outlaw the gladitorial fights.
And that’s what Christianity should be: a prophetic voice in our society that advocates for those that don’t have the power to speak up for themselves, and to do so in a way that mirrors the sacrificial love of our Savior.
So what’s our takeaway? If you’re a Christian, engaging in social justice in some form or another is not an option, but an obligation. To “take back social justice” is to reclaim it under the lordship of Christ–to go off of what God’s definition of it.
But if you’re an unbeliever that thinks that we could just do away with Christianity for the sake of “social justice”, and that Western civilization will be better off without it, then consider the words of G.K. Chesterton, whose writing in the 19th century is eerily prophetic for our time:
“But the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. . . . As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. . . . The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
–G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
*The best conservative scholars and detractors of Marx at least take his critique of power within the class system seriously instead of dismissing him outright, and they treat him as a worthy opponent. But what both sides fail to recognize is the deep depravity inherent in sinful human beings. As the 20th century taught us, the proletariat could be just as abusive as those that are in power.
**The mistake that Taperelli made was the same mistake of Thomas Aquinas (and other medieval theologians)–they relied too heavily on the observation of “natural revelation” instead of the “special revelation” found in Scripture.
***Tim Keller will be the first to tell people of how he almost did not become an evangelical Christian as a young man because many evangelical Christians were dismissive of the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention stated in an interview that: “If you were in the Southern Baptist or Southern Presbyterian context in 1845 and the question of slavery comes up, the response is going to be ‘You are distracting us from the Gospel.'”