Justice | Is social justice just ice? Let’s try the biblical alternative
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 9/19/15, 02:09 pm
The term “social justice” has multiple meanings. Dictionary.com’s is general: “the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society.” Australians offer a political one: “Social justice means being entitled to the same rights and services as all other citizens.”
These dueling definitions suggest two ways to go with social justice. Some British conservatives are trying to claim the term as their own. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, calls family breakdown, addiction, and educational failure issues of social justice. In the United States, though, conservatives have generally had little patience with the term, which the left has used as for cultural intimidation and power-grabbing.
The New York Times,for example, associates social justice with liberal positions on sexual orientation, environmental concerns, pacifist movements, healthcare, and food preferences, among other items. A vote to raise taxes is thus a vote for social justice. An emphasis on voluntary charity is thus an attack on social justice, since the charity impulse cuts against obligatory transfers from rich to poor (or to well-connected organizations that say they help the poor).
For U.S. conservatives, it is time to choose. Do we follow our British cousins and try to co-opt the term “social justice”? Do we attack it, and in doing so try to explain what justice is? Here’s a four-part meditation: I’ll explain why thinking through the meaning of social justice is important, how the Bible instructs us in that thinking, how American Christians have applied biblical teaching, and how we can do so today.
To start: Plato describes in one of his best dialogues, Gorgias, how men often choose shortcuts that give us a sense of virtue, rather than virtue itself. He has Socrates observe that doctors know more about illness than cooks do, but “if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, or men who had no more sense than children … the physician would be starved to death.”
In social policy, when we settle for cookery instead of medicine, we starve justice. Good nutrition is important in maintaining and improving health, but diseases need to be fought with more than good food—when the plague is at its most virulent, food is of little help.
Western society now faces a plague. Two out of five Americans are born out of wedlock. Among African-Americans and Hispanics the figure is much higher. In 1963, the year the civil rights movement reached its heights with the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech, the black out-of-wedlock birthrate was at 24 percent.
Fatherless goes beyond a political issue. Barack Obama on Father’s Day 2008 noted that the lack of fathers is a problem in statistically measurable ways: “Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to lie in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.”
Is any injustice greater than that visited on a child whose chances of disaster are so much higher than those of a child in an intact family? This great injustice of the past half-century deepened alongside the largest attempt to redistribute income ever seen. Beginning with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in 1965, governmental officials distributed trillions of dollars to the poor or to entities claiming to help the poor.
The failure of those measures to help many of the poorest launched a thousands ships of analysis. Was the economic aid too little? Or did many fathers drop out when it became apparent that their perseverance no longer made much economic difference to their children’s welfare? Assuming, as most of us do, that it is unjust for children to be stuck in poverty and ignorance when other outcomes are within our grasp, how might we bring about more justice?
University of Chicago economist James Heckman has noted, “The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the most important scarce resource. … In designing policies to combat inequality, it is important to recognize that about 50 percent of the variance in inequality in lifetime earnings is determined by age 18. The family plays a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes that is not fully appreciated by current American policies.”
Urban Institute economist Robert Lerman wrote in a 2002 paper, “The apparent gains from marriage are particularly high among black households.” But he also went beyond one racial group into more general studies. For example, he showed how over a 25-year period the net worth of middle-income married parents increased by 52 percent while that of middle-income unmarried parents decreased by 15 percent.
Some say single-parenting has grown because of economic reasons. If income were redistributed, marriage would flourish. Based on the evidence of affluent Scandinavia, where single-parenting has become typical in every class of society, that argument is weak. If growing up without married parents is such a key detriment for children, it would seem that social justice attempts at redistribution are cookery. Real medicine would create strong families and heal ones that have sickened.
Next, since the Bible contains wisdom greater than man’s, let’s turn to Scripture. Biblical writers over 50 times link the Hebrew word mishpat, “justice,” with the Hebrew word tzedek, “righteous.” They regularly declared that a central purpose of justice is to increase righteousness, as Isaiah 26:9 (Scripture quoted from the ESV) states: “When your judgments [justice] are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
The biblical usage of words translated as justice (mishpat in Hebrew, kreesis in Greek) often concerns justice between individuals. Psalm 112:5 praises the person who “deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice.” Jeremiah 22:13 pronounces “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages.”
The linkage of justice, righteousness, and individual relations begins in Genesis 18:19, which instructs us to “keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” One kind of person-to-person justice emerges in Deuteronomy 24:13, which states that justice in making loans to a poor person requires, “You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God.”
The Bible posits that all justice, even of the most elementary anti-cheating kind, is based in the character of God: Leviticus 19:36 commands, “You shall have just balances, just weights,” and then gives the reason: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The Bible wants us to rejoice over justice because it points to God, as in Proverbs 21:15, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”
The justice-righteousness-relational connection also shows why entitlements that go equally to the reliable and to the profligate are wrong: Isaiah 26:10 states, “If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the LORD.” Ezekiel 13:22 shows that injustice works against faith in God: “[Y]ou have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not grieved him, and you have encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life. …”
New Testament passages including Acts 17:31, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 11:33 and Revelation 19:11, have in them the Greek word, dikaiosune, sometimes translated as righteousness but at other times (in the New International Version, for example) translated as justice. That (given all the Old Testament precedent) is not a stretch.
Given the tendency of some today to equate social justice with equality, it’s striking that New Testament writers who write about justice use the Greek word kreesis, whichconveys the opposite of equality: It means separating, putting on trial, differentiating. Matthew 12:18’s proclamation that Jesus “will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” means He will show them steadfast righteousness in contrast to the fickleness (as in Greek mythology) of the polytheistic gods of the ancient world.
The Bible teaches that some among the rich run to evil, and the same is true for some among the poor. Showing favor to evildoers is not justice. It is not necessarily unjust for some to be rich and others to be poor, although it is unjust when the rich lord it over the poor and forget that anything anyone has is a gift from God. It is not unjust when some decide to worship themselves or the gods of their own imaginings, and then reap the consequences.
The Bible closely ties justice and righteousness and connects one other concept to both of them: faithfulness. God’s justice is shown by His faithfulness: “[H]e will faithfully bring forth justice,” Isaiah 42:3 declares. Man shows his righteousness before God through Christ by being faithful: “[T]he righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4) is the Old Testament summary that would lead to paradigm-shattering insights for both the Apostle Paul and the reformer Martin Luther.
Christian understandings of justice, righteousness, and faithfulness all operate within an emphasis on Christ. That’s different from “religion,” a word that comes from the Old French religare, to bind (same root as ligament). Most religions emphasize binding to a set of rules; Christianity emphasizes bonding into a relationship with Christ. Most religions are exchange religions: “I do this for Shiva, he will give me a son.” The Apostle Paul, though, emphasized love for God: “[W]e make it our aim to please Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).
The Christian emphasis is on making a loved one happy, not making a deal. In a sense, Christianity is to religion as neighborly justice is to social justice. Christianity emphasizes relationships. For example, God established in the Garden of Eden the concept of a husband and a wife clinging together. It is therefore unjust for a husband to abandon his wife. Justice flows from the Creator.
The Bible, in short, emphasizes not social justice but relational justice, which is love. Love may seem slower than revolution, but relational justice, person by person, family by family, adds up to true social justice. Without relational justice, social justice may make things worse. An educated person devoted to evil is more dangerous than a dumb devil. A selfish rich person can do more damage than a selfish poor person.
The Bible also models relational justice by showing how God acts toward us: He adopts into his family those who believe in him.
Third, American history shows us what difference a biblical understanding makes in the lives of the poor. An emphasis on relationships was vital in Bible-based anti-poverty work in America up through the 1920s. Some men more than a century ago, as now, abandoned their families. Some young people ran away from home. Some of the elderly were out of contact with their children. According to Edward T. Devine in an article written in 1897, charity organizations responded by instructing all volunteers to work hard at “restoring family ties that have been sundered” and “strengthening a church or social bond that is weakened.”
The prime objective of most charities was not material distribution but, as Devine noted, “affiliation … the reabsorption in ordinary industrial and social life of those who for some reason have snapped the threads that bound them to the other members of the community.” In practice, when individuals or families applied for material assistance, charity workers began by interviewing applicants and checking backgrounds with the goal of answering one question: “Who is bound to help in this case?”
Since justice began with relationships, charity workers tried to call in relatives, neighbors, or former co-workers or co-worshippers. “Relief given without reference to friends and neighbors is accompanied by moral loss,” Mary Richmond of Baltimore noted in Devine’s article. “Poor neighborhoods are doomed to grow poorer and more sordid, whenever the natural ties of neighborliness are weakened by our well-meant but unintelligent interference.”
When material support was needed, charities tried to raise it from relatives and others with personal ties instead of appropriating funds from general income. “Raising the money required specially on each case, though very troublesome, has immense advantages,” one minister wrote in 1893. “It enforces family ties, and neighborly or other duties, instead of relaxing them.” Affiliation was important for both young and old. Charities tried to place abandoned young people in alternative families, not institutions, and to do it quickly. A century ago that meant days or weeks, not months or years in foster care.
A typical case from the 1883 files of the Associated Charities of Boston notes that when an elderly widower applied for help, “the agent’s investigation showed that there were relatives upon whom he might have a claim.” A niece “was unable to contribute anything,” but a brother-in-law who had not seen the old man for 25 years “promised to send a regular pension,” and he did. The brother-in-law’s contribution paid the old man’s living expenses and reunited him with his late wife’s family. “If there had been no careful investigation,” the caseworker noted, the man would have received some bread, but would have remained alone “in his filthy abode.”
The key was personal willingness to be deeply involved. The charity magazine Lend a Hand regularly reminded readers in the late 19th century that they could not “discharge duties to the poor by gifts of money alone. … Let us beware of mere charity with the tongs.” Author Edward Everett Hale in 1895 analyzed the success of the Boston Industrial Aids Society in reforming alcoholics: “These women were most of them poor creatures broken down with drink, or with worse devils, if there are worse. But … five hundred people in a year take five hundred of these broken-down women into their homes, sometimes with their babies, and give them a new chance.”
Today, absolute material poverty is rare in America, but relational poverty is frequent. In a recession especially, some who have worked hard lose their jobs, but others become desperately poor or stay poor because they lack a healthy relationship with God, with others, or with both. For some who are poor, money may just make things worse. Those who are starving need food, but once survival needs are met the process of helping becomes more nuanced. Those who can’t form family or community bonds need something more than social justice. A drug addict who gains social justice and has some extra money may soon be a dead drug addict.
Relational justice begins in the family, where much is determined, but individuals still must make choices. The family is not merely a haven in a heartless world. It can and should be a bit of heaven, a greenhouse of relational justice. The family is generally more capable of meeting people’s needs than any other institution created by God. Family heads also bear primary responsibility for the material well-being of family members. Families, therefore, are not merely private institutions. Their failure has public costs.
A lack of relational justice within a marriage leads to divorce and increased power for the state. Every family breakdown leads to an increase in the size of children’s protective services. It costs the state tens of thousands of dollars to attempt to create a family-type environment for a child—and at great expense it does so poorly. When relational justice isn’t present, social justice is a catch-up attempt. The key way to increase justice is to strengthen families.
Relational justice is also important in business. Corporations—whether small or large, national, multinational or digital—exist and operate on the basis of trust. Company leaders have to live up to their word, because trade exists on the basis of earned reputation. Without vision, people perish; without trust, trade freezes, as we saw last fall when confidence derived from years of experience crumbled in the face of derivatives. Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business,” but he also knew how business (and life) should be conducted: “If all the folks in the United States would do the few simple things they know they ought to do, most of our big problems would take care of themselves.”
The experience of relational justice changes attitudes. Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone (2000), has found that half of the most secular Americans say people need to look after themselves and not worry about others, but only one in five of the most religious Americans agrees with that. The distinguishing factor, Putnam found, was church-based relationships: The more church friends a person had, the more likely he was to be generous.
Christians especially should engage in relational justice, as did Jesus. The Gospels largely described how He dealt with those around him, not how he harangued millions. In a cacophonous world, Christians should speak calmly, recognizing that we like others are sinners. We should trust our neighbors unless we have evidence to the contrary, and distrust those with political power unless we have equally strong evidence. We should enjoy the pleasures of this world but not idolize them.
Christians know Christianity to be more than a device. It has to be an understanding based on a relationship. But what can those who do not have that relationship with God do? Can we restore a proper sense of justice unless we restore a proper view of God? Will we be able to improve relational justice, which is the necessary step toward social justice, without biblical revival and reformation?
Picture a man in his 20s who, regarding women, is mainly interested in the thrill of the chase. If he doesn’t realize that long-range satisfactions are more important and fulfilling than a series of seductions, his lack of relational justice may lead to either abortion or to children without fathers, both problems of social justice. But how will he stop grasping apart from realizing something about his nature and the nature of God?
Sadly, many institutions push people away from faith in God and toward lies. When prisoners are merely warehoused and God’s declaration of liberty for the captives never reaches them, that is unjust. Spiritual consequences parallel and perhaps contribute to material ones. When children who have no experience of a father at home never hear about one at school, that is unjust. Some who have grown up without dads yearn for a Father in heaven but find it difficult to have faith in one.
Since the purpose of justice is to increase righteousness and faith, justice should help us understand more about God, and justice that inhibits faith cannot be just. Anything that points us away from God is lying about the nature of the universe by suggesting that we can have satisfaction apart from God who loves us.
From the Bible and from American history we see the power of relationships and kind, fair treatment within them: relational justice. Christ Himself has told us what we should do in all our relationships to aim at heaven: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Justice begins with fair dealings based on love within the family, and then expands to fairness and kindness toward neighbors.
As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” Social justice aims at earth, but relational justice aims at heaven. Our aim is always far from perfect, since we are all fallen and sinful people, but if we succeed even part way we will find a piece of heaven and get earth thrown in.