Define social justice — give an example

wright Margaret Ramirez of the Chicago Tribune wrote a curious and rather representative story about Barack Obama’s favorite pastor. It showed readers that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who retired, had expanded his United Church of Christ congregation dramatically. But her article failed to explain why his pastorate succeeded.

As Mollie pointed out, many reporters have written about Wright’s black-nationalist philosophy and relationship with Obama. But only a few have mentioned Wright’s accomplishments. As Ramirez noted, plainly but aptly,

Obama was one of the thousands who joined Trinity under Wright’s leadership. When Wright became Trinity’s pastor in 1972, the church had 85 members. Today, Trinity has a congregation of 8,500, with more than 80 ministries, making it one of the largest and most influential black churches in the nation.

In other words, during his tenure Wright’s congregation increased by more than 1,000 percent. How did he achieve this enormous feat? Ramirez attributes his success, yes, to Wright’s black nationalism; but also to his emphasis on social justice:

In a statement, [Wright's successor, Otis] Moss praised Wright for focusing on social justice instead of preaching prosperity gospel.

“While other ministers and ministries have allowed the winds of the current culture and market to reshape the gospel into formulaic catchphrases and false hopes of financial success, Dr. Wright, you have etched out a unique homiletic of recovery and redemption,” Moss said.

What do Moss and Wright mean by social justice? It’s impossible to say for certain. But Wright’s definition sounds similar to the prosperity gospel. In a sermon that alluded to Obama, Wright told the congregation,

“How many children of biracial parents can make it in a world controlled by racist ideology?” Wright said.

“Children born to parents who are of two different races do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it in America, especially if the momma was white and the daddy was black. A child born to that union is an unfortunate statistic in a racially polarized society,” he said.

“But, if you use your mind, instead of a lost statistic in a hate-filled universe, you just may end up a law student at Harvard University. In fact, if you use your mind, you might end up as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. If you use your mind, instead of [being] a statistic destined for the poor house, you just may end up a statesman destined for the … Yes, we can!” Wright said, using the popular Obama slogan.

See what I mean? The story leaves readers confused. Social justice sounds as if it is the prosperity gospel for poor and black people. If Ramirez had added a phrase or sentence defining her terms and giving an example, her story would have been a lot better.

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  • http://catholidoxy.blogspot.com Irenaeus

    Thank you!!! Since Plato, we’ve been trying to figure out what “justice” might mean, and many folks who use it today in such a cocksure manner are mighty confident in what it might be. This really is a value term, not a fact term (insofar as such things exist), and thanks for bringing the issue up.

  • Charles Curtis

    Notice that quote in the article about Obama making it does not really mention money. It is about him gaining respect and power. Not prosperity. He avoids the poorhouse, and becomes a man of substance. That’s not the “prosperity gospel.” Not even close. I think you – Irenaeus & Mark – are addled by your middle class delusions. Listen to yourselves:

    “Social justice sounds as if it is the prosperity gospel for poor and black people.”

    “Since Plato, we’ve been trying to figure out what “justice” might mean.. This really is a value term, not a fact term.”

    Oh, really? Spoken like true bourgeois Americans. Maybe you two ought to go into talk radio. “Justice is only what we say it is.” “Our wealth is clean, washed in honest sweat.” “All that violence in far away places has nothing to do with us, with our money.” “All the shanty towns and deprivation is none of our concern.”

    Suburbia shall have its sway, bombs away. Dred Scott & Roe v. Wade. Latex & Semtex. Justice. Indeed.

    They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

    Dr. King cribbed that last bit from the prophet Amos. They both had a lot to say about justice, but I doubt somehow either of them would understand such babble as justice “really is a value term, not a fact term.”

    In “fact” Old Amos, he seems to have a pretty limpid idea of what he means by the word. It seems we, we may have lost our consciences though, huh?

  • Julia

    As a Catholic, I am very familiar with the term “social justice”. It is indeed a “value” term that changes depending on the speaker. Many who use it think it means redistributative justice. Others think it means getting rid of bad laws that hold people back. Still others think it means whatever the DNC is pushing currently. It’s the word “social” that confuses me. Maybe that’s because I don’t speak social-workerese; I’m a lawyer.

  • rw

    FWIW:

    Definitions of Social Justice on the Web:

    The processes which seek to ensure the maintenance of a fair, equitable, egalitarian and generally harmonious society. …
    http://www.usq.edu.au/planstats/Docs/GlossaryTerms.doc

    the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society
    library.thinkquest.org/05aug/00158/glossary15.html

    The belief that every individual and group is entitled to fair and equal rights and participation in social, educational, and economic opportunities. The agenda for increasing understanding of oppression and inequality and taking action to overcome them. …
    http://www.scottishmuseums.org.uk/about/glossary_terms/S.asp

    the quality of equitable rights for all people
    http://www.architecture.com.au/i-cms_file

    is the state which occurs when all members of a society have the same basic rights, security, opportunities, obligations and benefits.
    http://www.pzaconsulting.com/jargon.html

    Social justice mostly refers to an idea of society, where “justice” refers to economic status rather than to the administration of laws. It is based on the idea of a society which gives individuals and groups fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society. …
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social justice

    Social Justice (Hebrew: צדק חברתי, Tzedek Hevrati) is a newly-formed social movement in Israel. It is probable that the movement will become a political party in the near future.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social Justice (Israel)

  • Stephen A.

    I guess the trick is to find good examples of those who seek social justice (and there are many) who do not lapse into the jingoistic, thinly-veiled class envy and (anti-white) race hatred that we just heard from Mr. Curtis.

    Not to mention that semtex/latex nonsense. Yikes.

    Obama’s Pastor, and his successors, bears further examination as to what *exactly* they mean by “social justice,” when it’s tinged with so much racism and classism.

    Oh, and when will the IRS be investigating Wright’s “allusion” to Obama as a man of destiny – from the pulpit?

  • Dale

    Julia said:

    It’s the word “social” that confuses me. Maybe that’s because I don’t speak social-workerese; I’m a lawyer.

    I think that “justice” can be quite foreign to lawyers, too. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain to clients that the “justice” system is primarily for the orderly resolution of disputes, and occasionally, if not rarely, it offers “justice”, however that term is defined by the client.

  • Dale

    Charles Curtis:

    Notice that quote in the article about Obama making it does not really mention money. It is about him gaining respect and power. Not prosperity. He avoids the poorhouse, and becomes a man of substance. That’s not the “prosperity gospel.”

    Contrary to the stereotype usually shown in the media, “prosperity gospel” teaching isn’t solely concerned with financial prosperity– it also concerns physical, educational, social and psychological well-being or “prosperity”. On the other hand, “social justice” teaching isn’t focussed on promises of well-being for the oppressed, but the obligation of others to care for the oppressed. So Mark is validly pointing out an ambiguity in the article.

    Spoken like true bourgeois Americans. . . .

    When you merge Marxist rhetoric with Christianity, you discredit your claim that social justice is so easily defined. Marx had a completely different conception of justice than Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a Marxist, any more than he was a capitalist, and he certainly didn’t engage in class warfare propaganda like sneering at the bourgeois.

    “Revolution is the opiate of the masses.”– Simone Weil

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Charles Curtis makes a good point: Wright referred to respect and power, not money. But Curtis leaps to an unjustified conclusion: my question reveals me as a bourgeois. I posed a question. That was it.

  • Asinus Gravis

    The reporter could have filled out his term “social justice” by checking out Trinity UCC’s website. There is a description of the diverse “ministries” the church offers. Many of them seek to move the people beyond accepting the status quo in South Chicago, toward working for a more just society.

  • Jerry

    Define social justice? It seems to me that this was pretty well defined by the Preamble to the Declaration of independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    “All men are created equal” but if they’re not treated equally by society than justice demands that the societal balance change.

  • Julia

    Dale said

    I think that “justice” can be quite foreign to lawyers, too. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain to clients that the “justice” system is primarily for the orderly resolution of disputes, and occasionally, if not rarely, it offers “justice”, however that term is defined by the client.

    Spoken like my first boss/mentor. One week into the practice of law he told me that law was meant to settle disputes – period. He said that we do our best to obtain what our clients want, but if we think we are able to get clients “justice” on earth, the practice of law will quickly break a new lawyer’s heart. True justice is only found in the next life. I also appreciated a family law judge calling some of us into chambers to say that we did not cause the messes our clients were wanting us to fix and that we should do our best and then sleep well at night.

    The “social justice” as described in all the comments here seems equally as unatainable on this earth. “Social justice” is also going to be different for different people – how can that be put into workable legislation? I don’t recall Scriptures saying that government should be the source of this “social justice”.

    A lot of this reminds me of my kids’ complaining that “it isn’t faaaaaair”. That’s right – life isn’t fair and it never will be. No matter what changes are made to improve the lot of people, everybody is not going to get the same chances in life. People get ill, the stock market crashes, drought wipes out crops, people make bad choices, people don’t pick their parents or their native country wisely, El Nino and El Nina come and go at inopportune times, somebody gets hit by a bus and requires 40 years of expensive care, a child has an uncaring, ineffectual parent. There is no way for the government to treat people “equally” because life itself puts people into vastly different situations, may of which may be nobody’s fault.

    On the other hand, doing our best to make things more fair is doable – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we really can make things equal for people. Even Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. No matter how well off everybody becomes, there will always be a bottom 5%.

  • Stephen A.

    Julia’s strong dose of common sense, above (#11) is just the kind of substantive commentary that reporters need to interview whenever someone starts spouting off Marxist or race-laden rhetoric. They usually WON’T seek that counterbalance, of course. But they should.

    “Life is not fair.” – John F. Kennedy

  • Jonathan

    Mark,
    This is a nit-picky point, but 85 * 100 = 8500, so membership increased 100 times, not 1,000 times. (Sorry, but I’ve been grading statistics homework and so I’m sensitized to these types of mistakes tonight.) Otherwise, a thought-provoking post. :-)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jonathan and Mark,

    It’s not 1,000 percent, I don’t think, but neither is it 100 percent.

    You would say it increased by a factor of 100 or 10,000 percent, right?

  • Elizabeth

    “Children born to parents who are of two different races do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it in America, especially if the momma was white and the daddy was black…”

    Someone needs to tell that to Tiger Woods, Jason Kidd, the Rock, Jordin Sparks, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washinton, W.E.B. DuBois, Vin Diesel, Halle Berry, Lisa Bonet, Jasmin Guy, Tia & Timora Mowrey, Rae Dawn Chong, Eartha Kitt, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sade, Bob Marley, Slash, Solidad O’Brien, etc., etc., etc.

  • Dave

    Social Justice…

    If I am white and you are black, and my dog kills your cow, legal justice demands that I compensate you for your loss. This is clearly not anti-white, because the demands of legal justice would be the same if our colors were reversed.

    If I am white and you are black, and your people have been denied the vote because of the color of your skin while I have been fully enfranchised because of the color of mine, this is both a legal and a social injustice. It demands redress even though that might dilute the voting power of my people.

    Given the ingrained history of race in this country, it’s a challenge to the imagination to consider the situation with the colors reversed but, to get to the moral core of the matter, we are obliged to stretch our imaginations to cover that scenario. Again, it can be seen that the remedy is not anti-white but simply justice.

    For all the pain and sacrifice that went into the civil rights movement, obliterating Jim Crow was the easy part precisely because it could be, and eventually was, accomplished by collective act of will. More difficult to address was the degraded economic status of African-Americans as a result of Jim Crow — and of slavery before that, in that generations had had their labor stolen without being able to accumulate family capital on the basis of that labor. Repairing this situation is one of the most important meanings of social justice today.

    This is complicated by some unfortunate features of inner city African-American poverty culture, for which no living white person is to blame. But it should be clear that efforts to improve the economic access of poor blacks are no more anti-white in principle than the previous scenarios. A particular proposed solution may be anti-white, but that does not taint the entire category. We cannot assess the particular solutions proposed by Rev Wright because, as noted, neither article cited provides any.

    With all that in mind I would raise the question of whether this article belongs in this blog. The article cites Rev Wright’s social justice preaching as a reason for his success but doesn’t give examples. Is this really an instance of the press not getting religion, just because it concerns the utterances of a clergy-man? If instead he were Professor Wright, who packed students into his black-history classes with the same content, would the same omission be an instance of the press not getting academia?

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, it’s an issue for this blog because he is being covered by the press and he’s being covered because he’s mentoring someone who very well might be the next president of the United States. If it’s being covered in the media, that coverage is surely worthy of being discussed here.

    If this was a professor Wright, then no, it wouldn’t be relevent here (unless perhaps it was at a religion-sponsored university.) But it sure would be relevant elsewhere online if someone was preaching Race Envy as some form of warped neo-Marxist view of history and putting a toxic brew of class resentment, unjustifiable anger and pure race hate into impressionable students’ minds, sure.

  • Dave

    Stephen, I don’t deny that covering Rev Wright is an important story. I even think covering Prof Wright would be an important story if, in that imaginary alternative, he were mentoring a leading candidate for President. In both instances, failure of the press to communicate what Wright means by “social justice” is a serious omission. I just don’t see that it’s a failure to “get religion.”

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, he’s a pastor, therefore it’s definitely a failure to “get religion” when stories about him don’t explain what he means by social justice in his sermons and other statements from the pulpit. He clearly means it in a religious sense, inasmuch as his politicized, racialized pronouncements can be called “religious” and don’t slip over into full blown leftist politics. Admittedly, it’s a hard line to discern sometimes with folks on the political and religious Left.

  • Dave

    Stephen, I don’t agree that incomplete background on what a member of the clergy says is a failure to get religion. If he or she were misquoted or the sense of what they said was bungled through the reporter’s misunderstanding, that would be GR.

    I think we have reached the point of repeating ourselves, and neither of us is likely to change the other’s mind. Peace.


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