Tim King is a former student of mine, works with Jim Wallis, and is pointing out something I would affirm. The word “social” has been added to the word “justice” because “social” has been too often neglected. Having said that, though, I would plead with us to learn to use the word “justice” biblically — it refers to being right with God, with self, with others, with the world — so that we don’t have to add “social” (with others, with the world) and so we can cease with our gnostic-like spirituality where it is only “me and God.”
Justice, properly understood in a biblical sense, always has social implications.
Personal salvation is redundant in the same way. Salvation, properly understood in a biblical sense, while it may have broader implications, is always personal in nature.
Why the modifiers?
In a column last week for the American Spectator, Jonathan Witt calls the “social” in social justice a “weasel word”. He writes about social business, social justice and the social gospel:
In all three of these phrases, the common weasel word sucks some of the essential meaning out of what it modifies by implying that business, justice, and the Christian Gospel are a-social, or even anti-social, until conjoined with a mysterious something else.
The modifier “social” doesn’t suck the essential meaning from any of those terms but rather serves as a corrective for misuse or misunderstandings of those terms.
When it comes to salvation, the modifier “personal” highlights that salvation requires personal agency. You don’t experience salvation passively or through others but by an act of personal will.
When it comes to justice, the modifier “social” highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.
No one should have to use loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, or good to modify the word Christian. Those are all the fruits of the Spirit that Paul said Christians should exhibit. Unfortunately, that’s not how many people experience Christians, which means that, while those modifiers should be unnecessary, they often are helpful in conveying intended meaning.
Christians, especially those of a younger generation, have grabbed on to the “social” modifier for justice because they have seen previous generations fail to give it it’s proper place.
But now, the change has been substantial….
I am ready to concede the point that if we properly define our terms, the “social” in social justice and the “personal” in personal salvation should both be dropped. But, I’m not willing to stop using the modifier “social” when it comes to justice until Christians fully engage the biblical definition of justice.
Someday, justice will be flowing like a river and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
On that day, we won’t be fighting about whether or not it is “social” justice or just plain old justice that is rolling.