Social Justice: According to whom? Which kind?

One of the most notable features of American evangelicalism in the last generation has been a powerful surge toward “social justice.” At times it is no different than the old-fashioned social gospel, at times it simply catches up to mainline Protestantism — and most of the time evangelicals have completely ignored the rigorous and comprehensive thinking on “social justice” on the part of Roman Catholics. Whatever one makes of it — and I’m both deeply appreciative of the commitment to justice and at the same time concerned that it becomes far too political — one can’t deny the radical commitment to social justice on the part of evangelicalism. In the days of fundamentalism, so the story goes, social justice fell off the table.

But what does social justice mean?

What is the most common meaning at work when you hear “social justice”?

Three big ideas. First, the term “justice” runs right through the Old Testament (tsedek, tsedeqah, tsaddik) into the NT’s use of the term “justice” and “righteousness” and “justification.” This Jewish theme of words refers to God being just/righteous, to God’ revealing his will to God’s people, and to God’s people conforming to God’s will. The “just” person is the one who lives out God’s will — and this will is comprehensive. To be “just” is to be Torah observant in a comprehensive way.

Second, in classical Greek the term “just” refers to a virtue of someone whose character had been formed through the habits of living in light of the laws and telos of the polis and lived it out for the common good of that polis. Yet, in classical Greece and Rome there is a vision of the virtuous person who lives out that vision — it is not so much a society as it is personal character formation. Of course, a society composed of just persons will be a just society.

Third, the modern term has gotten fuzzy, and the best sketch I’ve seen how the term is used today — when scholars, when politicians, when bloggers, when pastors and priests, when skinny jeans activists use this expression, can be found in Michael Novak and Paul Adams, with Elizabeth Shaw, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is.  In chp 2 Novak, whose memoir is called Writing from Left to Right, provides six varieties of social justice as found in “secular” usage, but he has his eye on the progressives (and not Roman Catholics, and I’ll provide his understanding of social justice in Catholic thinking at the end):

1. It means “distribution”: some kind of fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages. For this to happen requires federal government power.

2. Or it means “equality”: he opines that this far too often means “equality-as-uniformity.” He is among the many today who more than wonder about the viability of a pursuit of equality — who decides? how is this achieved?

3. Or it means the “common good”: The 2d Vatican spoke to this theme with this: “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (31). Here Novak contends the emphasis is on opportunity, but he thinks the common usage of social justice as common good runs again into the problem of Who decides what is the common good? Communism operated totally from the notion of common good, and CS Lewis worried about “omnipotent moral busybodies” (32). And what happens when the common good violates a person’s freedom or rights?

4. Or it means the “progressive agenda”: Novak critiques this with this explanation of the agenda: “activists on behalf of larger government and more spending for their favorite causes: the poor, Planned Parenthood, solar and wind power, restrictions on the use of fossil fuels, and two of their most passionately held causes, abortion and gay marriage” (33). He goes on on p. 34: “Nanny, nanny, everywhere the nanny state. Progressives now play the role that Puritans used to play in saying no. No smoking, no ozone, no gun-ownership, no this, that, and the other thing… it is the relentless nagging in the progressive character than is new and troubling.”

5. Or it means “New Civil Rights: Gender, Sex, Reproduction.” Civil rights set the agenda, the method, the manner, the morality and now other issues are defended by use of the same method, manner, and morality.

6. Or it means “compassion.” He knows it comes in a true and a false form, but the question for him is what results from the justification a variety of platforms and practices that are shaped by compassion.

Which all leads to how Roman Catholic thought — in Novak’s mind — comprehends social justice. Here is his point:

It is a personal virtue, not a social vision; its “specific character is social in two ways: the skill in forming associations, and the aim of benefiting the human community” (24-25). As such — and this is big for Novak — it turns to the federal government as little as possible.

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About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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