“Social” Justice (Tim King)

“Social” Justice (Tim King) December 29, 2011

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.

I disagree.

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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Paul W

    For me, the phrase “personal relationship with God” seems quite odd. God is a personal being and humans are personal beings. As I see it any kind of relationship then that exists between them and every aspect of it will be personal in some sense or to some degree. It’s not as if “personal” describes or delimits a subsetted relationship(s). “Personal” does not provide a contrast or distinction to other types or aspects of the ‘God/human’ relationship.

    In the circles I travel the understanding/meaning of justice is typically front-loaded with its more social components. Perhaps that influences why the phrase “social justice” doesn’t generate much in the way of any particular associations for me.

    The competing connotations of ‘social justice’ between Witt and King both strike me as quite unnatural ways to hear the phrase. I simply would not have naturally assumed that the term justice implied that the Christian Gospel is a-social or anti-social until conjoined with a modier like ‘social'(a.k.a. Jonathan Witt). In the same way, I also would not have assumed that the modifier ‘social’ serves as a some type of corrective for a misuse or misunderstanding of the term justice (a.k.a. Tim King).

    When I hear the phrase ‘social justice’ I assume the modifier ‘social’ is used to circumscribe a particular subset of ideas or facets within the more general understanding of the term justice. Thus, ‘social justice’ is used to articulate a set of concerns distinguishable from ‘individual justice’ but not as a contrast to ‘justice’ in general.

    I assume that what one hears ‘naturally’ within Evangelical culture is a bit different.

  • Simon

    I’m guessing here, because I’ve always been close the the Evangelical branch, but never quite in it … seems to me that Evangs tend to use so much of the biblical langauge of justice / justification / righteousness to refer narrowly to “God’s punishment of (moral) sinners” and similarly “God’s punishment of Christ as substitute”. This technical definition of many of the key justice texts leads to an other-worldly gnosticism, a rejection of the the body and its needs, and more importantly my neighbour’s body and her needs. I’m sure the Evang obsession with individuals and willful ignorance of anything collective / corporate intensifies this subjectivism. Just my two cents.

  • Scot, I get Tim’s point too, but I affirm what you have said: that a biblical understanding of justice means we don’t have to add a modifier. The other thing about the modifier “social” is that it imposes an unwarranted bifurcation on matters of justice, some seen as social and others not. Why isn’t abortion a matter of social justice? Why isn’t deficit spending a social justice issue?

  • Tim Seitz-Brown

    Tim has a great series at the Sojourners blog on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

    Meanwhile, I look forward to cosmic justice and cosmic salvation– a justice and salvation that also includes each of us personally.

  • DanS

    My problem with “social” justice lies precisely with the words “justice deals with systems and structures within a society”. The implications are many. One is that if you change the system or structure then justice will occur. That in a way absolves us of individual responsibility.

    We then have to ask “which systems and structures are inherently unjust”. Is capitalism inherently unjust? The banking system? The immigration laws? The laws governing voting rights? Is the reason we still tolerate abortion, prostitution, pornography and turn a blind eye to persecution of Christians in other countries something that is the fault of “systems and structures”? Will “hate crimes” laws end racism?

    Will the changes to the structures certain folks want to make lead to greater justice or only complicate things and shift the burden from one disenfranchised group to another? Will an emphasis on “structures” lead to a top heavy mass of laws, regulations, legal wrangling, grievances and systemic fixes that in the end rob us all of our individual responsibilities.

    Ultimately a free-market democracy is based on the idea of self-government and the “structures” are what we make of them. The burden of “justice” rests with all of us as individuals acting justly, and the more that happens the less need for “structures”. I’m not a libertarian, but I do think we’re way out of balance.

  • T


    Yes to this: “We then have to ask ‘which systems and structures are inherently unjust’.” The examples he cites, slavery and apartheid, were good systems to dismantle, no?

    While some would say that “capitalism” or “banking” are so inherently unjust that they should be similarly dismantled, I don’t think that’s what the author is getting at (especially given his examples of slavery and apartheid).

    Regardless, I completely agree with your point that justice is not and cannot be merely a matter of structures and systems (i.e., laws). That, too, is my problem with the way that fans of “social” justice use the term–the hope for justice seems placed squarely if not exclusively on changes to laws. For that reason, I disagree with the author’s ultimate loyalty to the modifier. If we seek “justice” or “righteousness” in our world, I can easily recommend several laws that need changing, but I’d much rather focus on making more and better disciples of Jesus (teaching them to do everything Jesus commanded).

  • T

    Also, FWIW, I think the modifier “social” before justice is used to denote not only a focus on political changes, but political changes of the Democratic Party variety (for the US that is), which is another reason to drop it, IMO. If we just say instead that something is “just” or “unjust” we more directly appealing to right and wrong, to God’s own character and will, rather than any particular party.

  • Susan N.

    Amen, and,
    Amen! (in direct response to the final three sentences)

    O Lord, make it so in me, and in and through the Church, for the world.

    Big blow-up (complete with tears and yelling) with teen daughter yesterday, mostly over a misunderstanding of words. I share this because I am keenly aware of how much power our words can have. It means something what we say, and how we say it. I often feel, in the hotly debated issues on religion or politics, that division often boils down to semantics. Until understanding is reached, perceived (or real) differences make it very difficult to communicate and come together without an overly emotional reaction.

    In response to the suggestion that by dropping the “social” a purer meaning of God’s justice will be understood, I know plenty of people who use the word “justice” as a stand-alone who really mean “biblical” (a/k/a OT, ANE) justice.

    Yes, the Democratic political party has strongly identified with specific “social” justice causes, but I would politely assert that the Republican political party has become strongly identified with its own pet causes. Christians who read their Bibles have come to different interpretations of “justice”, and have chosen their political party/causes accordingly. So, in the culture at large, what does dropping the “social” in favor of simple justice achieve in better defining ourselves as Christian?

  • Bob Brooke

    It is noteworthy that this word is not found in the NT, and rarely in the OT. Being justified, or being in right relationship, can be used both of man to man and man to God. Everywhere it is possible man to man; but there is nothing man can do to secure justification before God. (Ps. 143:2; Job 25:4) In the biblical sense, the “social” modifier is certianly redundant.

  • T


    My point is about effective communication and even persuasion. For example, imagine the following alternative statements:

    “This is required as a matter of justice.”

    “This is required as a matter of social justice.”

    I want to suggest that you will have lost about half the population with the latter statement before you’ve even gone on to describe the issue. Why? Because many will hear “Democratic Party affiliate” in the “social” modifier. I have rarely seen that be helpful unless you are talking to Democrats.

    Similarly, Wallis’ (relatively recent?) mantra that “budgets are moral documents” is very smart, IMO. Even if people disagree with his priority of morals, he’s grounding budget debates in theories of justice, of morals, of right and wrong. He even goes further with attempting to ground such discussions in Jesus’ priorities. In doing so, he’s at least bringing evangelicals to a discussion they have strong reasons to engage in thoughtfully. By contrast, “social” justice is lumped in with “social” gospel for many, which carries negative connotations for many evangelicals, thereby killing conversation before it begins.

  • JohnM

    I agree with T. To the left of center I’d kindly point out that employing the term ‘social justice’ isn’t getting you anywhere outside your own circles. Is persuasion and change your goal, or do you just want to feel good about yourselves?

    I say that while admitting I sometimes find particular applications of the term puzzling. I find myself asking ‘why would you call THAT justice?’.

    Finally, “Christians, especially those of a younger generation, have grabbed on to the “social” modifier for justice ..” I wonder if that’s true or if there are some Christians who haven’t figured out they’re not the younger generation anymore. 😉

  • Susan N.

    T (#10) – Yes, thanks for this further discussion. I understand where you are coming from. You really can’t begin to know how sick I am of politics (of religion and state). I hate that words are used as weapons; that people can’t even talk to each other about “social” issues of justice that affect all of us, and reflect — for better or for worse — on our understanding of and relationship with God. I find that justice is a very complex issue, in real-world terms. I have to keep asking myself what is right or wrong, and what is the best way to act or vote, and continually be willing to change my mind.

    I did read both of the linked articles in full. Tim King provides a sound rebuttal to Witt’s arguments that American social programs and international aid are a proven, documented failure. I found Tim King’s article to be of a more peacemaking tone; I could barely stand to read the Witts article — so unnecessarily contemptuous in tone to my eyes and ears.

    Beyond use of gentle and gracious words, I think it matters most that we act upon our stated values in a way that conveys to the world that we mean what we say. Can our actions define the language more eloquently?

    One thing that Witt wrote seemed true to me. Justice is not only done at the political, systemic level. It is practiced at an individual, neighbor-to-neighbor level also. Does one cancel the need for the other, though?

  • T

    Susan N.

    Amen. It is odd and “unjustifiable” that justice should be conceived of in either individual OR systemic ways. I think slavery, Jim Crow laws, and many others are obvious examples of injustice that have become systemic and need systemic changes. It is not difficult to imagine other examples. But, yes, we more and deeper disciples of Christ: people increasingly living his creed and praying his prayer, more than any change of laws.

  • Alan R

    I wonder if Witt thinks “social” is a weasel word because “justice” loses its sense of punishment when the two words are joined.

    Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent book [Justice: Rights and Wrongs] explores the biblical meaning of the word in Old and New Testament language. “Justice,” as a standalone word, doesn’t necessarily mean retributive judgment to biblical writers, as both Witt and King and many of us seem to assume. That’s our English language shading our understanding of the word. Mishpat and dikaios have a different sense. Try rereading “Let justice roll down” while thinking shalom and righteousness rather than juridical proceedings and judgment.

  • DRT

    I was thinking in a similar direction as Alan. ISTM that many (most?) evangs make justice = due punishment. That is why the modifier is needed.

  • Tim

    I see the choice this way:

    Pharaoh system versus manna/God system

    Pyramid system versus daily bead for everyone system

    U.S./global politics certainly tilted in one direction

    Ask yourself, is this how it is in heaven?

  • DLS

    The problem isn’t whether ‘social’ is used or not; the problem is what ‘social justice’ means in the first place. The problem is that proponents have conflated valid social justice causes with ridiculous and wrongheaded ones (and, frankly, ones that cause injustice rather than alleviate it).

  • To paraphrase A. MacIntyre, “Whose social justice?” Isn’t the problem with social justice its vagueness? I read Jim Wallis’s “God’s Politics” and he uses the OT like a fundamentalist. “Why that text and not this Jim?”

    So I would agree that “social” might be a necessary modifier against the background of claiming Christ as a “personal savior,” but as others have suggested, why does social justice only seem to mean select issues?

    Coming out of a focus on personal salvation, I find myself hesitant to join my friends who speak of social justice because of this vagueness.

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    “Amen. It is odd and “unjustifiable” that justice should be conceived of in either individual OR systemic ways. I think slavery, Jim Crow laws, and many others are obvious examples of injustice that have become systemic and need systemic changes.”

    Note the examples selected: slavery and Jim Crow laws. Both examples of overturning systems that directly infringed upon people’s freedom to act. This is why you won’t find many people disagreeing with a government-centered solution to them. At minimum, all sides of the debate agree that at least one of government’s proper purposes is to protect the liberty of the governed.

    Once you turn to matters that — in common, modern vernacular — are recognized as “social justice” issues, you move beyond the basic consensus agreement on a minimum role of government that protects liberty and (mostly) maintains a monopoly of force and into territory where the government is enforcing additional moral behavior, for example, that it is wrong to be greedy, and that — if a particular system encourages greed — that system must be overturned.

    But once you address something like that, why stop there? Why not enforce all of the sexual purity moral code? After all, people are often hurt (sometimes experiencing lifelong pain) as the result of ill-timed premarital sex. And why not enforce one of Jesus’ most important commands, the requirement to love others? What about not lying? Not committing adultery? Never being angry with another person? What about the more contentious issues, even among Christians? For example, should women submit to their husbands? Should homosexual sex be disallowed? The fact that some of these can be — and often are — disputed is part of the point I am making.

    The vast majority of people agree that ONE of the roles of government is to protect liberty (hence, overthrowing slavery and Jim Crow laws), but people don’t agree on the level to which the government should involve itself beyond these (and a several other) concerns. So it becomes very difficult — at least from my perspective — to decide where the government should stop.

    I’ve often wondered whether the purpose of human government is to allow people to make free, morally important decisions without constant unprovoked coercion and violence being inflicted upon them from other humans. That’s all speculation though, compared to the more practical issues I mentioned above.

  • Thanks for directing us to Tim’s article, Scot. I think “justice” is misconstrued by a majority of folks to the narrow “crime & punishment” thread Tim noted. Would you happen to have handy any theological authors/works which broadly look at OT & NT “justice” and its full-orbed meaning within contexts & words (mishpat, tzedekah, dikaiosune, etc.), that you would be able to commend to us? I was just searching my own library for such a writer, today…

    While I understand that “social” has become a loaded modifier in today’s parlance to the word, “justice”, yet I think it a fruitless exercise to try to keep modifying our language to be heard, properly. Insofar as a simple adjective is permitted to alienate any person from a discussion, we’re in more troubling waters than “social”. We need ears to hear one another, and hearts soft toward one another, so that a “social” here and a “job creator” there can’t be used to mask our need to cooperate for the good of our communities & nation.

    Allan, I would say that abortion is a social justice issue, but it may not always be well-adapted to the conservatives’ inclination. Battered women and impoverished women face obstacles many conservatives won’t acknowledge. Add pregnancy… Healing justice sees and loves the whole woman, reaches into her context and walks alongside her & her baby(ies).

    Deficit spending also clearly evidences injustice in the accumulation of the debt and in the proposals to begin whittling away debt.

  • By the way, Witt’s article was remarkable in his grimly negative depictions of the poor and single mothers. As George Gilder put it in Wealth and Poverty, the underclass husband and father was “cuckolded by the compassionate state,” a violation which has incited “that very combination of resignation and rage, escapism and violence, short horizons and promiscuous sexuality that characterizes everywhere the life of the poor.” This is phrased to imply, ISTM, that the poor are somehow the only humans who commit such sins; if our personal experiences among the wealthier & more educated don’t flatly contradict that allusion, our news reports and Bible should!

    He then (imho, speciously) appealed to an article pre-dating by 7 years the welfare reform enacted in 1996, to allege that single women bear children for welfare checks…

  • Alan R

    Ann, I’d highly recommend taking a look at Wolterstorff’s Justice for a rigorous and moving look at justice in all its biblical citations. It’s a hard book to find, but you can get a glimpse through books.google by searching for wolterstorff + mishpat.

  • phil_style

    I think the controversy is a red-herring because modifier has been interpreted around the wrong way.

    The word “social” is not a modifier of “justice”, but the origins of the term come from the modification of “social” by the word “justice”.

    i.e. you have social-work, social-welfare, social-justice.

  • T


    On your “where do we stop” question, the first key is to find theological and even jurisprudential tools that can help. The libertarian philosophy you used is not especially helpful on that question. For example, we currently have bankruptcy laws that are at least inspired by the restrictions on Israelite slavery and debt in the OT. The kind of minimalist libertarian jurisprudence that is popular with some today has, as you say, no clear set of reasons to support such a measure. But for the Christian, we must deal with why our genius God would institute such measures in Israel and whether we’d be fools to not learn from them and attempt to follow suit in our society. Further, we have very strong reasons to allow such economic features of God’s laws (as opposed to ritual purity features, for example) to inform our sense of what a just society is. Again, our starting place for such concepts is generally God and his actions and ideas, and not libertarianism or some such similar recent human construct.

    Ease and even wisdom of enforcement is also a point to consider which helps us on the “where to stop” question. But before we get to “where to stop?” for justice, we need to ask “where to start?.” And for Christians, the place to start is with God, his story, his actions, his revelation, his Son.

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    “But for the Christian, we must deal with why our genius God would institute such measures in Israel and whether we’d be fools to not learn from them and attempt to follow suit in our society.”

    “Ease and even wisdom of enforcement is also a point to consider which helps us on the “where to stop” question.”

    Thanks for a well-thought out response. But I find those sentences to be an odd pairing. First, you point out — correctly — that we must be very careful in deciding what rules God has for Israel that we are going to leave out. After all, God is a genius and it’d be crazy to ignore the government he set up.. But then you ask whether enforcement of some of those sames rules would be “easy or wise.”

    I guess that’s my point. If one wants to argue that we have to implement certain economic laws (which, surprise surprise, happen to nearly always comport with their own *feeling* regarding politics and what constitutes a just society) because they were given by God to the Israelis, how can one then reject a *full* implementation of such laws by pointing out that they might be hard to enforce? And why would we ever consider it unwise to implement some of God’s laws?

    It seems folks far too often pick and choose laws and implied laws from the Old Testament to impose on their neighbors, because they — for reasons other than that they just appear in the Old Testament — happen to like them. You cannot say to your fellow citizen who disagrees “Why enforce laws preventing ‘greed’ (ie, free market capitalism)? Because the Bible says so, there can be no argument! Why not enforce the law saying a disobedient son must be stoned? Well, that would just be imprudent or difficult!”

    One might have other reasons to justify the inclusion of “social justice” type laws in our legal code, but it can’t just be “because God told the Israelis that something vaguely similar was a good idea” unless you’re prepared to have that logic applied to every law in the Old Testament (or at least those that clearly have an impact on the righteousness of a society.)

    Also, to be clear, I am definitely not arguing for the implementation of some libertarian ideal because it is a libertarian ideal. Rather, I am just wondering whether it might be wise to stop where the vast, vast majority of citizens agree. Nearly everyone agrees that one of the things a government should do is to prevent violence and coercion, and protect our ability to act freely.

  • T


    There is always a realistic and practical limitation of where the majority of citizens agree, especially in a republic. But that doesn’t really tell us much of what we want to know about what is “just” or best for a society’s legal framework. Further, there are lots of reasons why we don’t (and even can’t) apply the OT or even the NT in a straight one-to-one fashion, nor am I arguing for such. Nor am I saying we should just pick and choose what we like from the OT (or NT) and call that justice. Rather, even though we cannot make one-to-one application of the ways that the OT law required care for the poor, debt forgiveness, and regular equitable distribution of capital (land), we need to look at those provisions and study what they were doing, how they were doing it and why, if the subject we are contemplating (as Christians) is economic justice within a society. There is plenty of middle ground between complete irrelevance and one-to-one application of those provisions. Our bankruptcy code is one such attempt; usury laws are another. The fact that many evangelicals don’t even know about those connections or even attempt that kind of study when considering economic “justice” issues is out of step with their biblical loyalties and a shame.

  • jared nuzzolillo

    I think we are basically in agreement, or at least as far as we will likely will be. If the idea behind social justice is that *Christians* should carefully consider whether to apply the specific laws as defined in the Old Testament and dutifully apply those commands found in the New Testament to their own lives, I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. If one further contends that we wouldn’t want to forget those things (bearing in mind that they were given to Israel, not as a perfect universal moral code, but as a “comrpomise” legal code designed specifically for the Israelis) when considering our approach to republican government, I completely agree as well.

    My problem is only when folks act like it is a forgone conclusion, that because there existed some law given to Israel, of course we should impose that upon all of our neighbors, through force. And that Christians who reject that premise are rejecting Gods law.

    I look forward to studying further the connections between our current laws and the biblical laws. It’s just been trying of late that folks I’m around tend to act like a progressive left democracy backed by government force as defined by American leftists is literally enshrined in the Biblical narrative 😉

    I seem to recall a beautiful and *voluntary* society marked by extreme charity lived by the first Christians as described in Acts. Again, *at minnimum* I think we can agree that this is something we should all strive for.

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    Wow, and just when I was wondering if I could come up with something of an example, I find this gem in another comment on this site:

    “A Christian who condones capitalism is a false Christian as much as a slaver or child rapist is a false Christian.”

    This is exactly why I’ve been frustrated lately. And this is why I think I tend to overreact just a little to folks who in any way imply that forcibly applying leftist principles to our neighbors is commanded by God. Sigh.

    Over the past few months, I am seeing more and more Christians trying to argue that Christianity implies (some level of) socialism. Is there any doubt that they are being influenced by Occupy Wall Street, a largely secular movement? Sigh. I suppose it’s equally likely that they have long felt this way, but only recently has it become fashionable to say so. Of course, I recognize that many have always felt that way and have always said so. I am speaking of my own limited experience here.

  • T


    As a side note about me, I majored in economics in college, but focused on monetary policy and was a big fan of Friedman and supply side theories. I still respect them and current Fed. reserve thinking. But even though I grew up in the church, or perhaps because of the churches I grew up in, I grew up with the idea that the Bible, if it ‘endorsed’ any economic system, it was libertarian, every-man-for-himself capitalism. It wasn’t until law school as I finally started reading the OT law for any wisdom it contained (instead of ignoring it, disdainfully, as I thought Paul encouraged), that I realized that I had a priority structure, a paradigm even, for economic/social policy that was much, much more about being an American than a Christian. Yes, I do believe God desires individual economic freedom for people, but I had put it at the top of the priority list far above all else. I thought it should be as unrestrained as possible. I had no conception of why God would have all these economic limitations, all these serious forms of mandated mercy that Israel’s rich were to follow vis a vis its poorer and/or indebted fellows. The OT laws give general economic freedom, but they also mandate serious and powerful and repeated helps to those falling behind. I’m not a Christian socialist by any stretch. But I grieve when I hear most Christians talk about economic policies. Too many talk as if God mandated libertarianism in Israel when he served as their King.

    As for the “we can’t enforce our Judeo-Christian ideas/wisdom for government on our unbelieving neighbors”–First, the key is to look at the reasoning and goals behind the economic policies of debt forgiveness, Jubilee, etc. The fact is, a great number of people of any faith or no faith find the goals of reducing systemic, generational poverty a worthy and cost-effective goal for any society. Many find it important to limit how much interest one citizen can charge another, or how far a citizen can indebt himself to another. Many see a value in keeping wealth-producing capital accessible to all in some measure (Jubilee), as well as giving people fresh-starts from their and/or their parents mistakes. But just because our scriptures give us wonderful examples on all these fronts, we don’t have to propose them as articles of faith to be swallowed blindly, but we can certainly offer these goals as wisdom to be considered and discussed. Ironically, I see more push-back on these things from conservative Christians than anyone else, and the secular folks find it the most persuasive! So, this is not a separation of church and state issue. It’s a matter of what we believe our society should pursue and how.