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When did "social justice" become a bad word?

When did "social justice" become a bad word? September 12, 2010

Okay, I know…”social justice” is two words!  My question is the same–when did this phrase become bad?  Do those who reject it want “social injustice?”  I can hardly imagine it (although I might think their vision of society amounts to that). 

It is a sad commentary on our times when a phrase associated with compassion and the betterment of society becomes a term of approbrium.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it is a shame how some are trying to cast this positive and powerful concept in a bad light.  I hope thinking people will reject that attempt.

Actually, of course, “social justice” is any concept of improving the social order for the good of all people.  It can be and has been used by neo-conservatives as well as progressives.  To be honest, however, it has been linked in the last century especially with progressive movements to establish the common good against rabid individualism.

Surely Martin Luther King, Jr. was a champion of social justice.  When contemporary ultra-conservatives reject “social justice” are they rejecting the civil rights movement?  Perhaps, but I doubt they would want to say so publicly.

Christians especially should be in the forefront of movements for social justice, whether primarily religious or primarily secular.  (That is, we should join with secular people whenever we recognize what they are working for is the genuine betterment of all people.)

This semester, as most, I will be teaching students about the great Baptist social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch–a personal hero of mine (even thought I do not agree with all of the ways in which he handled theology and doctrine).  Also they will read and we will discuss Reinhold Niebuhr, Gustavo Gutierrez and John Howard Yoder.  (Yoder had his own vision of social justice that did not extend to “managing history,” but clearly included a kind of socialistic vision for the church.)  I will also have students read and discuss Michael Novak’s powerful book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.  All that in a course on “Christianity and Social Justice.”

My fear is that this good term “social justice” will be demonized like so many other good terms to the point that it will be virtually impossible to reinvest with its original valuable meaning.  Christians of all political persuasions should stand up and say a loud and resounding “No!” to those who use it pejoratively.

The God of the Bible (Leviticus 25, Amos, etc.) is clearly a God of justice.  Poverty offends God.  How to eradicate poverity (to the greatest extent possible) is something about which we Christians can disagree and keep working toward agreement through dialogue.  But a guest column in my local newspaper yesterday virtually declared that the poor are to blame for their own poverty and should not be our or the government’s concern.

Christian churches of all kinds should vocally condemn such implicit social Darwinism (which I believe lies behind the current condemnations of “social justice”).  One church may prefer “soup, soap and salvation.”  Another one may prefer “community development.”  Yet another may prefer “liberation theology.”  But all are into social justice in some way. 

To our evangelical opinion shapers I say: Please stand up and deliver a resounding rebuke to those who attempt to demean social justice.

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