Christianity 101: On “Social Justice” and the “Justice of God” and the “Justice of the Gospel” in Society
Can you please define separately both terms “social” and “justice”?
How does the concept of “social justice” relate to God’s lordship in/over “societies” (governing structures and systems in society) to effect the divine agenda of “global justice” and “total righteousness” in the world?
Moreover, how does the concept of social justice, both from a theological perspective and the practice and work of the church in society, relate to God’s eschatological (the “already-not-yet” New Testament concept/understanding framework of salvation-history) vision of redemptive emancipation (beyond the spiritual understanding of salvation) and new creation?
In recent conversations about the relationship between social justice and biblical justice, some Evangelical thinkers and pastors have linked the idea of “social justice” to Marxism and Communism. They have argued that Christians should reject the concept and not use it in their vocabulary. Rather, they suggested that Christians should use the notion of “biblical justice” to align with the intention and will of God on the matter of justice. (Yet the God of the Bible who claims to be a morally just Being also portrays himself as a fierce promoter of total and holistic justice, which may entail justice in all its facets and forms: moral, ethical, religious, social, relational, etc. )
Nonetheless, it seems to me that both “social” and “biblical” are adjectives. The first term is associated with society in general, and the second is linked to the society of the biblical world. (Social justice simply means justice in society or in the social realm.) For example, when we use the phrase the “biblical world,” it is doubtful that we are indicating that all that happened (i.e. human actions, plans, and desires) in the world in which the characters and actors of the Bible lived were sponsored or approved by God. By contrast, by deploying the phrase “the biblical world,” we are referring to a particular era or historical time frame in human history in the ancient world (of the Bible). From this perspective, when we say that something is “biblical,” it does not necessarily mean it is approved by God (I understand this is a common usage and understanding in Biblical and Theological Studies). In other words, linguistically speaking, something (i.e. a public policy or legislation to reduce poverty and crime in the city or to stop or reduce the number of abortion in this country) could be said “social” and Christ-centered or God-approved, correspondingly; social does not mean anti-Christ, anti-Christian, anti-Evangelical, or anti-biblical.
For example, the antislavery movement in the United States was a social, political, economic, and moral campaign against the institution of slavery–yet many Christians supported it; some even owned a few slaves. Many Christian abolitionists contributed to the abolition of slavery as a “social movement” or “social institution.” In this case, these Christian abolitionists were engaged in a “social justice” movement, which for many of them the enslavement of another human being or a particular racial group challenged the justice of God in society and dehumanized a group of individuals created in the Image of God. For these Christian abolitionists, the system of slavery was not “socially” just and was against the biblical definition of justice, that is “biblical justice.”
Hence, the phrase “social justice” does not always have to or should always associate with Marxist and Communist ideologies. It is also good to note that many Christian thinkers or non-Christian/secular critics use Marxism as a tool of analysis to investigate and understand the interplays of class relations and economic dynamics in society. To use a theoretical system to understand a philosophy or another system does not automatically indicate that the user of that selected system is a proponent of that school of thought, for example Marxism.
Unfortunately, many Christian thinkers who have not studied Marxism thoroughly as a critical theory or philosophical school quickly associate Marxism with being anti-Christ and anti-Christian. I must also state that Marxism as a philosophical school is not monolithic and homogeneous. There are many versions or manifestations of Marxism, just in Protestant Christianity one may find Baptist, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Church of God, Pentecostalism, Seventh Day Adventist, etc.
Furthermore, one must be very careful not to make this quick parallel or assumption; evidently, classical or orthodox Marxism is atheistic. Does that mean a Christian cannot learn anything meaningful from an atheist or an atheistic thinker? In fact, if Christians have problems with Marxism as an atheistic philosophy, they will have problems with most of the influential philosophers in modern Western philosophy or simply Christians will stop reading modern Western philosophy in general. Arguably, some of the most influential voices in the history of philosophy in Western philosophy were either atheists, agnostic, or anti-Christian. Another example pertains to the disciplines of modern Biology and Physics, most biologists and physicists today reject theistic evolution and theism, which is the popular view in modern Evangelicalism, in general. Some of these biologists (i.e. Richard Dawkins) and physicists (i.e. the late Stephen Hawkins, Neil Degrass Tyson) are radical or moderate atheists. Yet these scientists have made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of scince, human life, and the universe. Should we simply stop reading their work or even stop using their scientific theories just because they do not embrace Christianity or endorse our theological commitment to theism?
The underlying point I’m attempting to convey here is this: it is okay for a Christian thinker or scholar to use, for example, critical theory such as Marxism, postcolonialism, post-structuralism, historical criticism, feminism, critical race theory, etc., as a tool of analysis to examine a phenomenon (Christian thinkers should not construe critical theory as just suspicious, anti-theism, or a form of modern secularism. One could use critical theory in the disciples of Biblical and Theological Studies for different purposes, just like both Old and New Testament scholars have exhausted modern literary approaches to studying the text and world of the Bibles.) By using one of the above schools of thought would not make one less of a Christian or lover of God or one would become a radical or moderate atheist. Christians ought to think rightly, responsibly, critically, and fairly and evaluate human knowledge, data, and phenomenon as active and engaged thinkers and critics in society.
Moreover, God is not a Marxist nor was Jesus a communist-Marxist Galilean preacher. Nonetheless, the Prophetic Tradition of the Hebrew Bible and the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus make a clarion call to the people of God and followers of Christ to be “a people of justice” and to embody in thought and action both moral justice and ethical justice in society and in the world.
Divine justice or righteousness not only has a moral aspect; it always leads to social obligations and responsibilities for the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ. God’s moral virtues, which are intrinsic to his nature and actions in the world, are intertwined with his idea of a justice-centered society, which always bears social obligations for the church, God’s only appointed agent in the world. The Christian understanding of spiritual salvation has tremendous implications that could and must contribute to a more equitable and just society; for example, it might entail Christian highest commitment to the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God in society over Christian commitment to nationalistic ideas and political ideologies, Christian renunciation of human oppression and abuse, Christian commitment to the alleviation of human suffering in the world, Christian commitment to caring for the poor, the sick, and the needy in society, and Christian solidarity with the weak and helpless in the world, especially those whose hope is dependent on God for vindication and deliverance.
Finally, oppressive social structures and systems, which are sinful, demonic, and anti-Christ, contribute to the enslavement of the human soul in society, which is/ could be a hindrance to the effectiveness of the Gospel in people’s lives–if Christians fail to challenge them with the transformative power of the Gospel or just choose to ignore them. Followers of Jesus Christ are individuals who have renounced deliberately their own interests to embrace the interests of Christ and what he values. They have also put aside nationalistic ideologies to transform their community and society with the gospel through sacrificially serving and empowering people (especially the economically-disadvantaged populations in our country and in the world), and unconditionally loving and caring for the needy–both in deed and thought.