Justice vs. Social Justice
Justice is one of the most important topics in the Bible.
God himself is just and he expects his people to be just as well.
But how do Christians apply the principle of justice today?
This requires spiritual discernment and can vary from person to person since the principle of justice can be applied in many different ways.
One way to help Christians discern how to apply biblical justice is to explain the difference between the biblical term, “justice” and the popular term, “social justice” as it is used today.
In one sense, all “biblical justice” is “social justice” because justice has to do with how we treat others in society. But the term, “social justice”, as most people understand it today, has taken on some specific meanings that are important for us to be aware of if we’re going to have meaningful conversations about justice in our context today.
What does the Bible mean by “justice”?
Here’s how the Holman Bible Dictionary defines biblical justice: “Justice has two major aspects. First, it is the standard by which penalties are assigned for breaking the obligations of the society. Second, justice is the standard by which the advantages of social life are handed out, including material goods, rights of participation, opportunities, and liberties. It is the standard for both punishment and benefits and thus can be spoken of as a plumb line. “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line (Isaiah 28:17, NIV).”
So, biblical justice refers to both the standard we use for punishing wrong behavior in society and ensuring that there is equity and fairness in society. Thus, “justice” is “the plumb line” (or measuring stick) for a righteous society, according to God’s Word.
Psalm 97:2 says that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” Simply put, “righteousness” is “what’s right”, and “justice” is “what’s fair”. So, God’s throne rests on what’s “right” and “fair”. In other words, God is all about what’s right and fair.
That’s why God hates injustice, partiality, and bribery (2 Chronicles 19:7). And he wants us to protect those who are particularly vulnerable to these abuses: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4)
Thus, God wants his people to have his heart: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly (fairly) and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
What does “social justice” mean today?
Today, the term “social justice” is used quite a bit. When some use the term, they are essentially thinking of biblical justice and are concerned that the marginalized are being treated fairly. But there is also another definition of "social justice” in use today that refers to the political and philosophical view that the government is responsible for bringing about egalitarian (equal) outcomes in society.
“Social justice tends to focus more on just relations between groups within society as opposed to the justice of individual conduct or justice for individuals… In economic terms, this often means redistribution of wealth, income, and economic opportunities from groups whom social justice advocates consider to be oppressors to those whom they consider to be the oppressed. Social justice is often associated with identity politics, socialism, and revolutionary communism.” (“Social Justice”, Investopedia)
This redistribution of wealth is premised on the idea that certain groups have been wronged by society, and it is therefore society's responsibility to make sure those groups are taken care of. The idea is to take from those who are deemed to be privileged and give to those who are not.
According to this view, this redistribution of wealth can be accomplished in many ways, including such things as welfare programs, affirmative action programs, race reparations, or even more significant measures.
This approach to bringing about societal justice differs from the more individualized approach of those who believe the best solutions to societies inequities should come from people voluntarily giving to the poor, supporting various charities, and individually or in non-governmental collective ways helping those in need.
Take home points
To be clear, I am not advocating for or against social justice as the term is used today. That is a political and philosophical position that Christians are free to have or not have.
What I am trying to do is point out the following:
Among Bible believing Christians, being just in our relationships and doing our part to bring about justice in our society are absolute requirements of God.
But how we go about that in our society today is a debatable matter, often overlapping the realm of politics and opinion.
That doesn’t mean we should stay away from those discussions. It means we should be careful that we don’t judge each other harshly or unfairly for holding different opinions about the causes, solutions, and best ways to address the inequities in American society.
God’s Word urges us to not quarrel “over disputable matters… Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification… Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 14:1, 13, 19; 15:7)
America today is tragically deadlocked in a stalemate of increasingly polarized political and philosophical positions that too often label each other, demonize each other, and hurt each other horribly.
But God’s people are not to treat each other that way. We are to disagree without being disagreeable, and be united in Christ without having to hold one unified opinion about disputable matters (i.e. politics).
Can we do it, church?
The future of our racially, socially, and politically diverse church depends on it.