How Should Christians View Social Justice?

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Should Christians be concerned about social justice? The question almost answers itself. Of course, we should. After all, since God is unquestionably concerned with justice, can his children be any less? Indeed, it was for justice that Jesus came.

Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations…A bent reed He will not break off and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:1, 3).

One of the increasing difficulties Christians face is that while we use the same words as the world around us, we often don’t attach the same meaning to them.

Many topics could illustrate this, but maybe one of the most relevant to our current cultural climate are the words “social” and “justice.”

Social justice: What does “social” mean?

It might seem simple enough to define “social.” Human beings are by nature social, and so by virtue of living and interacting together we form social groups, or societies. The field of sociology studies these interactions in order to understand what influences our behaviours, attitudes, and cultures.[1] The problem is that we don’t agree with our culture on what humans “by nature” are.

Understanding our social nature and how human society should function begins with God’s nature, not mere observation of human behaviour.

The reason we’re social is because we’re made in the image of a Triune God who is an eternally unified society of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, understanding our social nature and how human society should function begins with God’s nature, not mere observation of human behaviour. That’s why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. Only the eternal, loving fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can supply a true model for human social order.

How is God social?

At the most basic level, God’s social nature is characterized by his other focused, reciprocal, self-giving love. This is reflected in Jesus’ prayer to the Father:[2]

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son, so that the Son may glorify You…Father, glorify me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world existed…for you loved me before the foundation of the world (John 17:1, 5, 24).

Here we find what should be the organizing principle for human social order. Regardless of what broken or sinful dynamics are at work in society, Christians must operate understanding that the ideal for human society is the eternal, relational, self-giving love existing within our Triune Creator.

Of course, this has an unbreakable connection to the issue of justice.

Social justice: What does “justice” mean?

In our podcast episode “Why is Everything Today about Race, Gender, and Identity?, we introduced some of the core assumptions behind the critical social theories that shape how people today think about social justice. Maybe the most pervasive is the Marxist idea that human society is fundamentally organized by power struggles between dominant “oppressor” groups and subordinate “oppressed” groups.

There’s no question that human sin produces power struggles and oppression within society. And yes, this plays a significant role in issues of justice. But the error we must avoid is viewing human society and its problems through such a narrow and unbiblical lens. That’s because it unnecessarily defines all relationships and identity distinctions in terms of conflict rather than in relation to God’s creation design.

Social critical theory unnecessarily defines all relationships and identity distinctions in terms of conflict rather than in relation to God’s creation design.

Here’s a quote reflecting this conflict binary from a popular contemporary social justice textbook that colleges and universities use today:

All major social group categories (such as gender) are organized into binary, either/or identities (e.g. men/women). These identities depend upon their dynamic relationship with one another, wherein each identity is defined by its opposite…Not only are these groups constructed as opposites, but they are also ranked into a hierarchy. This means that one group (men) is positioned as more valuable than its opposite (women).[3]

For critical social justice theory, the problem isn’t that group categories like “men” and “women” can be abused. The problem is that they exist at all. On this view all social binaries are inherently adversarial in their pursuit of power. Therefore, justice is achieved by identifying the social structures which grant “oppressors” power and deconstructing them.

Two problems with critical social justice theory

Here are just two of the many problems with this view.

First, the only way to divest a power structure of its power is through the exertion of power. In effect, bringing justice to the “oppressed” comes by oppressing the “oppressors.” In the end it looks more like retribution than justice. And, once the oppressors become oppressed, the moral authority to pursue justice falls back into their camp. A perpetual cycle of power struggle seems to be the best it can offer.

Second, it denies the very good and beneficial social structures within God’s design for society, most notably those in marriage and the family. It also rejects God’s gift of leadership and authority. Of course, these can and have all been abused at some point. The solution however, is to pursue their just use, not throw them out altogether.

What is biblical justice?

Since God created humanity, and therefore human society, to reflect him, it stands to reason that he’s where we must begin to define real social justice. In Him we find the perfect image of justice in the relational unity that exists in the Trinity.

Realizing this, we immediately find ourselves at irreconcilable odds with contemporary culture’s critical social justice theories. The two things that contemporary social justice theories can’t abide are true categorical distinctions and hierarchy. And yet in God we find both. The very essence of God’s social nature is the distinctiveness between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit living in a hierarchy of submission. We see this reflected so clearly in Jesus’ words:

Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in the same way. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing (John 5:19-20).

…so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me (John 14:31).

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and remind you of all that I said to you (John 14:26).

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, namely, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, He will testify about me (John 15:26).

I like the way that Joe Boot puts it:

As the Father glorifies the Son, the Son glorifies the Father, as each gives the other his due as God. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who likewise mutually indwells the other persons of the Godhead, in giving the Father and Son their due, is not overlooked. [4]

That’s a good way of thinking about it. True justice means giving people what’s due them, according to the place God has given them in the world. For Christians this means gratefully accepting the place God graciously gives us in Christ. And out of that place of security, selflessly submitting to others by giving them their due as people made in his image.

We must be sure to let Scripture, and not culture, guide our understanding of what “social justice” really means.

Conclusion

There are many positives to our present culture’s concerns for social justice. However, as we seek the pursuit of social justice as God desires, we must be sure to let Scripture, and not culture, guide our understanding of what “social justice” really means. This may take a great deal of thought and courage.

Of course, the place for Christians to begin pursuing justice is in the church. This is where we show justice first by applying the truest expression of justice: love for one another.

I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).


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Notes

[1] William Little and Ron McGiverin, Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition, OpenStax College textbook, [accessed November 6, 2020 at https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontosociology/chapter/chapter1-an-introduction-to-sociology].

2 Joe Boot, “The Trinity & Social Justice”, Jubilee, Spring 2015, p. 5.

[3] Ozlem Sensoy & Robin Diangelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, (New York, NY, Teachers College Press, 2017), p. 63.

[4] Joe Boot, “The Trinity and Social Justice”, Jubliee, Spring 2015, p. 6.

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