Biblical Justice in a Social Justice World

There is a lot of discussion around justice in our society today, especially the idea of social justice. This discussion is happening both inside and outside of the church. For that reason, I have spent a good deal of time reading arguments made by both Christians and non-Christians on social justice.  The more I read the clearer it becomes Christians need to do a better job when we talk about justice, and by better I mean we need to be more biblical in our understanding and practice of justice, because when we get justice wrong, we undermine the core of God’s work in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.26).

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Social justice is a term that appears to be intentionally vague and hard to define. This allows the term to be used as a weapon which is constantly morphing to fit each situation. Something that is not defined is hard to understand and even harder to critique. To bring clarity to any discussion, sound definitions are needed. For that reason, I offer the following definition of social justice, “Social justice is the equal distribution of advantages, disadvantages, wealth, privileges, and opportunities within a society.”

Agree or disagree with that definition, and whether this is indeed just or unjust, it gives us a place to start to understand it. So should the Christian be for or against social justice? To answer that question we need to understand what the Bible teaches about justice in general, only then can we apply it to our situations.

Ronald Nash summarized this challenge for Christians well in his book Social Justice & the Christian Church. According to Nash, one of our biggest problems is that whenever we see the word justice we bring a singular meaning to it which is more shaped by our modern ideas than by biblical ones. Nash wrote, “It is disconcerting to see someone quote a biblical text containing the word ‘justice,’ ignore all questions about the particular meaning the term has in that context, and simply presume that the verse functions as a proof-text for his position.”

Proof-texting happens far too often in this discussion when we fail to acknowledge the Bible uses the term justice in many different and nuanced ways. If we fail to realize the term justice has a range of meaning, we end-up forcing our understanding of justice on a particular text, and even on all of scripture. I want to offer three truths about biblical justice which can help us to clear the fog around the topic of justice in the Bible.

The Bible Speaks of Both Universal Justice & Particular Justice

When we read the word justice in the Bible, it can fall under two different basic meanings. One of these board uses (universal justice) though nearly forgotten today was very common in the ancient world. If we hope to understand scripture’s teaching on justice then we need to understand the differences in how the term is used. Only then can we hope to apply it to today.

The first basic meaning of justice is the idea of universal justice. This is used to describe a person who is just, or better yet, righteous. It is used to describe virtues which are desirable and good for individuals.  This type of justice is universal because all people can and should practice this in their character. The idea of personal virtue is not a common topic today, but it was in the ancient world. This use of justice describes someone who is a good person, who is morally upright, a person who others should emulate. Under this use of justice, we find upstanding character traits and practices such as generosity, gracefulness, kindness, sincerity, mercy,  etc.

For example, someone who gives charity to the poor can be described as “just” but we should note this use is not talking about righting an injustice or immoral act. It is merely someone who is virtuous or behaving in a morally upright way.

This distinction is important to remember because if we take passages which are promoting virtues as actually talking about injustice and oppression, we end up doing violence to a text and we end up with an unbalanced understanding of God’s teaching on justice.

The second umbrella definition of justice is particular justice. This is more in line with what we normally think about with justice—laws, courts, punishments, fairness, righting wrongs, etc. This type of justice is particular because it requires particular circumstances in order for it to come into effect. Particular justice can be carried out in many areas of life including marketplaces, courtrooms, governments, covenants, etc.

What we must learn from this distinction is the importance of knowing the individual context of a passage when it talks about justice. Is this text referring to universal or particular justice? Only after we know what use of justice we are talking about, can we then do the hard work of interpreting and applying it to today.

A good example of this is Micah 6.8 which is often used by those promoting the idea of social justice. In this passage, God tells the people to do “justice” by loving covenant faithfulness (hesed) and by walking humbly with God. This passage is misinterpreted often as a reference to particular justice. But a simple look at the context reveals God is rebuking Israel for breaking the covenant they had with him (Micah 1.2-7; 6.1-5). So he exhorts them to personal righteousness by practicing covenant faithfulness (hesed) by returning to walk with God in humility. To do justice is to be righteous through keeping the covenant. This passage is about universal justice primarily, and God calling Israel to covenant restoration. This passage has nothing to do with the common understanding of social justice.

The Core of Particular Justice

The core meaning of particular justice is giving someone what is his due. It is to give a person what he earned, deserved, or has a right to. When someone breaks a law they have earned punishment. To issue a fair punishment is to practice particular justice by giving a criminal his due. To refuse to punish the individual is to do an injustice. To over punish the individual is also to commit an injustice.

Particular justice does not guarantee equality of outcome from person to person. Rather, in order for justice to occur, inequality of outcome is sometimes necessary. Justice is about getting one’s due, which means one person may earn a high grade and another a low grade. One person may be due to make more money than another because of his superior skills. This inequality of outcome is not a sign of injustice; rather it is a sign particular justice has occurred.

What about when we do not get our due? This can be one of two things. First, it can be an act of grace or mercy. God shows us grace through the death of Jesus Christ, he gives us what we did not earn and could never earn. This is a good thing, and it is just thing in the sense of universal justice. God though also dealt with the particular justice needed through the atoning death of Christ.

Second, if you get something which is not your due it can also be an injustice. If you are convicted of a crime you did not commit, you are receiving something which is not your due. This is an injustice.

Justice is Inseparable from Morality

The idea of justice, both universal and particular, is impossible without an ultimate moral standard. How can we determine what is good, right, and just if there are no universal moral standards? How can we determine if an action was just, or a ruling just, without appealing to a moral authority? We can’t. So much of the disagreement in our society today about ideas of justice reveals more about someone’s moral code and authority than anything else.

The Bible offers us clear guidance on what justice is and what it is not. It should not surprise us then the moral standards of scripture differ greatly from the moral standards of many who today promote social justice. Because justice is always linked with moral standards and authority, is it any surprise so many Christians are slow to endorse a term which is promoted by an openly hostile worldview which is morally bankrupt and based on an immoral authority?

The term social justice, as it is defined and argued for today, is not a biblical term and it stems from a moral code which at its core is immoral. Some Christians think we should try to redeem the term, but I am of the opinion the term’s current definition and the lack of the term’s use in scripture make this unnecessary and even unwise.

Other well-meaning Christians think Christians today are so misunderstood by the world at large that if we would just get with the social justice movement we could earn a seat at the table. Perhaps though, it is us who fail to understand that the moral standards and moral authority propping up the social justice movement is anti-Christ. This does not mean they get everything wrong, but it does mean we need to strive to come to these issues with a Christ-centered understanding of justice. The social justice table is not a table we should be found sitting at, let alone promoting.

Instead, Christians should turn to think more deeply about biblical ideas of justice and thus practice the Protestant tradition of semper reformanda (always reforming).  By doing so we acknowledge the authority which forms our moral standards, and our practice of justice is the word of God. This is God’s world, he is the only authority for moral standards and the practice of justice. If we want to be people who practice both universal and particular justice then we need do the hard-work of understanding biblical justice. Then we need to live it out.