Conservative commentator Glenn Beck ignited quite the firestorm back in 2010 when he attacked the concept of social justice, telling his listeners not to attend churches that mention it on their websites. After receiving a fair amount of flak from a variety of Christians, Beck clarified what exactly he meant by ‘social justice’. “Here’s my definition of social justice,” he said, “Forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice.” Basically, Beck and his critics were having two entirely different conversations, because they each had two different conceptions of social justice.
Glenn Beck had a false impression of what social justice is, but it didn’t come from a vacuum. Increasingly, the term social justice is used in secular and religious circles as a catch-all for “any social or political goal I believe in.” I’ve seen the term attached to battles over the name of the Washington Redskins, net neutrality, performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and organic farming. All four of these above links are from religious sources, three of which are Christian. I disagree strongly with Beck’s characterization of “social justice,” but I also understand that it comes from a political and religious landscape where the phrase has been stretched beyond its breaking point.
It was for this reason that the first article in the IRD symposium on social justice set out to define social justice. The Acton Institute’s Dylan Pahman made a distinction between ‘social justice’ and ‘justice’ I wholeheartedly endorse. To briefly summarize: the classic definition of justice is giving someone their due. Social justice is going above and beyond that and giving someone their “social due,” that which is due to them as a member of a society. Punishing a burglar is justice, but organizing a fundraiser to help out the victim is social justice.
Nowhere is this distinction clearer than the issue of poverty. Justice is a matter of rights and obligations. But society is full of suffering and hurting people who have no right to relief they don’t earn themselves, and full of people with no obligation to help total strangers. Also complicating matters is the fact that sometimes the most downtrodden members of society, such as prisoners or addicts, are in the position they are as a result of their own actions. From a legalistic point of view, “justice” would mean leaving them to their self-inflicted punishment.
But Christians are called beyond simply giving each person what they’re entitled to. There is no shortage of Bible verses commanding Christians to care for the poor and downtrodden. Those who care for the poor are blessed (Proverbs 19:17,Proverbs 28:27), and whatever is done for the poor is done to Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 25:40). It is not enough to simply love the poor; that love must be borne out with actions (James 2). We are called beyond justice to social justice. We are called beyond justice and to mercy.
The Bible also lays out a vision of how we are to care for the poor, or more accurately, how we are not to care for the poor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus denounces those who lavishly give to the poor in the sight of other men in order to increase their own reputation. Jesus preaches that those men “will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Likewise, Paul say in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” The reoccurring theme is that giving to the poor is the be all, end all; it ought to be done out of a personal sense of love and charity.
It’s hard to reconcile this mandate for loving charity with government systems of welfare and wealth redistribution. To be blunt: governments don’t love. Perhaps its possible that there are Christians who sign their checks to the IRS every April and simultaneous feel the transformative love of God in their lives. And perhaps its possible that the millions of food stamp or welfare recipients feels genuine gratitude towards their fellow Americans and God. But for the most part, by making Uncle Sam the middle man, the spiritual gifts that would flow from personal charity are distilled and diminished. More to the point, even if government was an effective vehicle for exhibiting one’s love for the poor, taxation is mandatory under penalty of the law. There’s is simply no Biblical basis for taking what is justly one man’s and giving to another.
When it comes to tackling poverty, a Gospel-centric approach to social justice requires us to be, well, social. It isn’t enough to pay taxes, tithe, and send a check to a charity every so often. It required making a connection on some level with the downtrodden, be it be volunteering at a homeless shelter, taking the time to give a personal touch to a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child, or setting aside time for prayer. There’s a reason why charities like World Vision give you a picture of a child thousands of miles away and encourage letter-writing. Practically speaking, people are more likely to give when they feel a sense of shared humanity.
The rather odd part of much of what the Gospel says about giving to the poor is that it focuses on spiritual growth and eternal reward of the gift-giver. But there is without a doubt spiritual benefit for the recipients of charity beyond material gains. Having one’s needs met comes with a sense of relief, but a sense of gratitude comes only with the knowledge that someone else cared enough about you. In learning to feel gratitude towards man, we become closer to feeling gratitude towards the God from whom all blessings flow. And for many people who feel defeated, rejected, and despised by society, the mere knowledge that you are loved can be more powerful than every dollar Washington can throw at a problem.