A Purple Haze: Looking More Carefully at ‘Social Justice’

alexandru-bogdan-ghita-javr3cmXbSE-unsplashYou keep using that word . . .
I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya —

Have you ever used a word in a sentence, only to discover that the meaning of that word is not exactly what you thought it was? I have. And I’ve had to go back and rewrite the sentence, or admit on the spot, that I misspoke.

I would propose that the term “social justice” is such a word. It is used a lot today, by lots of different types of people. I am sure I’ve used it. Yet, as we seek to define to what it is, we quickly learn that like Clark Griswold’s Christmas turkey, social justice looks great on the outside, but doesn’t contain much meat when we cut into the bird.

Here are five quotations about the haziness, dare I say the meaninglessness, of the term “social justice.” I have tried to capture each quotation in a sentence. And at the end, I’ve included something of a takeaway on the subject—namely, that social justice is not as helpful or value neutral as its contentless definition may first appear.

I am sure you have had some run in with social justice, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. Feel free to add a quote, a question, or comment in the comments section.

Friedrich A. Hayek

Because justice is personal; it cannot be assigned to an impersonal system.

Justice is an attribute of individual action. I can be just or unjust towards my fellow man, but the conception of a social justice, to expect from an impersonal process, which nobody can control to bring about a just result, is not only a meaningless conception, it’s completely impossible. Everybody talks about social justice, but if you ask people exactly what they mean by social justice, what the critics accept as just[ice] nobody knows. I’ve been trying for the last twenty years, asking people ‘What exactly are your principles of social justice?’ (Quotation from Firing Line with William F. Buckley)

Antonio Martino

Social justice is not a fixed reality, but the desperate desire of the individual or group speaking in this way. The appeal of social justice is its “Erised” characteristic (as in the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter).

[Social justice] owes its immense popularity precisely to its ambiguity and meaninglessness. It can be used by different people, holding quite different views, to designate a wide variety of different things. Its obvious appeal stems from its persuasive strength, from its positive connotation, which allows the user to praise his own ideas and simultaneously express contempt for the ideas of those who don’t agree with him. (“The Myth of Social Justice,” 1982; cited in Ronald Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church, 5–6)

Michael Novak

Social justice is a plastic tool for legislative change.  

The trouble with “social justice” begins with the very meaning of the term. . . .  It is allowed to float in the air as if everyone will recognize an instance of it when it appears. This vagueness seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, “We need a law against that.” In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion. (“Defining Social Justice“, First Things, Dec 2000; cited by DeYoung and Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? 180).

John Goldingay

Without definition, social justice is nothing more than a buzzword.

The notion of social justice is a hazy one. It resembles words such as community intimacy, and relational, warm words whose meaning may seem self-evident and which we assume are obviously biblical categories, when actually they are rather undefined and culture relative. . . . Social justice’ then implies the idea of a ‘just society, one in which different individuals and groups in society get a ‘fair share’ of its benefits. But Christians disagree about what constitutes a just society and how we achieve it (for instance, how far by governmental intervention to effect income redistribution and how far by market forces and the encouragement of philanthropy). . . . The meaning of the phrase social justice has become opaque over the years as it has become a buzz expression.” (Old Testament Theology, vol. 3, Israel’s Life, 500; cited by DeYoung and Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, 180).

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

Social justice must be carefully defined in order for it to be useful.

The point is that we don’t all mean the same thing by “social justice,” and therefore we should be careful to define what we mean if we use it. We should explain our conception of social justice and take pains to demonstrate why that conception Is supported by Scripture, rather than just assuming a vague sense that “I wish things weren’t this way.” At the very least it would be good to recognize that using an ambiguous phrase like “social justice” to rally for our cause or defend our side without understanding what each other is really talking about is not terribly helpful. (What is the Mission of the Church?, 183).

A Takeaway:

The takeaway from these quotations is simple: do not be deceived by fine-sounding arguments. While Christians are called to do justice (Micah 6:8), we must define what we mean by justice. And we must let the full content of Scripture be our guide. It is not enough to sprinkle Bible verses about justice, oppression, and the like into arguments for social justice that come from outside Scripture. Just because Scripture talks about justice and the world talks about justice, does not mean we are talking about the same thing.

As noted above, the shape-shifting character of social justice makes it easy to blend the Bible with calls for redistribution of wealth—a hallmark of those who champion social justice. Yet, Scripture itself gives us a fully-formed understanding of justice, if only we will take the time to consider what God says on this subject. And such a study, would require a full biblical theology.

It is all too easy to have our devotions in private and let others dictate the way that we engage culture, society, politics, etc. It is even possible to bring various truths from Scripture into our hashtag activism and public protests. Many are the modern day prophets who will show you the way to hold your Bible as you make friends with the world.

It is much more difficult, however, to stand only on the Word of God and to resist every wind of social justice doctrine. Because social justice does not come with a ready-made definition, it is very compatible with whatever causes attract our hearts. The problem with this is approach is that anything added to the Bible changes the message of the gospel. Yes, some will say, that their approach to “social justice” is only coming from the Bible itself, but if so, why use the moniker at all? Why not declare the truth of God’s righteousness, justice, and justification? Why not be implacably biblical in speech and thought?

Only when we can see the manifold weaknesses of social justice and the Babel-like attempts to fashion a society in our own image, can we decide where and how we might engage in social and political endeavors. And such engagement takes time, prayer, study, discussion, and—most of all—correction. Unfortunately, many (Christians) are not thinking critically about social justice. Instead, when they hear, see, and feel the injustices that call them to immediate action, they are responding with the world’s great buzz word—social justice.

In our day and in the church, this word has strong advocates. But again social justice is so  devoid of material content, it is difficult to discern what it means. Like a purple haze, social justice has something to it, but because it has no foundation—and especially, no foundation in the Word of God—it is not something that cannot create what it desires.

For that reason, we need to let the desire for social justice lead us back to the Lord, who alone is just and who alone is able to bring justice. Moreover, because God is not searching for counselors to aid him, we need to learn from him, what justice is and how God has already begun to accomplish his justice and justification. This was what I tried to demonstrate in Psalms 97–101, but today, I simply want to call attention to the way social justice, as a buzzword, is not as helpful as it may first appear.

To put it in biblical terms,” Desire [for social justice] without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way” (Prov. 19:2). With this proverb in mind, let us think carefully about what passes as social justice, how we are seeking justice, and how God has called us to love justice and love our neighbor too.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds