Social Justice, Part One
Much mischief has been done under the guise of “social justice”. The term has a nice ring to it, but it is a phrase which often means little more than the promotion of radical leftist agendas. Christians of the left love to use it, and think they are somehow promoting biblical justice.
But as I have written elsewhere, often the two are quite different: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/01/%E2%80%98social-justice%E2%80%99-versus-biblical-justice/
Often church groups which bandy about this term are pushing fairly radical policies which have more to do with leftist politics and economics than with biblical concerns. Or they may take biblical concerns but twist them in terms of how they should be dealt with.
That is, they may rightly say we should be concerned about various issues, such as the poor. Yes, the Bible certainly makes that case, and all Christians should have such concerns. But the issue is how exactly such care is to be shown. Invariably for the religious left, they tend to favour forms of socialism and state interventionism to achieve help for the poor.
Not only do such leftist political policies often not find clear backing in Scripture, but history shows us that they tend to harm the very ones who are meant to be helped. And of equal concern is the fact that the priorities of the social justice advocates tend to be quite removed from biblical priorities.
Consider how one leading parachurch group has gone on record promoting various causes which are questionable at best, and at times just plain foolish. The leader of one such group has recently come out stating that “climate change is the greatest potential violation of children’s rights in history. It is that serious”.
The greatest? Is this Christian leader serious here? More serious than the 100,000 unborn children being killed every year in Australia by abortion? It sure is hard to talk about social justice for children when we don’t even allow them to be born.
Why is this leader not speaking out about this as much as he speaks about global warming? And one can think of all sorts of other risks to children which are real – and not theoretical, like the climate change fear-mongering – such as the sexual trafficking of children. But this leader has jumped on the global warming bandwagon, claiming this must be our number one priority.
Because there is so much mushy moralising, and wildly unbiblical ideas being tossed around by the social justice brigade, it is good to find some common sense as well as biblical realism on this issue. I refer to some articles which are offering a careful and balanced look at this fuzzy notion of social justice.
Pastor Andrew Lansdown of Life Ministries in Perth has been writing an excellent series on this issue of social justice. It really needs to be turned into a book when it is finished, but for now, the first five articles can be found on their website (see link below).
Each article is very important, and all are well worth reading. Let me here just offer some quotable quotes from these pieces, in the hopes of enticing you to read them fully for yourselves. In the first two articles he looks at the issue of wealth and poverty, and whether the rhetoric of the religious left matches up with reality.
As mentioned, for those on the left, social justice usually has to do with criticising the free market and promoting things like statism and the welfare state. And there is often the assumption that all poverty is structural in nature, and somehow due to oppressive outcomes of the capitalist system.
The Bible on the other hand distinguishes between the deserving and undeserving poor. That is, some people are poor due to no fault of their own, and this can mean because of oppressive practices by others. But others are poor simply because they are lazy, do not work, and so on. It is not the market’s fault, in other words, but their own fault.
Says Lansdown: “While advocates of social justice claim to be aware of ‘thousands of verses’ in the Bible on poverty, they are very selective about the verses they quote. They make no mention, for example, of the many Bible verses that lay the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor. And yes, the Bible does indeed teach that, in some circumstances, the poor are responsible for their own poverty. In this essay, I want to draw attention to this neglected biblical teaching about poverty and the poor.
“But note at the outset that I have said ‘in some circumstances’ the poor, according to the Bible, are to blame for their plight. I am well aware that the Bible envisages other circumstances in which the poor are poor through no fault of their own. And I am well aware that the Bible defends—and exhorts the righteous to defend—such people. There is no need for thousands of verses to establish this fact. One will do: ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him’ (Proverbs 14:31).
“I do not claim that the passages I am about to quote represent the sum total of the Bible’s teaching about poverty and the poor. I merely claim that they represent an important aspect of the Bible’s teaching, an aspect that social justice advocates gloss over. And by evading this teaching, they distort the biblical position on the origin of poverty, the solution to poverty, and the nature of the poor.”
He continues, “Of course, people can be poor—and many people are poor—through no fault of their own. There are many implicit and explicit acknowledgements of this in the Bible. People can be poor because they are born into poor circumstances and lack the opportunity to change those circumstances. They can be poor because of natural disasters or ill health or injury. They can be poor because they do not have and cannot get employment or because they have never had the opportunity to obtain an education. And, of course, they can be poor because they have been robbed or defrauded or suffered some injustice. Many of these causes of poverty are nobody’s fault, while some of them are other people’s fault.
“However, advocates of social justice tend to gloss over the causes of poverty that are nobody’s fault, and they likewise tend to gloss over the causes of poverty that are the poor person’s fault. Instead, they focus on the causes of poverty that are (or that they believe are) the fault of the rich and powerful. In the process, they give the impression that the poor are poor always and only because they have been exploited and oppressed. (And the rich, powerful exploiters are invariably white, Western persons, corporations and nations. Even when a black dictator impoverishes and terrorises his own black people in Africa, advocates of social justice will manage to find a white capitalist imperialist under the bed somewhere!) Furthermore, they manage to imply that anyone in the West who is not living in poverty is somehow implicated in the plight of those who are. The Bible does not support such notions of collective guilt and class warfare, and nor should we.
“None of this is an argument against helping the poor (even the poor who are poor by their own foolishness or wickedness). It is an argument against making the well off feel that they have somehow wronged the poor simply by being well off. It is an argument against making guilt the basis for helping the poor. It is an argument against encouraging the poor to have a sense of entitlement to the wealth of those who are not poor. It is an argument against encouraging the poor to feel that when they are helped they have only gotten their just deserts. It is an argument against encouraging ingratitude and envy in the poor and guilt and shame in the not-poor.
“It is an argument against the condescending self-righteous notion that those in the West who do help the poor do so only because they have grudgingly faced up to their collective guilt and belatedly acquiesced to the demands of “social justice”. It is an argument against confusing justice with mercy and thereby demanding as a right what should be entreated as a favour.
“People who are well off (which means most people in the West) should help the poor. But they should do so from generosity, not guilt. They should do so not because justice demands it but because mercy implores it. In short, they should do so not because of, but in spite of, the spurious dogmas and demands of ‘social justice’.”
Also worth noting is how much the state plays a role in many social justice circles – and how it often exceeds any biblical mandate. And the myth that those on the right do not care about the poor also needs to be laid to rest: “Advocates of social justice and Christian socialism are utterly wrong when they claim that conservative politicians are unconcerned about poverty and the poor. And they are equally wrong when they claim that evangelical, conservative and Bible-believing Christians have little or no interest in the poor and the causes of poverty.
“Conservative Christians have always been concerned about the plight of the poor and have given practical expression to that concern through the establishment of missions, hospitals, aid agencies and welfare services. As even a passing glance at history confirms, it is not the liberal-left churches who have promoted missions and voluntary aid work, but the conservative-right churches.
“Although most aid agencies in Australia are now firmly in the hands of people who hold and seek to implement a social justice ideology, those same aid agencies were not set up by people who held such views. They were set up and managed by people with conservative Christian convictions.
“It is the Christians who have been most concerned for the eternal souls of the poor who have cared most for the temporal welfare of the poor. It is Bible-believing Christians, not social justice Christians, who have over the past three hundred years set up schools and hospitals and clinics for the poor in third world countries. It is the spiritual gospel Christians, not the social gospel Christians, who first began to run mothercraft classes and teach the poor about hygiene. It is the Bible-believing Christians, not the business-bashing Christians, who first asserted the value of women by opposing practices like foot-binding in China, temple prostitution and wife burning in India, polygamy in Africa, female genital mutilation in the Middle East, the ceremonial rape of adolescent girls in the Aboriginal path-making ceremonies in Australia, and the forced marriages of young girls in all of these places. It is Christian evangelicals, not Christian socialists, who have dared to confront cultural practices and religious beliefs that contribute to the misery of the poor.
“What is more, conservative Christians have traditionally acted to help the poor with their own money. While social justice Christians covet other people’s money and urge governments to confiscate it through taxation for ‘redistribution’ to the poor, conservative Christians fund their initiatives for the poor through voluntary personal giving.”
In Part Two of this article I will look at other ways in which the social justice crowd seems to veer from biblical teaching, utilising the helpful writings of Andrew Lansdown along the way: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/08/08/social-justice-part-two/
12 Replies to “Social Justice, Part One”
I think that official wage fixation is a major cause because it prices people out of work. If someone is lazy poverty will be an incentive to work but if the person is unable to get work because a high price has been put on his labour that is something that has to be dealt with.
Official wage fixing is the greatest cause of poverty in Australia but the wage system is a “sacred cow”. John Howard tried to do something with “Work Choices” but was booted out of office for his pains. Mr Abbott put out a letterbox flyer guaranteeing against any legislation like “Work Choices” which was a great pity because “Work Choices” was very effective in leading to new jobs.
Bill, I think I may have said before that these social justice idealogues who seek government redistribution of wealth are using the unstated assumption that wealth is a fixed quantum, and that therefore those who have more are necessarily depriving those who have less.
One of the most interesting group biblical exercises I participated in many years ago was mining the book of Proverbs for verses which either condemned laziness or extolled the importance of looking after the poor.
We broke off into small groups and given a section of the book to go through. At the end all the groups came together and scored how many verses came in on one side of the argument or the other. I can’t remember how many were there in the end, but the fascinating result was that the number was roughly the same for both. I think you are especially correct that the Bible “distinguishes between the deserving and undeserving poor.”
And John Angelico is also right, one of the most stupid assumptions of ‘social justice’ advocates is that wealth is finite. Here is a brilliant video from Bill Whittle that is well worth the 10 minutes to watch that speaks to that idea, as well as destroying a few other misconceptions about wealth. Nobody ever seems to consider that the poor in the 21st century have access to things even the richest couldn’t have even a few decades ago. How did that happen if all the wealthy were supposedly so interested in is widening the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’?
It seems to me that the companies and individuals that were rich enough to employ me over my working career so far deserve my thanks more than my contempt for their business acumen. The best thing to lift someone out of poverty is for them to for them to get a job and have to work hard to keep it. It isn’t to continue welfare if they are physically capable of being productive and have the opportunity to do so. (That is effectively theft, and it also destroys their own dignity to a large extent.)
As a Chinese proverb states “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”
I think it is significant that I have never been employed long-term by a poor man, and I am yet to meet anybody else who was. The unthinking reflex so common these days to demonise successful business people is often to our own peril. Rich people and companies buy stuff and generally seek to expand on that wealth, which will necessarily involve many others in that process.
Contrast the above video with this travesty:
Bill, it isn’t surprising that the brother of the former Australian treasurer and current CEO of World Vision would have these views, after all, he has also written in the past:
He is a thoroughgoing theological liberal who rejects the Christian doctrine of the atonement, espouses relativist and universalist doctrine, and thinks it is okay to address God as “she”.
Thank you for your contribution. I have one observation and two questions:
The first question is, following Prov.14:31, and others which could be cited, e.g. Psalm 112:5, where generosity is the approved virtue in regard to the poor (cf. also Psa.41:1), when care for the poor is mandated and coerced through the taxation system, is it any longer generosity! Of course not! Yet this is what “social justice” Christians clamour for. All it is is statism, and no wonder so many of them close their pockets to the real needs of their erstwhile brethren, e.g. persecuted Christians under oppressive regimes. They seem to think that having handed over the problem of care for the poor to the state (e.g. by voting Labor on election day) they have fulfilled all righteousness. That may well be a bit harsh, and doubtless there are exceptions, but that is a trend I detect.
The second question is: the very term “social justice” is certainly nowhere in the Bible. Is it not straight out of Marx and Engels “The Communist Manifesto”? No-one had ever heard of the term until they came along. The idea is that for some to have wealth and others to struggle is unjust, and the way to remedy that is by redistribution of wealth by coercive taxation and “Big Brother” government. If we go back to Psalm 112, for example, there the God-fearing man is on one hand wealthy: “riches are in his house” (v.3). On the other hand “he is generous and lends” (v.5). Yet he is blessed by the Lord. There is no hint of “social justice” here. Quite the reverse!
The one observation is: the assumption of “social justice” advocates is that mere ownership of wealth is sin. This was very evident in that book which had a vogue in the 1970s, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, by Ronald Sider. What does he do with Psalm 112? With the Parable of the Talents (remember that a talent was in antiquity the largest unit of money. It has nothing whatever to do with God-given abilities)? The Bible warns about the deceitfulness of wealth (Matt.13:22), and that love of wealth is the root of evil (1Tim.6:10), but nowhere does it stigmatise wealth per se. It’s how we use it that makes the difference, both in this life, and in the world to come.
I would welcome some further discussion on the above questions.
Murray R. Adamthwaite
But as an Australian proverb states “If you teach a man to fish, then he’ll sit on a boat all day drinking beer.” 😉
Jonathan Sarfati, US
Re “widening the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’?”, if God doubled everyone’s wealth, then everyone would be twice as well off, obviously, but the gap would be twice as great too! Lefties just don’t think about this. See Margaret Thatcher expose such lefty envy-mongering on this score in this clip.
Jonathan Sarfati, US
If you want to learn from the Costello brothers how Christians should help the poor; I advise you listen to Peter.
For decades the socialist governments have duplicated the role of the church in providing taxpayer funded assistance to the poor. If the Salvation Army came up with a work training program, then the government copied it, and wasted many more dollars attempting to achieve the same results. Likewise, the Brotherhood of St Lawrence started programs and they also were duplicated by government agencies. Eventually the Labor governments relegated the church agencies to the sidelines where they could not compete in the big money, taxpayer funded ‘free’ for all.
Then a change in policy occured, and through contracts, churches and church agencies competed for government contracts to perform … well, what they used to do for ‘nothing’ but for the love of God as a charity.
The socialists then bayed once again for ‘separation of church and state’, but couldn’t really field a team of their own without taxpayers funding it.
Unfortunately, church run agencies do need to work with governments (particularly in education and health and aged care) and often have to rely on government funding for significant costs like wages or buildings. Some agencies sidle up to the government for their big cash injection, and forget about the gospel or even the widow’s mite sized offering. If they sound more like a government agency, they probably in fact now are.
So there is also the welfare for agencies, as well as the welfare for individuals which has been corrupted.
See here how “social justice” is being used as a tool by the leftist social engineers in our classrooms:
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I have read the first article by Andrew Lansdown, and am looking forward to reading the rest. Thank you bill for alerting us to it. I think it is a study on a subject from a biblical point of view long overdue.
So, it seems to be established that there are undeserving and deserving pour. But who, according to the Bible is to look after the deserving pour? From the discussion in the comments it seems that generosity should be the wellspring of help for the pour, which I totally agree with. It also seems obvious that if we want to get to have welfare, education and health back in the hands of the churches, we need to have biblical teaching and courage of individuals mainly the deserving pour themselves to put their trust fully in the Lord and start voluntarily going without state welfare? This is in the light of scripture a reasonable path, I think, just not easy. Is there any other way to get back with these things where we need to be? I guess, history has shown that it sometimes takes the sacrificial courage of a single person or a small group to bring the rest of the church-society back on track.
Marvin Olasky has written a number of helpful books looking at exactly those questions. See for example:
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch