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: 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.