The day’s work done, I sought the theatre. As I sank into my seat, the lady shrank and squirmed.
I beg pardon, I said.
“Do you enjoy being where you are not wanted?” she asked coldly.
Oh, no, I said.
“Well, you are not wanted here”
I was surprised. I fear you are mistaken, I said, I certainly want the music, and I like to think the music wants me to listen to it.
“Usher,” said the lady, “this is social equality.”
“No madame,” said the usher, “it is the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” -W. E. B. Du Bois, "On Being Crazy"
Depending on what circles you travel in, 'social justice' is a divisive concept in the Christian church.
What is 'social justice'? People may try to argue the definition but I'll simply go by the Oxford definition: "The objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest." The earliest instance of the term may be an 1848 article by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli.
The question is... why are some self-professed Christians against social justice? One can certainly find plenty of examples of Jesus preaching on caring for the poor. And justice? Heck, Isaiah said "He will proclaim justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1) Jesus preached against injustice too, as in his criticisms of the Pharisees, the ones who because of their positions should have been right with God: "You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matthew 22:23) One of the great life verses of the Bible even states: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)
We see time and time again that God loves justice and that He desires for us to as well - that he desires to bring true justice to the Earth. And of course, the most wonderful thing about God is his grace to us - that He will spare us from what justice would otherwise demand - for "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word is not in us." (1 John 1:8-10).
So then, we Christians have been saved by a loving God, but we exist in an unjust world where individuals are told they matter less than others, where rights are unequally applied and decisions are made which are unfair or dishonest. If the Christ-life dwells within us, surely we ought to dislike these things and so stand with those who are for social justice?
Not according to some.
I beg you, look for the words "social justice" or "economic justice" on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I'm going to Jeremiah's Wright's church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, "Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?" - Glenn Beck, 2010
Beck is a Mormon but has been popular among conservative Christians. One need only enter the phrase "social justice is not the Gospel" into Google to find a number of Christian websites railing against the concept of social justice. One argument I spotted states: "You can eliminate every single thing Jesus ever said in his life about the poor and social justice, and still you will not undermine his main message one bit." Is that true? Hm. I seem to recall "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17) So what are those 'good works' Timothy wrote about?
I'm going to talk about James. James is not a popular epistle amongst some Christians because James advocated, well, y'know, works. Getting up and doing something. The human animal has never loved work. Martin Luther famously denounced James as an "epistle of straw" because:
In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. - Martin Luther
There are two dangerous ways we could treat James - the first would be to reject it because we don't believe works matter. The other would be to over-inflate it, to create a belief system where we think we are saved by what we do - an attitude a surprising number of Christians do hold.
So let's not start with James after all - let's start with St. Paul: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10) That, then, is the tension we Christians have to resolve; we are saved by grace for works. The second should be the logical progression from the former.
To James, then: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder." (James 2:12-19)
This is not something James invented out of whole cloth, this is a teaching supported by the Gospel - one of those passages people would like to 'eliminate.' “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)
What we do with the grace we have been given - the works we perform because of the Christ-life within us - matters. Should we Christians care about social justice, then? Yes, 100%. It does not matter if we do not feel we are one of those people treated unequally, for "And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" (Matthew 5:47) Jesus tells us time and time again to do more than what is asked of us, to walk the extra mile (Matthew 5:41), to give generously without expecting a return.
It's not that social justice is a bulletproof concept which cannot be perverted - I'm sure there are those who use it as a cudgel to strike others, just as some Christians try to pervert the Bible. But when someone claims they are suffering due to inequality - why would we turn a deaf or disbelieving ear to their pain?
We want grace for ourselves; we want justice for ourselves; we are slow to grant these liberties to others. But if we are true followers of Christ, this should really not be a matter of opinion: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:44-45) I am a straight white male who lives a pretty comfortable life; I try to help those less fortunate than me because I believe that it how Jesus wants me to behave in my life. I can support the concept of 'social justice' as defined at the top of the page through the use of scripture. Can you dismiss it as easily?