There seems to be a lot of talk about the concept of social justice in the church. Even in the Methodist church (of which I’m a member), which has had a strong social justice bent since it’s inception, is experiencing debate on the subject. And, political pundit Glenn Beck has even weighed in on the subject. Why all the ruckus? I think the answer to that question lies in the fact that for every person you ask “What is social justice”, you’ll get a different answer. For some, it’s all about a “level playing field”, for others it’s the back door to socialism or even communism, still others see it as no less than a biblical command. Saying we’re all over the place on this subject is putting it mildly.
As usual, I’m going to start with a definition. You can’t really discuss something intelligently until you know what it is you’re discussing. So, social justice is “the concept in which a subjective notion of justice and/or equality is achieved in every aspect of society, rather than the administration of law”. Or, it “refers to the concept of a society that gives individuals and groups fair treatment and an equitable share of the benefits of society. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equity”. Or, could it be “the fair distribution of advantages, assets, and benefits among all members of a society”? See what I mean? I think all of us agree with the idea that no one should go hungry, lack shelter or decent medical care. The problem lies in how this is achieved. Some of us think the government should provide these most basic of necessities, while others believe that this is best handled through the private sector and personal philanthropy. And, of course there are those who believe in social Darwinism (strangely, many of these same folks don’t care for Darwin’s actual theory at all). Where do I come down? Well, I believe that everyone’s basic needs should be met, although I’m not so sure the government is the body to accomplish that. At least, not by themselves. I’ve spoken about this in another post, so click the link if you want to know more about that.
In March of this year, Glenn Beck told listeners on his radio and television shows that “I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. 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!” For Beck and many others, social justice is a code word for socialism. Which, in their minds, is the worst evil to befall the world in recent history. I understand this mindset because I used to think the same way. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and some growth in my faith walk, I’ve come to realize that’s not necessarily the case. There are many greater evils than socialism, like thousands of children dying of hunger all over the world, soldiers as young as 8 years old being forced to fight tribal or civil wars, an AIDS pandemic in Africa leaving teenagers raising families and the list goes on. While I think Glenn Beck is a huge douche (yes, I realize that’s not a very Christian comment), other people who I respect agree with him in some measure, so I try not to dismiss this idea out of hand.
Some of things being said about social justice is off-base, ill-informed or just plain wrong. For instance, I’ve seen people saying that helping others is fine, but salvation is the most important thing. I don’t think you can separate the two. If you try preaching to someone who’s hungry or worrying where his family is going to spend the night, he isn’t going to listen to you. That’s actually a best case scenario, he’ll probably think you’re an asshole for talking about that stuff while he’s starving instead of offering to share your dinner. There is a psychological theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs about…, well, human needs. Very quickly, the needs are 1)survival: food water, etc. 2) safety: security, shelter, etc. 3) love and belonging: friendship, family 4) Esteem: self-esteem, respect 5) Self-actualization: morality, creativity, etc. Guess where religion and spirituality fall in this list? Probably is the last one, self-actualization. Why is this important? Because, until the needs of one level are met, the needs of the higher levels can’t be addressed. That’s why the scenario I mentioned above would be fruitless. The hungry person is so concerned with daily survival, they can’t take the time to listen to stuff that doesn’t put food on the table. And, that’s where social justice comes in. How are we to spread the Gospel of God’s love to folks who can’t hear it?
One thing the folks so het up about social justice either don’t understand, or refuse to see, is that one the main thrust’s of Jesus’ ministry here on earth was one of social justice. The Sermon on the Mount is riddled with it. Don’t believe me? Look at the Beatitudes. Those nine statements turned Jewish society of the time on its ear. Sit down and read the whole thing, looking for social justice ideas and see what you come up with. Still have a problem with social justice? Remember what Jesus told the rich young man who asked how to get to heaven? “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me“. And, if that’s not enough, read Matthew 25:34-46. For me, that settles the debate.
To be honest, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. In all my days in church, I’ve never heard socialism put forth as way to bring justice to the world. One of the things I’ve seen or heard that people have a problem with is the idea of a “level playing field”. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that kind of what the United States is all about? I mean, the concept that “All men are created equal” and that we all have “certain inalienable rights” are the foundation of this country. Sounds like someone creating a level playing field to me. Some feel the need to apologize for their belief in social justice. Not me, I’m proud of it. As a Christian and an American, how could I feel any other way?
In the title of this post, I say “Social Justice is a Code Word”. And, it most definitely is, just not the one that most people who use that phrase are thinking. One that, decoded, shows us the way to spread God’s Word. The Word that he loves ALL his children and wants us to love them as well. Not just the ones that we’re comfortable with, all of them. The ones that are a different color, have horrible diseases, are guilty of sins that we find abhorrent (remember, we’re not pure as the driven snow ourselves), have politics that don’t align with our own…, I could continue this list indefinitely, but I think you get the point.