Acton Commentary

Issues of Justice


What would it take to make a society fully just rather than merely settling for moving society toward justice? Three options come to mind. First, a just society would be one in which every injustice was either prevented or punished. Prevention of injustice would require laws and civil leadership that we would regard as excessively strong. Punishment would seem to require an eye-for-an eye approach (or at least a cash-for-an-eye or time-in-prison-for-an-eye approach), as well as the state bearing a “terrible swift sword,” possibly with a tendency to act like Big brother. This requires a single definition of justice based on values that are agreed upon and enforceable.

A second option would be a nation of people who are sufficiently just in their inner character to prevent injustice from occurring. This is called righteousness, and though it might have characterized Israel (or Camelot), it did not even characterize Eden for long.

The third option would be for God himself to be present and punishing injustice with perfection. When Israel’s situation approximated this during the exodus and wilderness wanderings, the people were miserable and complained about everything. They were not righteous; they actively resented God’s justice.

Based on these three options, a robust justice seems to require a combination of a divine presence and righteous people. Christians see this as a combination of justice, godliness, and righteousness. Since society is far from perfect, it will also require an immense amount of compassion to alleviate injustice and suffering in the social realm.

John Rawls, the pioneering leader of the social justice movement, had a surprisingly similar though thoroughly secular approach, which some have identified as “transcendental institutionalism.” Like many Enlightenment projects, this was an effort to have the good things of Christianity without God, without the Bible, and especially without Jesus. Rawls saw social justice as having its foundations in society rather than in God.

These ideal societies are worth considering, but it is also worth noting that Jesus promised such a society; the future kingdom of God. The church itself exists now as that new society in provisional form—or better, the new sub-society amid the secular society, where justice, compassion, brotherhood, and love can flourish.

We long for that utopian society and regret that the church falls short of that ideal. Accordingly, when Christians see the term social justice, we instinctively, but wrongly, think of issues that concern only us. We think of the kingdom of God and start to wonder how thoroughly we are to work for it and to expect that kingdom today. We wonder if the Jesus gospel of the kingdom or the Pauline gospel of justification is correct. These may be interesting questions within the evangelical bubble, but no one else thinks of social justice in terms of God’s kingdom.

We may also think of how the social aspects of the gospel were separated from evangelism and how they are currently being reunited, with an emphasis on social justice helping with that reunion. While interesting, this line of thinking does not help move us to a coherent response to social justice issues in the “real” or material world.

Yet because we hear the talk of social justice and see the needs of the world, we want to respond in ways that are relevant. As laypeople, pastors, or even Christian mission and service agency leaders, we should respond to those needs in biblical terms (i.e., compassion) rather than being distracted by “social justice.”

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision United States, is to be commended for nothing, in his book The Hole in Our Gospel, that poverty can no longer be considered normal in a rich world, but that there must be some “injustice [that] is often the ‘cause behind the cause.’” This is perceptive analysis, but Stearns seems to have uncritically jumped to the conclusion of those who champion social justice. He sees that the obvious culprits today are the corporations of the modern West, as they have taken a lopsided income distribution curve and made it extreme.

There are other culprits, but blaming governments seems to be taboo, since World Vision, along with all other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), must work with governments for funding and access to the poor. Besides that, governments often portray themselves as friendly to the poor and lacking only in money and resources, when most often the true “lack” in the poorest nations is integrity, though governments do have a remarkable “surplus” of corruption.

Suddenly justice is being redefined as equal income distribution. World Vision and other NGOs are supporting national governments in redressing injustice as if it were caused entirely by Western corporations. This good-government/bad-corporation focus is a distraction from the better purposes, goals, culprits, and nature of the help that Christians should be providing in the world as we seek to do good works so that we can “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10). It may well be that “the hole in our gospel” is a failure of those good works. The point is that Christians are naively trying to match the lingo and code words of our day without realizing that justice and social justice are not interchangeable terms.

The critical distinction that the word justice forces us to consider is whether the hole in our gospel is one of voluntary compassion, as expressed through Christians and the church to help individuals and communities, or if justice carries with it an obligation to move toward remaking society. 

It is important to note that if the failure of Christians is one of compassion, then Christians can respond with actions of compassion in terms of relief and restoration. If, on the other hand, our failure is one of biblical injustice, then Christians might be required to seek justice by reforming the unjust social institutions that oppress people, especially in developing nations, as New York City pastor and apologist Tim Keller encourages.

Seeking the peace and harmony (Shalom) of God as the highest good for man, Keller indicates that doing justice means “to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish … The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it.” Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, continues : “Human beings are like those threads thrown together onto a table. If we keep our money, time, and power to ourselves, for ourselves, instead of sending them out into our neighbors’ lives, then we may be literally on top of one another, but we are not interwoven socially, relationally, financially, and emotionally … Reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others. ”

Once we recognize the true nature of biblical justice, including its application to the poor and marginalized of society, we should enthusiastically pursue justice on biblical terms to serve the Master, not on secular terms (i.e. social justice) to please those who want biblical-sounding ideals with little or no commitment to Jesus.

The article was adapted from the new Christian’s Library Press book Integrated Justice and Equality by John Addison Teevan.