Public Square & Theology 101

‘Rethinking Social Justice’: A Call to Restore Biblical Compassion

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The debate over income inequality continues unabated. Quotes like this one from a recent CNN article are common: “The stakes are high because we understand inequality to be global, pervasive, growing, and a central threat to social justice and human dignity.”

Social justice is an elusive concept because it means so many different things to different people.

One often-used definition of social justice is “giving to each what he or she is due.” The problem is knowing what is “due.”

According to philosopher John Rawls, social justice is about assuring the protection of equal access to liberties, rights, and opportunities, as well as taking care of the least advantaged members of society.

Whether something is just or unjust depends on whether it promotes or hinders the following:

  • Equality of access to civil liberties;
  • Human rights;
  • Opportunities for healthy and fulfilling lives;
  • A fair share of benefits to the least advantaged members of society.

From this last point, wealth redistribution becomes an important tool and income inequality an undesirable evil in the search for social justice.

This has become the secular standard for defining social justice.

Should this be the way Christians think about social justice?

Darrow Miller doesn’t think so, and explains why in his new book,  Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion.

Miller discusses how the church has lost the biblical meaning of social justice, primarily because it has reduced compassion to mere pity. Miller suggests that regaining a proper biblical understanding of compassion enables the church to see more clearly God’s view of justice.

Using one of Jesus’s stories as an example, Miller writes:

Christian generosity and compassion are not the same as government-run welfare programs. In the Bible, compassion literally means “to suffer together with another.” It is perfectly demonstrated by Christ, who came to suffer together with us and ultimately die on the cross on our behalf. Compassion is also demonstrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, who didn’t just transfer money to help a wounded man but got his hands dirty and suffered together with him. By its very nature, compassion cannot be done from a distance. Government bureaucrats who are physically removed from needy people cannot exercise compassion, and yet for many this is what social justice implies.

In light of the church’s current discussion on social justice, Miller’s book does an excellent job of bringing our understanding back into alignment with the historical Judeo-Christian worldview practiced by the church down through the centuries. He clearly demonstrates that from this perspective social justice is about equity, not equality.

He writes:

It is about being equal before the law so that individuals may flourish according to their God-given gifts and callings.  It is not about treating everyone the same, and thus forcing equal outcomes and uniformity in life.  It is about creating conditions for human flourishing rather than building personal and institutional dependencies.

One of the reasons this book is better than others I have read on this subject is that Miller does not try to redefine the idea of social justice. Instead he answers the question, “How can we best ensure that justice supports flourishing for everyone in every area of life-economic, political, social, and so forth?”

Miller’s answer to that question shows Christians how to practice what they preach and to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” from both a biblical and a real-world perspective.

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