Arts & Culture & Public Square

Review: Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is

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Today, many people justify actions or an argument under the mantle of “social justice.” In many of these cases, however, the term social justice remains undefined. It becomes a blunt force instrument to support actions that on the surface may seem compassionate, but in reality may be unhealthy or even destructive.

This is an excellent example of why common definitions are essential to communication, and why in the debates over the nature of social justice we must do the same.

Definitions of Social Justice

In their book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, the late Michael Novak and Paul Adams analyze six commonly assumed definitions of social justice:

  1. Distribution—Most commonly, social justice is used to refer to a fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages in the world. Little thought, however, is given to what constitutes “fair” and how that distribution can be accomplished without doing additional harm.
  2. Equality—Sometimes social justice is used to refer to a concept of equality. On occasion, this equality refers to balanced opportunity, but, in many recent uses, the term has come to refer to a desire to create more uniform outcomes.
  3. Common good—Social justice can be used to describe an outcome that is beneficial to the whole community. However, the questions that are usually unanswered are, “Which community should benefit?” and “Who determines what good is?”
  4. The progressive agenda—In some circles, social justice means advocacy for labor unions, solar power, abortion, and sexual libertinism. This use of the term relies on the assumption that social “progressives” understand what is good for society and have the right and duty to fine, coerce, and constrain others to comply in the name of social justice.
  5. New “civil rights”: gender, sex, reproduction—At times, the phrase social justice is boiled down to a central concern for society to reject traditional social norms associated with the bedroom. This is a narrow focus of definition 4 above, but certainly not uncommon.
  6. Compassion—Using “social justice” in this way seems to refer to the alleviation of struggles or suffering. This can include goods like working to eliminate hunger and providing shelter. However, in some circles, compassion can be used to justify euthanasia, infanticide, and other clear moral evils that stand in stark contrast to true compassion.

In contrast, Novak and Adams suggest that,

…social justice is a virtue whose specific character is social in two ways: the skill in forming associations, and the aim of benefiting the human community, whether local, national, or international.

Social justice properly defined is, therefore, resistance to corrosive individualism and an orientation toward pursuing mutual good.

The Good of Social Justice Properly Defined

Because of the issues identified by Novak and Adams and the conflicting assumptions in contemporary culture, I avoid using the term social justice.

I prefer to think of social justice as the pursuit of an individual virtue that seeks the benefit of the world, which is actually a biblical concept. Scripture is the best starting place for understanding the term social justice, just as it is for gaining wisdom on any important question.

Most famously, Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites in exile in a hostile, pagan land to pursue something that looks like social justice, properly defined:

“…seek the welfare of the city where [God has] sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7, ESV).

Taken on its own, this verse seems to provide little content for what this version of social justice might look like. However, the context is the key to finding the definition.

In the preceding verses (Jer. 29:5-7), Jeremiah defines how to seek the welfare of the city:

  1. Building houses to live in (v. 5).
  2. Planting gardens and eating the food (v. 5).
  3. Marrying and having children (v. 6).
  4. Praying for society (v. 7).

The activity described above consists of personal actions that result in the common good. The explanation of how to pursue the common good, which comes as words from God through Jeremiah, entails individual actions that discernably benefit the welfare of the world around you.

Hugh Whelchel writes that seeking the “welfare of the city” involves seeking the “shalom”—or the flourishing—of the community to which you are called. It does not consist of coercion, redefinition, or redistribution. In fact, seeking the welfare of the city presumes private property is a social good (cf., v. 5).

If we choose to use the phrase social justice we should be cautious to define the term biblically to avoid confusion. If we eschew the term social justice, we should make it clear what we are rejecting about it.

In either case, our awareness of common definitions of the term is helpful so that we can start from the right place in our pursuit of mutual good and avoid assumptions.

Another book you might explore on this topic is Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion¸ which has been reviewed and recommended on this blog.

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