What is wrong with demanding social justice? Why do so many Christian leaders insist on redirecting believers towards Biblical justice instead? Is it not possible for the two to go hand-in-hand?
I’m asking because the world is rightfully angry about several issues, and having leaders frequently preach that we should be still and wait for Biblical justice frankly feels like a cop-out. While we do believe in Biblical justice, do we not have a responsibility to see social justice done in this world/life too?
The sentiment of your question is good: that believers ought to work toward social justice and support public policies promoting it. So, let’s address the elements you have mentioned: whether we ought to demand it, why so many believers resist the idea, how social and Biblical justice can go hand-in-hand, and why the cause is for here and now, not just the hereafter.
In some contexts, “demanding” anything of government would not be Christian. We submit to authority, as in Romans 13, rather than rise up against it. However, in democracies, we are not only invited, but charged with the responsibility to shape government by our votes and by our voices (such as free assembly and free press). So, of course, it is right for believers to “demand” that government enact and enforce laws or regulations promoting a just society.
It is particularly important to me as a believer that government protect the life and liberty of the vulnerable; and, being Baptist, that those liberties include religion, conscience, and speech. The former (protections) acknowledge the equality inherent to every human life (those made in the image of God); the latter (specific freedoms) provide what history has shown to be the best framework within which Paul’s prayer can be answered: “…that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2).
In democracies, we are not only invited, but charged with the responsibility to shape government by our votes and our voices
Because your question hinges on the rhetorically charged term ‘social justice’, we need to address why some believers push back against it, and whether it is indeed Biblical justice.
First, why do many believers distrust those who call for social justice? In the early 20th century, there was a significant movement among mainline denominations, and in some cases Catholics, to demystify, if not demythologise, Christianity. In terms most relevant to this discussion, they sought to naturalise the miracles of Scripture and reduce the teachings of Jesus to their moral content.
In that context, where the resurrection is not necessarily seen as a literal, physical event, and where salvation is no longer necessarily about an eternal state, but deliverance from temporal evils, the gospel can take on a different form: the social gospel. Both the social gospel movement in the US and liberation theology in Latin America emphasised delivering people from oppression as arguably the most important realisation of the gospel.
In the mid to late 20th century, there was a significant reaction to those liberal theologies: a conservative resurgence. Among other things, the conservative resurgence emphasised a more literal interpretation of Scripture and a focus on personal evangelism as the cure for humanity’s woes.
Because the issues addressed by social justice in our day align with issues which either were or would have been raised by advocates of the social gospel a century ago, conservative believers familiar with the history see ominous similarities between the two movements and, in some ways, conflate the two.
The conflation is extremely unfortunate, but understandable. It is unfortunate because, as discussed below, the causes of real social justice should matter to believers. On the other hand, it is understandable, because it is always possible for someone focused on temporal remedies to lose interest in their eternal counterpart.
The social gospel movement emphasised delivering people from oppression as the most important realisation of the gospel
In other words, some believers fear that focusing on issues like racism, immigration, hunger, or broader economic inequalities will turn attention away from personal evangelism and the ultimate hope of the resurrection. Of course, as the last part of your question points out, there is no inherent reason to lose sight of the latter just because the former comes into view. But because of the history, the fear of losing our way is understandable, even if not fully justified.
Putting rhetorical confusion aside, though, there is no reason for the reality of Biblical justice to be distinct in any way from the reality of social justice. Neither reality is owned by a political or denominational movement. In the Old and New Testaments, the word for righteousness and justice is the same. To think of theological justification (being justified, being made righteous) without its intrinsic relationship to moral uprightness (being just, being righteous) is nonsensical.
One of the earliest books in the New Testament makes this relationship clear: James. The pure and undefiled religion of its first chapter (visiting orphans and widows), the expectation of the royal law in its second (treating the poor with the respect normally reserved for the wealthy), and the condemnation of the wealthy who hold back wages from manual labourers in the last chapter — all emphasise the crystal-clear lesson that the value of spiritual faith is inseparable from the value of corporeal works. That is, faith without works is dead.
The lesson for believers who wish to avoid causes labelled ‘social justice’ is simple: applying the term ‘social justice’ does not make a cause wrong. To work toward a society with individuals, communities, policies, and laws promoting righteousness is right. Each cause must be examined on its own merits in light of Scripture’s demand for justice, not simply be dismissed out of hand because of the politics, lifestyle, or irreligion of those labelling it ‘social justice’.
Causes should not simply be dismissed out of hand because of the politics, lifestyle, or irreligion of those labelling it ‘social justice’
The lesson for believers who wish to join causes labelled ‘social justice’ is equally simple: applying the term ‘social justice’ does not make a cause right. The believer’s test of moral obligations in this world is Scripture’s demand for righteousness, regardless of the pressure applied by culture’s denial or appropriation of the term ‘social justice’.
It is right for believers to oppose personal or systemic racism, to advocate for the life of the unborn and immigrants, and to seek equitable treatment for the marginalised and vulnerable, not because they are causes du jour, but because Scripture (Old Testament and New) make them causes of eternal righteousness — more precisely, occasions for disrupting the order of this age with the values of eternity.
Perhaps an analogy is in order to explain why, if it is impossible that righteousness will be fully obtained in this world anyway, believers ought still to think of our eternal obligations as including the here and now.
In eternity, when the kingdom has been fully realised, injustice’s pouring rain will cease. We will share our existence under cloudless utopian skies without evil and suffering; no one oppressed or vulnerable. While that heavenly condition is not realised fully here, we do meet in its foyer when we gather for church (not in a building, but in the body of Christ everywhere).
In that foyer, our communion is made equal across communities by the humility our shared worship demands; it is a regularly repeated respite from the rain. From that foyer, we catch glimpses of the temple itself, praying for His will to be done on earth as in heaven. But even when we go back to daily living, where the oppressive rains continue, we can still provide relief.
In our individual lives, homes, customs, policies, and laws, though we may not be able to stop the rain, we can put up shelters, tents, maybe only umbrellas where people accustomed to injustice’s drenching find instead the brief cover of a mercy extended, a meal shared, or a right protected by law. Such moments and policies may not obliterate oppression, but each is better than leaving everyone standing in the rain.
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