The term ‘social justice’ has occasioned much discussion since the publication of a statement on the Christian gospel and its relation to social justice. One of the difficulties with the expression is that not everyone uses the term with an agreed-upon meaning.
In what follows I will explain what I mean by ‘social justice’ and why I use the expression.
I talk about ‘social justice’ because I confess that I am a Christian and I believe it captures Christian realities very well.
God is both social and just. He is himself a society (Father, Son and Spirit) and delights to be social with his creatures. And he is just, or righteous. These slightly different English terms obscure the reality that in Scripture, they are the same. That is, the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are the same terms, unfortunately allowing English speakers to distinguish what Scripture keeps together.
The Lord I confess and follow is social: He is a Son and relates to a Father.
In Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, God brought about a work of social justice. The work of Christ is both a social act and a just act (a justice-ifying work). God created a new social reality (the church) in the death of Christ. And God justified (or, ‘righeous-ed’/‘made just’) his new social body, forgiving their social sins, their social injustices committed against others and against God. God created a new social reality between himself and his people, forgiving the sins that had alienated us—a bad social situation.
Jesus sent his Spirit into the world to create a social entity (the church), a people passionate about doing justice/righteousness in the social realm (Titus 2:14).
I confess publicly my participation in a society of justice—the kingdom of God, a social reality under the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus called people to turn away from socially unjust behaviors (lying, stealing, oppressing the poor, exploiting the weak, mistreating foreigners, etc.) and to adopt socially just behaviors (care for the poor, hospitality to foreigners, truth-telling, sharing, confessing sin, forgiving). We call this repentance from sin, and all the unjust and just behaviors are social (Luke 3:7-14).
In fact, it is difficult to imagine any behaviors that Jesus talks about that do not have to do with justice/righteousness that is social.
He will judge the living and the dead at his coming based on conformity to his vision of social justice. He will judge based on whether people have welcomed foreigners and immigrants, whether they have shared with those in need, whether they have brought relief to those who suffer and whether they have visited people in prison (Matt 25:31-46). He will judge based on their care for the poor, the orphan and the widow, and whether they have behaved in socially unjust ways, such as cultivating friendships with rich people—the sort of people who say that one can be Christian without practicing justice in the social realm (James 1:27-2:26).
The central practice of God’s new society is a gathered meal, a social event that itself proclaims the socially just reality that God brought about in Christ (1 Corinthians 11:17-35). Paul tells the Corinthians that some of them are dying and getting sick because they are eating the social justice meal while also practicing socio-economic injustice.
The first-century church wrestled over the inclusion of Jews and non-Jews in one social body and how they should behave as God’s new society of justice. The singular thing they did agree on was a matter of social justice: they should all prioritize caring for the poor (Galatians 2:10).
The Christian Bible is a collection of social media about justice. It is made up of media (letters, Gospels, apocalypses, narratives, poetic works) in which we hear from God about how to conduct ourselves in the socially just order into which we have been baptized.
Baptism is also an act of social justice: in it I declare my death to an unjust social order and my new participation in the body politic of Jesus.
While I could go on, this is just to say that I use the expression ‘social justice’ because it refers to nearly every aspect of being Christian and to the vision of life to which God in Christ calls humanity.
I use it because Christians in America and ‘the West’ cannot help but individualize nearly everything about the Christian faith. Our version of Christian faith comes down to us already thoroughly individualized and the expression ‘social justice’ helps to recapture our colonized imaginations.