On Social Justice, pt 1: The Ambiguity of Social Justice

Written by C.Jay Engel and Brandon Adams (Sep 21, 2018)

Thousands of words have been spoken and written in response to the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. God uses controversy to force Christians to very carefully consider matters. God chose to reveal Himself to us in Scripture, in part, because of the precision that written words entail. The benefit of written statements in response to controversy is that they force us to think about matters very precisely. At least one podcast went through the Statement line by line, word by word to state their agreement or disagreement. A written statement is a fantastic way to focus dialogue on a matter.

Following the Statement, many have acknowledged the need to precisely define the words at the heart of the disagreement. The host of the Christianity Today podcast with Thabiti Anyabwile apologized for having to ask him to define so many terms and Anyabwile acknowledged that lack of clear and agreed upon definitions is the source of talking past one another. We are very thankful for that recognition. Meaningful conversation cannot happen until terms are defined. We’re sticklers for definitions.

One of the problems with adopting and promoting social justice is that there is immense difficulty in defining it; this makes it especially dangerous in the hands of the wrong people. Antonio Martino helpfully expressed the problem with the term “social justice” very succinctly in 1983, when he stated that the phrase social justice

owes its immense popularity precisely to its ambiguity and meaninglessness. It can be used by different people, holding quite different views, to designate a wide variety of different things. Its obvious appeal stems from its persuasive strength, from its positive connotation, which allows the user to praise his own ideas and simultaneously express contempt for the ideas of those who don’t agree with him.

This is not just a problem that is recognized within Christian circles. The Austrian Economist turned social theorist FA Hayek once expressed his own frustration over the trying to understand the phrase:

In my earlier efforts to criticize the concept I had all the time the feeling that I was hitting into a void and I finally attempted, what in such cases one ought to do in the first instance, to construct as good a case in support of the ideal of ‘social justice’ as was in my power. It was only then that I perceived that the Emperor had no clothes on, that is, that the term ‘social justice’ was entirely empty and meaningless. As the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, I ‘could not see anything, because there was nothing to be seen.’ The more I tried to give it a definite meaning the more it fell apart — the intuitive feeling of indignation which we undeniably often experience in particular instances proved incapable of being justified by a general rule such as the conception of justice demands.

In these circumstances I could not content myself to show that particular attempts to achieve ‘social justice’ would not work, but had to explain that the phrase meant nothing at all, and that to employ it was either thoughtless or fraudulent.

Social justice has typically been associated with socialism. However, Joe Carter, Editor at The Gospel Coalition argues that the ideas behind social justice were originally sourced in Christianity but have actually been taken over by secularists. Therefore, he writes, Christians ought to fight for a biblical understanding of the topic and not give in to its secularization. Whether or not the association between social justice and socialism was the result of secularization of the term, rather than the intended meaning of Rome all along, will be addressed in part 2. For now, we will simply note the ambiguity involved in Carter’s definition.

He starts with reference to the Catholic Church in the 19th century. There are two important resources referred to: Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes) and Quadragesimo Anno. These Progressive era encyclicals adopted and formalized the Roman position on social justice, which was their phrase to start with; Carter points out that it was a Jesuit priest who coined the phrase in the 1840s. This is a bad start, if one wishes to use these facts to justify the use of the social justice. The theoretical context of these encyclicals was the the rising trend of socialism in the catholic church. If the employment of the social justice phrase is going to be defended based on its roots, and if the phrase should be interpreted in light of its history, starting with nineteenth century catholic social teaching gives the game away.

In any case, the socialist roots of the language and framework here are not unique to the catholic church. In fact, the most important popularizer of these themes within the broader evangelical community is Tim Keller, who has a variety of theological problems besides his social teachings. Tim Keller is a founding member of TGC and helped draft its Foundation Documents, which touch on this matter. Keller explains:

Then I went off to one of those fine, liberal, smaller universities in the Northwest, which quickly began to throw water on the [Methodist-derived] hellfire in my imagination. The history and philosophy departments were socially radicalized and were heavily influenced by the Neo-Marxist critical theory of the Frankfurt School. In 1968, this was heady stuff. The social activism was particularly attractive, and the critique of American bourgeoisie society was compelling, but its philosophical underpinnings were confusing to me.

I seemed to see two camps before me, and there was something radically wrong with both of them. The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world. I was emotionally drawn to the former path – what young person wouldn’t be? Liberate the oppressed and sleep with who you wanted! But I kept asking the question, “If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?” This seemed to be a blatant inconsistency in my professors and their followers.”

What is the Frankfurt School? In short, the Frankfurt School represented a shift from economic marxism to conceiving of the victim classes in a more cultural way. Under classical marxism, workers were oppressed by capitalists strictly in terms of wages, profits, and economic suppression. The Frankfurt School shifted the problem of social victimhood from economics to more general social institutions: race, gender, democratic representation, the poor (not just the workers), and so on. The Frankfurt School is the source of what some people now called “Cultural Marxism:” A framework of class tension not based solely on economics but on cultural habits.

Thus, when Keller emphasizes issues such as social justice, it must be realized that, whatever his definition, it incorporates the influence of the Frankfurt model of social criticism. That is, he rejected the epistemology underlying the School but he believes he found their same concept of social justice in Scripture. Timothy Kauffman makes a great contribution to understanding the ongoing Neo-Marxist influence in Keller’s writings.

This framework is important in understanding where the idea of social justice came from. It is agreed that Neo-Marxism itself is unbiblical. The question, however, in the evangelical community at large is whether the concept can be saved – Christianized, so to speak. The reason Keller’s background is relevant to all this is that one cannot analyze the employment of a phrase without understanding how it’s most popular proponents incorporate it into their more general framework of social interpretation. Given that social justice has no objective definition, and given its socialistic roots, we must always keep in mind the surrounding propositions, presuppositions, and interpretations of the individual we are analyzing.

Back in 2010, Kevin DeYoung said “I’d like to make a modest proposal for Christians of all theological and political persuasions: don’t use the term “social justice” without explanation.” Anyabwile reposted DeYoung’s “wise” proposal, saying “Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!” He noted on the CT podcast that he prefers not to use the term.

To elaborate on the inherent difficulty of the social justice phrase, let’s shift back to the Joe Carter article. He references the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which defines Social Justice as:

Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

This is always a remarkable aspect to these “teleological” definitions (defining a phrase in light of its objectives): they are completely unhelpful and never clarifying. For some, the social system that accomplishes the goal of giving people their due, the system that promotes the common good and properly understands the exercise of authority is Marxist socialism; for others it is Reformist socialism; for others it is Catholic Distributism; for others some altruistically-motivated interventionist economy. For us, for this site, it is laissez-faire capitalism on the foundation of radical private property rights established in the 8th commandment. Now what? This is a poor definition because the argument is not whether people are owed what they are due (a tautology), but what, exactly, they are due in the first place.

This is a central problem to this entire debate in evangelical circles: those on the “pro” side of the consideration as to whether we should push for social justice issues seem to operate on the assumption that the debate is over whether justice should be promoted by Christians. In his book on Social Justice and the Christian Church, Ronald Nash wrote:

After all, if a political liberal praises social justice, it seems to follow that anyone who disagrees with him must favor injustice. Once this seed is planted, it is but a short step to the conclusion that anyone disagreeing with the liberal’s noble goals must be dishonorable.

For instance Thabiti Anyabwile states the following:

We deny that the pursuit of biblical justice necessarily corrupts the gospel of Jesus Christ. We deny the idea that doing justice is merely a partisan principle held by or belonging to some. It is rather the necessary and natural outworking of Christ’s life in the Church and the world by His Spirit. There is no way to follow Jesus Christ as Lord while leaving off justice for our neighbors.

But of course, it would be difficult to find someone in disagreement with that. The debate should not be whether “biblical justice” is important, vital, and necessary in the world. The debate should be focused on the meaning of justice. While this topic is far broader than issues of state and society (though that is a core aspect of all this, especially in light of the roots of the social justice phrase), consider that both the supporter and the opponent of welfare happen to defend their position in terms of what is just. So then we should not waste too much time arguing over whether biblical justice has a role in the Christian life. Rather, we think it far more relevant to understand exactly how social justice qualifies justice in general and whether it is a useful concept to defend.

Carter’s article attempts to define justice in general before it attempts to define social justice. We will elaborate more on the meaning of justice in a future post. But in any case, the definition he ends up using is from Gideon Strauss: “when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence.” While we think the second half of that is unnecessary and unhelpful, for the present purposes, what we are interested in is learning how “social” qualifies and adopts “justice” into something more specific.

The claim is that social justice is a category of biblical justice. Carter:

Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice. Claiming that we need only “biblical justice” and not “social justice” is a category error.

Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including the rectifying justice that belongs to the government (what we’d call public or legal justice) as well as justice between individuals (what could be called inter-individual justice) and justice involving organizations and groups (what we’d call social justice).

If (Biblical) justice is giving to people what they are due, what does “social” add to qualify that? Justice involving organizations and groups does not get to the heart of the problem; it is not immediately clear how justice between individuals is distinct from justice between groups. To what does one group owe another? But more relevant to the question of whether social justice can be made biblical and not just neo-marxist, what do these groups consist of? This is an interesting question because in answering it, we become keenly aware of the underlying neo-marxist motivations. Do “whites owe blacks?” Do “men owe women?” Folks like Joe Carter would likely not answer in this way— they would say: no, but we owe honesty, goodwill, and love toward one another. But is that not “justice toward individuals?”

For example, any claim about the need for racial reconciliation should, though it never does, look like this: If a white man has a problem with a black man for reasons relating specifically to his ethnicity, they should pursue reconciliation. This is a far different cry than the collectivist call for whites and blacks to reconcile as a matter of “racial justice.” After all, sin, hate, animosity can only be found in agents that have wills/minds— and only individuals have wills/minds. Blacks and whites as a whole cannot reconcile— but individuals can. For individuals who do not struggle with racism cannot repent and reconcile for being racist.

Thus, we are still not entirely clear on what is meant by “social justice” as a qualification and subcategory of biblical justice in general.

Joe Carter employs Keller’s discussion of the Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat to define social justice. Mishpat refers to the legal and punishment side of the equation (courts and legal agents punishing wrongdoers justly), while Tzadeqah refers to right relationships with others. By combining the two, he says, we get “social justice.”

The major and gaping problem with this formulation is that it takes a phrase that has an actual history and usage in modern social commentary (that, whether Keller and Carter like it or not, assumes Marxist (nonbiblical) assumptions about rights, legal obligations, the justice of wealth, the justice of profits, and so on) and attempts to redefine it with Hebrew terminology. In other words, for the first time, Social Justice is supposed to refer to acting rightly and lovingly with those around us. This is manipulation of language and results in confusion and division (hence the recent uproars), rather than clarity.

In order to understand this modern “evangelical” formulation of social justice, complete with a proper analysis of the work of Tim Keller and Thabiti Anyabwile and others, it will take time. But to properly address the redefinition of social justice, we need to move beyond the phrase itself and start from the bottom. We need to define justice, in its broad and narrow aspects, and accurately describe the nature of an obligation as it relates to what is “owed.” We need to distinguish between justice and grace, the duty to “outdo one another in love,” and the mandates related to “serving others.” In our opinion, social justice as a phrase has a historically objective set of meanings that render its conflation with “living rightly” with others a dangerous one. Nevertheless, despite the socially fashionable use of the phrase, we need to get to the bottom of it all by understanding the arguments and addressing them in a clear, succinct, and rational fashion. How we understand the biblical aspect of justice is going to determine the way we talk about political theory, economics, and ecclesiastical roles as well.

So stayed tuned, and have patience as we work through this issue, making sure we listen carefully to what is being said.

Written by C.Jay Engel and Brandon Adams

One thought on “On Social Justice, pt 1: The Ambiguity of Social Justice

  1. Pingback: On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy – Contrast

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