Social justice is redundant.
Justice, properly understood in a biblical sense, always has social implications.
Personal salvation is redundant in the same way. Salvation, properly understood in a biblical sense, while it may have broader implications, is always personal in nature.
Why the modifiers?
In a column last week for the American Spectator, Jonathan Witt calls the “social” in social justice a “weasel word”. He writes about social business, social justice and the social gospel:
In all three of these phrases, the common weasel word sucks some of the essential meaning out of what it modifies by implying that business, justice, and the Christian Gospel are a-social, or even anti-social, until conjoined with a mysterious something else.
The modifier “social” doesn’t suck the essential meaning from any of those terms but rather serves as a corrective for misuse or misunderstandings of those terms.
When it comes to salvation, the modifier “personal” highlights that salvation requires personal agency. You don’t experience salvation passively or through others but by an act of personal will.
When it comes to justice, the modifier “social” highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.
No one should have to use loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, or good to modify the word Christian. Those are all the fruits of the Spirit that Paul said Christians should exhibit. Unfortunately, that’s not how many people experience Christians, which means that, while those modifiers should be unnecessary, they often are helpful in conveying intended meaning.
Christians, especially those of a younger generation, have grabbed on to the “social” modifier for justice because they have seen previous generations fail to give it it’s proper place.
But now, the change has been substantial.
For example, Witt refers to the Circle of Protection as “promoted by Jim Wallis and his friends on the left.” But, he doesn’t deal with the fact that the National Association of Evangelicals, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Salvation Army, World Vision, Willow Creek, and the Evangelical Covenant Church all signed on, too. These groups would hardly be considere “left” by very many people.
A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute bears this out. Fifty-eight percent of white evangelicals oppose cutting federal programs that help the poor, 72 percent oppose cutting federal funding to religious organizations that help the poor and 60 percent favor raising taxes on those that make more than $1 million a year.
By the numbers, the Circle of Protection encompasses a broad spectrum of the entire population and even a solid majority of white evangelicals.
Witt's Spectator column dismissing the effectiveness of foreign aid was published on Dec. 2. The timing was unfortunate for the prospects of supporting his argument. On Dec. 1, both President Bush and President Obama celebrated the amazing progress that federal funding streams, such as the Bush-introduced PEPFAR program, have made in combatting the global AIDS emergency. By 2015, we could see the birth of our first AIDS-free generation.
And a few months ago, we heard a similar announcement about malaria: Deaths from the eminently preventable disease also are predicted to drop to levels close to zero by 2015.
Witt should be encouraged to know that anti-poverty advocates praise the success of opening up developing markets as a means to reduce poverty. Opening developing markets also points to smart investment in public health and infrastructure. Solutions require a both/and approach, not an either/or.
In addition to criticizing foreign aid, Witt also takes on domestic anti-poverty programs. Critiques are certainly welcome, but what he fails to acknowledge is that since the “War on Poverty” began, the poverty rate in the United States has been cut in half. While the numbers have gotten worse in the past decade or so, during the 1990’s substantial progress was made.
When it comes to domestic public policy, our nation has tried some things that haven’t worked and other things that have. The Earned Income Tax Credit has done a lot to alleviate poverty and was a Republican idea. Without creating a costly program, it puts money right back in the pockets of working people who are struggling to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, the EITC now is under attack from the same party that created it. The Circle of Protection, concerned more with results than with which political party had the idea first, is now fighting to keep it in place.
I am ready to concede the point that if we properly define our terms, the “social” in social justice and the “personal” in personal salvation should both be dropped. But, I’m not willing to stop using the modifier “social” when it comes to justice until Christians fully engage the biblical definition of justice.
Someday, justice will be flowing like a river and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
On that day, we won’t be fighting about whether or not it is “social” justice or just plain old justice that is rolling.
Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.