On Social Justice, Part I

I believe in social justice and that the church should be the leader in facilitating it.

At the same time, although I’ve used it, I’ve never been comfortable with the phrase, “social justice.”

According to the New York Times, a few weeks ago 400,000 people took to the streets of Israel to protest for “social justice.” These demonstrations were driven by demands for affordable housing, tax reform and for the creation of a welfare state.

Apparently then, social justice would include demands made by Socialists and the Tea Party, which proves the phrase has no meaning.

And that is just one of the problems with the phrase.

Another is that the phrase suggests the cause of injustice is institutions rather than individuals. This is the mistake Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel proponents made at the beginning of the twentieth century. I deeply respect Rauschenbusch. In many respects, I believe he understood the kingdom of God better than the Christian leaders of the late twentieth century who chose escapism over engagement with the world, but in the end his fatal mistake was one of emphasis.

Some institutions are wicked and unredeemable. Slavery and abortion come to mind, if one is using the term “institution” in its broadest sense.

But Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel proponents erred in believing the primary source of injustice was institutions rather than individuals. Consequently, they wrongly believed fixing institutions would cure the ills of society.

Institutions are no better than the people that run them. There are benevolent dictatorships and corrupt democracies. Some institutions are better than others, but the quality of any institution is trumped by the character of the people who run it.

At the heart of society’s problems is the heart of the individual, which by nature is inclined toward sin until it has been redeemed by Jesus. Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel failed because they focused too much on redeeming society and too little on redeeming man, and the former is not possible without the latter.

Tomorrow: another problem with social justice as a concept and a Biblical alternative that captures the idea of social justice but avoids its pitfalls. GS

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