by Gary Corwin
The essential flaw in most campaigns for social justice has its origin in a mistaken assumption that there is no justice unless there is equality of outcomes.
I confess that I have never liked the term “social justice” very much. While many fine people with pure motives use it all the time, it has also been used by tyrants seeking to enslave their own people and others. The adjective “social” implies to me that the measure of justice is what people on the horizontal plane determine it to be—the standard society has set. Biblical justice, on the other hand, places the justice issue on the vertical plane of what God, in his perfection, has determined is right and just.
Justice on the vertical plane is also about what God has ordained for human beings made in his image. He has made them, and he has established the standard for justice among them. They are, as the United States Declaration of Independence has so eloquently stated, “… created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” One of the implications of this truth is that justice is about freedom—freedom to be all God has created us to be, in all our shared humanity to be sure, but also in all our unique and individual personhood. This, in turn, suggests that outcomes and contributions will vary. As history has shown, and as the flower and insect world attest, our God is a God who loves variety.
The essential flaw in most campaigns for social justice has its origin in a mistaken assumption that there is no justice unless there is equality of outcomes. This is not to say, of course, that there is no obligation to mercy and generosity. Clearly there is. But equality of opportunity, at least to the extent that talent, energy, and ambition will allow, and not outcomes, should be the measure of justice.
There would be no need for the tenth Commandment against coveting if equality of outcome were the standard. On the contrary, it would be those possessing that which is coveted that would be in the wrong, because they have breached the social standards of equality.
The chief antithesis to justice in biblical terms is not inequality of outcomes, or breaches to ephemeral cultural mores. Instead, it’s about exploitation—of the poor, the weak, the orphan, the widow, and a lack of showing mercy and care toward them. This must be resisted in one’s personal life and in one’s circle of influence; it must also be resisted in its systemic manifestations through the corridors of power in government, commerce, or other institutions, including the church. Exploitation is horrible, but it is simple to define—whatever the context, it is the powerful taking advantage of the non-powerful for self-aggrandizement, or simply because they can.
So how, in general terms, do the biblical commands to “do justice” relate to the great mission task “to make disciples of all nations/peoples?” I would suggest three ideas. First, each is a reflection of who God is. He is just, and he is also loving and merciful, “desiring all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). With regard to both justice and mission, he expects his followers to be imitators of him (Eph. 5:1), simply because he is the standard of excellence and what is right, and he has made us in his image. Beyond that, all his redeemed are reborn explicitly for the purpose of conformity to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29).
Second, justice is intimately connected to the gospel of Christ. Remember Jesus’ response to John’s disciples concerning whether he was the one promised: “Tell John … the blind receive their sight and the lame walk … and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5). Where the kingdom has truly come, there are both disciples and doers of justice walking the earth in the same bodies, and they are promoting both justice and grace. One only need think of those like William Wilberforce and William Carey to recognize how intertwined those two emphases can be. Justice and grace are not antithetical in the lives of God’s people, but they are different. One provides the roadmap to godliness; the other provides the power to make the journey possible.
Third, in the kingdom, systemic and institutional justice in the present age is not the highest priority; making disciples who are redeemed and transformed is. This is not to paint societal justice as unimportant, however. It is on every redeemed person’s “to do” list as part of what it means to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The point, though, is that it follows as a corporate expression of a lot of individual transformations. These, in turn, lead to communities of faith know as churches—the establishment of which is the task of mission and the prerequisite for sustainable justice.
Establishing justice that works, however, is not possible in tandem with naivety about the human condition, even when it is redeemed humanity in view. Checks and balances are needed to address human frailty and sin, and are as essential to any systemic and institutional scheme to establish justice as the good intentions that motivate them. There is much more that could be said about the particular challenges that accompany the pursuit of justice and mission, but we shall have to address some of those next time.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 264-265. Copyright © 1965 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.