Whenever I mention the term “social justice”, many American Christians freak out. They desperately do not want me or anyone else to use that word, as if it had the power to summon a dark lord or something.
Even when they agree with me that the content of what “social justice” typically signifies (economic equality, no oppression, no racism, etc.) is important, they don’t want me to call it social justice. If I should call it anything, it should be just “justice”. Period.
It goes to show how focused our social media culture is on the words we use, rather than the lives we live.
The reason for this censorship is that, apparently, “social justice is socialism in disguise”, “when you put ‘social’ in front of justice, you have an agenda”, “social justice has been hijacked by leftists”, and so on and so forth.
These claims are always stated without any form of reference or source. Because they are not true.
Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, John Stott and John Wimber all used the term social justice and deemed it to be central to Christian living. The Lausanne Movement, that helps thousands of evangelicals coordinate for global mission, has tonnes of resources regarding social justice.
I could go on and on giving examples of people who aren’t “socialists” or “leftists” who still like and promote social justice, but I think you get the point. Still, just because evangelical Christians have been talking about social justice for decades doesn’t prove that it’s a good idea. Why even add “social” to the word “justice” in the first place?
In a popular video from “Prager University” (which isn’t a university) with over one million views, it is emphasized that the Bible never mentions social justice, only justice. Cessationist preacher John MacArthur has pointed out in another popular video that “justice doesn’t need an adjective”, arguing that the biblical concept of justice gets distorted if it’s given a social dimension.
Now, let me be clear: if you prefer to say justice instead of social justice, that’s totally fine by me. Again, the important thing is that we help each other promote a better world with less inequality, oppression, and discrimination, rather than what we call such a world.
Our organization is called Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice, after all. I often use “justice” and “social justice” interchangeably.
So the problem isn’t that some people skip “social” when they talk about justice. The problem is when people tell me that I do something wrong when I add “social” to “justice”.
As Thomas Burke at the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute points out:
Originally, when the idea of “social justice”
was first developed in the 1840s, it
was a formal concept rather than a material
one. By this I mean the term was taken
to signify simply a branch of the ordinary
concept of justice, analogous to “commutative
justice” or “criminal justice,” and did
not imply any particular content, philosophy,
or view of the world. There could
be, and was, a conservative conception of
social justice, a liberal conception of it, and
a socialist conception of it, all equally entitled
to call themselves “social justice.”
Social justice points to fairness that is broader than the juridical process. The fact that even when the United States lacks racially discriminatory laws, blacks are still disproportionally poor, imprisoned and victims of police brutality, shows you that there’s something social going on.
To recognize this is not necessarily the same as being a socialist. Just look at how Isaiah connects feeding the hungry to breaking the yokes of oppression:
Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen:
to break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and tear off every yoke?
Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the poor and homeless into your home,
to clothe the naked when you see him,
and not to turn away
from your own flesh and blood?
When MacArthur says that “justice doesn’t need an adjective”, is he seriously arguing that it’s wrong or unnecessary to speak of criminal justice when talking about the juridical system, or racial justice when talking about defeating racism? Probably not. I think he has decided that “social justice” is bad language and tries to come up with a reason for it.
What annoys me the most is that the whole phenomenon of shaming the usage of “social justice” is a very recent practice among American Christians. It seems to stem back to how “social justice warrior” exploded as a pejorative term in 2014’s #gamergate, when thousands of angry gamers were upset with a video series uncovering sexist tropes in games.
Think about that for a second. Christians are nowadays shaming other Christians for promoting social justice, due to non-Christians being upset that another non-Christian pointed out that their games are misogynistic.
The age of social media is a strange time indeed.
Oh, sorry, I meant media. Those who add the adjective “social” to media like Twitter and Facebook are, as we all know, evil communists in disguise.
Micael Grenholm is a Swedish pastor, author and editor for PCPJ.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!