Sound words for a misunderstood concept.
Should the Church Promote Social Justice?
In 2010, conservative radio host Glenn Beck set off a firestorm of controversy when he warned listeners to leave any church that promotes social justice. “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site,” Beck said. “If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice … are code words.”1 Some evangelicals responded fiercely. For instance, Sojourners president Jim Wallis called on Christians to boycott Beck’s show and compared him with shock jock Howard Stern.2 Amid the debate, many were left to wonder about the true meaning of social justice.
Controversy over the term is nothing new. Jesuit theologian Luigi Taparelli first used it in the 1840s to combat a socialist surge. He argued that religious and civic groups could improve living conditions without relying on government force—an exercise in social justice.3 Yet within a century, the phrase was co-opted for less noble ends. During the 1930s, Nazi sympathizer Charles Coughlin established the National Union for Social Justice and published a magazine called Social Justice that reached a million subscribers. Under that banner, he launched racist attacks against an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers.”4Then, in the 1970s, Communist Party USA leaders instructed their followers to use the term “social justice” to advocate mandatory redistribution of wealth.5
While few would promote Nazi or communist agendas as social justice today, an unscriptural idea still underlies some use of the phrase. Evangelical theologian Albert Mohler observed that a group of supposedly Christian preachers “have traded the Gospel for a platform of political and economic change, most often packaged as a call for social justice.”6 This phenomenon began with the twentieth-century Social Gospel movement, which deemphasized individual regeneration, focusing instead on salvation from social ills in order to realize the kingdom of God on earth.7
Of course, progressive Christians make some valid observations regarding social justice. Wallis, for instance, argues that genuine, individual regeneration results in concern for a more just society.8 He also rightly notes the need for evangelicals to expand their political activism beyond the issues of abortion and homosexuality; for poverty relief, environmental concerns, and global AIDS relief can also fall under the heading of justice.9
Indeed, Scripture defines justice with striking breadth. The Hebrew term most commonly translated as “justice” (mishpat) is used well over 100 times in the Old Testament, referring to such diverse subjects as accurate weights and measures, fair wages for laborers, unwillingness to be bribed, and care for the physically and spiritually needy. At root, it describes actions that promote civic righteousness and faith in God.10 The New Testament uses “justice” (kreesis) in a similar fashion.11
Thus, Christian scholar and journalist Marvin Olasky has suggested reclaiming the term “social justice” for God-honoring use. For example, he advocates under that heading initiatives that promote fatherhood, stabilizing families and making it more likely that children will come to faith in the Heavenly Father. Social justice could also include sharing the gospel with prisoners, helping to improve inner-city public schools, encouraging generosity, and many other faith-promoting activities.12 Yet the biblical sense of justice is perverted, Olasky noted, when well-meaning Christians invoke it to champion mandatory economic leveling of society or government welfare programs that facilitate sinful living and kill work ethic.13
So while so-called “social justice” that devalues or combats biblical truth is antithetical to the cause of Christ, the modern world desperately needs Christians to champion true justice. If they do, the Lord may use their efforts to revive the Church and rejuvenate the nation.
Tobin Grant, “Glenn Beck: ‘Leave Your Church,’” Christianity Today Website, March 12, 2010, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/marchweb-only/20-51.0.html (accessed May 24, 2010).
Marvin Olasky, “Beck vs. Wallis: Understanding a High-Profile Fight About ‘Social Justice,’” World Magazine Website, April 10, 2010, http://www.worldmag.com/articles/16582 (accessed May 24, 2010).
Albert Mohler, “Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Limits of Public Discourse,” Albert Mohler Website, March 15, 2010, http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/03/15/glenn-beck-social-justice-and-the-limits-of-public-discourse/ (accessed May 24, 2010).
Jim Wallis, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 17-21.
Ibid., 5. An emerging coalition of some centrist and progressive evangelicals—including Wallis, Ron Sider, and Steve Monsma—have broadened evangelical discussions of justice to include these issues. For more examples, see Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008); Steve Monsma, Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
Marvin Olasky, “Prodigal Doctrines: Going Beyond ‘Social Justice’ to ‘Righteous Justice’” (lecture, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, September 29, 2009). Audio available at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Website, http://www.sbts.edu/resources/lectures/norton/prodigal-doctrines-going-beyond-social-justice-to-righteous-justice/ (accessed May 24, 2010).
Marvin Olasky and Jim Wallis, “A Critical Evaluation of Christian Responses to Poverty and Affluence—A Moderated Discussion,” (discussion, Cedarville University, Cedarville, OH, March 11, 2010). Audio available at The Path Website, http://store.thepath.fm/Critical_Concern_Series_-_em__P64715.cfm?UserID=5352407&jsessionid=f030cf6b15a711542f7b6c41345772e46314 (accessed May 24, 2010).