Social Justice

I heard a sermon the other day from the book of Amos. You must give pastors credit when they tackle the minor prophets, because generally the authors do not tend to be the most upbeat individuals. That said, we can certainly understand lament since we see reason for it every day.

One of the topics that was addressed in the sermon was the oft-debated topic of “social justice.” There are a lot of challenges with this concept, simply because it lacks a universal definition in society. Language can have a lyrical beauty when it is creatively assembled, but it can also be a frustrating part of the human existence, simply because meaning can quickly push people down different interpretational paths. Without starting a political firestorm, I know that words like “liberal,” “conservative,” and “evolution” can also carry enough metaphorical baggage with them to fill a cargo ship.

Just to provide a context, I looked up the Wikipedia definition. This controversial but terribly helpful website defines the phrase as, “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” When we read this type of general definition, we understand why people can engage in fierce debate about meaning, interpretation and application. Very quickly we find ourselves in a situation where “rich” and “poor” are categorized as fundamentally oppositional forces. Those that have quietly worked hard to earn a measure of money can feel like they are suddenly being persecuted for being successful. In addition, the conversation can wander into side arguments about poor lifestyle choices, government policy, racism, prejudice and economic philosophy.

To keep us on track, let me suggest a simple interpretation to this much-debated concept. In multiple places, the Bible tells me to love my neighbor, and be aware of people around me. Social justice should not be about forcing one group to fix the problems of another. Rather, it should fuel a daily desire to help our fellow brother and sister overcome the obstacles that are in front of them, whether they are from personal choices or external circumstances. This may be a simplistic interpretation of social justice, but sometimes it is best to focus on the basics. People have needs, and many individuals have the means to help them. Those means were given to us by God.

Now, the justice part is obviously complicated. When justice is “served,” it does not automatically mean that everyone gets what they want. Much like other nebulous concepts like “love,” how we help people can vary greatly. Sometimes God calls us to sacrificially give of our time, talents and treasures. Other times he calls us to empower the individual by letting them make their own choices to move forward.

There is one other piece to consider, which is the social aspect of this little phrase. After the sermon, a friend of mine asked if justice needs a qualifier. After all, isn’t “true” justice able to stand alone? Can’t we say the same about “true” love or “the whole” truth? This is a good point, but after thinking about it, I think there is value to the extra word in this context.

In this case, the word social personalizes the value of justice. Think about the phenomenon of social networking. Again, “networking,” does not necessarily need the social aspect, but the modern interpretation of this idea is that a social network is another way of saying MY network. In the same way, I wonder if social justice could be interpreted in a positive way to reflect our personal responsibility to act.

When we talk about the concept of justice, there can be a psychological distance between us and broader society. We have the same problem when we say phrases that start with “someone should…” or “someone needs to…”. Without the qualifier, we leave the responsibility to someone else.

You can’t fix every problem in this world, but that isn’t what God calls us to do. Start with that person you encounter on the street, at the mall, at our office, across the driveway, or in the pew next to you. We can keep debating the broad meaning of social justice, but let’s do our best to focus our energy on loving our neighbors in tangible ways. There are needs to be met, and the dictionary can wait.