Conservative Theology

Social Justice: the Theological Concept vs. the Political Concept


Jim Wallis has a new editorial where he *surprise* misses the point of a conversation entirely.  Wallis critiques Beck for telling his audience that they should leave their churches if they are teaching "social justice".  Now, while I think that's rather extreme, and that Beck should have phrased this differently, I don't really disagree.

The problem is that there are two meanings of social justice - there is a theological concept and a political concept.  The social justice theological concept, as Wallis correctly notes, is relatively uncontroversial within Christianity.  Based on what I know of what Beck says on the radio, Beck would agree with the theological concept of social justice.  Beck actually wants to return to the days when people helped each other, and politicians looked out for the people rather than tried to screw them.  Both of these things are part of the theological concept of social justice.

The social justice political concept, however, is quite pernicious.  It is, indeed, a way to bring radical leftist politics into public conversation using religion as a masquerade.  I've read books by authors that openly admit to doing this.  Shoot - I know people who openly admit to doing this.  They use religion as a tool for their political agenda.  That is, their interest in theology is only to use it as a means of pursuing their political agendas.  They wouldn't care about theology at all if it weren't such an effective tool.

The social justice political concept is basically Marxist philosophy decorated with the sayings of Jesus.  Most of it has the following basis for reasoning:

  1. Total resources are static
  2. Anyone who has more than someone else got that way by stealing it
  3. Only by putting "really smart" people in control of all of the resources can they be appropriately handled

Now, the way in which they are able to smuggle this through as being "Christian" is that the Bible has very little to say on #1 and #3, and because there have been people in the Bible for whom #2 applied, it can be safely generalized to everyone else.

However, the social justice political movement often forgets the things that are in the favor of conservative economics, like (1) reality, and (2) the rest of the Bible.

Most people don't know this, but a large portion of the Bible is about getting money (read Proverbs).  In fact, much of this points out that social injustice is not the only cause of poverty!  Sometimes it is the cause of poverty, but poverty can also be caused by poor choices.  And wealth can be caused by many small, good choices over a long period of time.

As far as reality goes, social justice politics simply ignores the fact that the largest causes of social injustice in the past have been bad economic systems.  If your economic system isn't producing enough to feed everyone, then any distribution of it is going to be socially unjust.  If your economic system is very abundant, then even your social injustice will be more socially just than the injustice of a bad economic system.

I think it was in a meeting between Gorbachev and Thatcher, where Gorbachev asked Thatcher how she fed her people.  This is the thinking of social justice - it was the job of Gorbachev (or other really smart people in the Politburo) to feed everyone.  This is insanity.  In reality, no matter how smart you are, you pale in comparison to the combined, specialized knowledge that is contained throughout the economy.  By centralizing decisions, you put your own wishes ahead of everyone else. I could go on, but instead I'll just refer you to Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy.

The big problem, though, is that the political social justice people have been allowed to set the terms, definitions, expectations, and vision for what "social justice" is supposed to mean.  So, even when someone is not part of the "social justice" political group, often times their vision for what social justice is and looks like comes from the social justice politics.  We often forget that the pre-reflective perspectives we have on issues usually have a specific source.  Our common ideas of heaven and hell usually come not from the Bible, but from Paradise Lost and The Inferno.  That is true even if you have never read Paradise Lost or The Inferno.  Likewise, the picture that is often in our heads about social justice come not from the Biblical picture of social justice (though there are certainly connections, just as there are in Paradise Lost), or even from what we know about economics, but from the Marxist viewpoint that has been politically active promoting their perspective.

Therefore, while I disagree with Beck about saying that if someone says 'social justice' in the Church you should leave, I also think that Wallis is being horribly naive in his response.  All in all, I think that Beck is much closer to the truth than Wallis, because of the pervasiveness of the political social justice movement that inadvertantly (and sometimes intentionally) affects our view of theological social justice.