The Language of Social Justice: A Friendly Rejoinder to Joe Carter

Should Christians reclaim the term ‘social justice’?  I’m not sure that’s wise or necessary

A few weeks ago, Joe Carter published a helpful article at The Gospel Coalition summarizing the origins and JoeCartervaried meanings of “social justice.”  The term was coined by a 19th century Catholic priest to describe the application of justice to the ordering of society.  Even today, the Catholic Catechism devotes several pages to “social justice” and its connection to a biblical worldview. Yet many conservative Christians have become increasingly hostile to the phrase “social justice” because of its association with secular, progressive thought. They suggest that we should use “justice” or “biblical justice” to distinguish a Christian vision of human flourishing from its secular counterpart.

In contrast, Carter argues that Christians should reappropriate the term “social justice.”   He makes the undeniable case that the Bible is concerned with our treatment of the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable, a claim that no modern evangelical would presumably dispute and with which I wholeheartedly agree. Because these concerns overlap substantially with the concerns of progressive advocates of social justice, Carter insists that the phrase should not be avoided. Instead, we should simply redefine “social justice” in terms of biblical categories like mishpat and tzadeqah.

While I appreciate Carter’s approach and agree with almost all of his analysis, I have to balk at his final paragraph:

Social justice, as a biblical concept, is not a term we should abandon without a fight. To paraphrase Colson, we should not shrink from the term nor allow the secular world to distort its biblical meaning.

In the remainder of this article, I’ll argue that Christians should be very hesitant to use the phrase “social justice,” both for the sake of clear communication and to avoid dangerous errors that can be promoted by ambiguity of language.

First, Carter’s final paragraph makes an interesting comparison to the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist.’ Both words originally conveyed completely orthodox, biblical concepts but were later tainted by negative connotations.  Yet the response of many conservative Christians to this semantic drift actually works against Carter’s conclusion.  For example, pastors like Tim Keller, a fellow TGC writer whom Carter quotes extensively in this essay, is hesitant to use the term ‘evangelical’ due to its political connotations.  Similarly, a Christian fellowship at my alma mater dropped ‘evangelical’ from its name after the 2016 election.

Presumably, Carter would not insist that either group is somehow ceding ground to secularism by avoiding a term that has lost its original meaning in the minds of many hearers.  But then, on what basis would he urge us to continue to use the phrase “social justice”?  If he agrees that the term “social justice” often has only a tenuous connection to the biblical concepts that Christians are trying to convey, why should we insist on using it any more than we insist on using the term ‘fundamentalist’?

Second, it’s unclear what Christians stand to gain by using the term “social justice” rather than the word ‘justice’ simpliciter or an alternative like “biblical justice.” If we are speaking to conservative Christians, they certainly will not (or certainly should not!) object to the word “justice”, even if we talk about its public and institutional components.  On the other hand, they might understandably stumble over the phrase “social justice” due to its association with groups and ideas they reject.  Googling the phrase “social justice organizations” or “social justice denominations” shows that this confusion is eminently reasonable.

If we are speaking to non-Christians, then it’s similarly difficult to see why they’d object to our use of the word ‘justice’ which we can then expand using biblical content.  However, if we use the phrase “social justice”, they might wrongly assume that we are in full agreement with a progressive social vision. On discovering our real beliefs, they would be aghast and might even see us as disingenuous, trying to ride the coattails of a trendy buzzword.  In neither case is the phrase “social justice” an aid to clear communication and in both cases there seems to be a significant downside.

Third, while Carter observes that there is an association between “social justice” and progressive identity politics, he does not elaborate on this connection.  To many progressive activists, the term “social justice” is rooted in critical theory, an ideology that divides the world into oppressed groups and their oppressors.  For example, in the popular anthology Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, Mary McClintock defines social justice as ‘the elimination of all forms of social oppression” (p. 483).  Oppression here does not refer to sustained cruelty or violence, but to the exercise of hegemonic power, which defines society’s value, norms, and expectations.  The authors in this anthology unanimously connect social justice to dismantling racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, colorism, adultism, ageism, and host of other ‘oppressions’.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, critical theory as a worldview is in fundamental opposition to Christianity.  Yet it is from critical theory that many activists draw their definition of “social justice.”

Given this alternate definition, one that is widely adopted in disciplines like Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, and Critical Pedagogy, I question the wisdom of using this phrase. Words matter.  Think about the subtle power of words like ‘equality’, ‘bigot’, or ‘unpatriotic.’  We can’t underestimate the degree to which words subconsciously shape our ideas and intuitions.  For this reason, unreflectively adopting a popular yet ambiguous phrase seems dangerous.

For example, let’s ask whether Christians should use the phrase “reproductive justice.” Of course, we can redefine this phrase to mean “the right of a married couple to have children without government interference.” We could even defend the importance of this concept given China’s One-child policy.  We could point out that the right to have children is an implication of God’s creation mandate in Gen. 1-2 and the intrinsic value of human life.  Yet I doubt that any Christian would seriously entertain the wisdom of touting their commitment to “reproductive justice,” given that this phrase has an entirely different definition in the secular world, one that is inextricably linked to pro-choice ideology.

I realize that my concerns may come across as hopelessly pedantic and nitpicky, but this issue has serious implications.  Imagine a young Christian headed off to college for the first time.  If he has heard nothing but praise for “social justice” and has never thought carefully about this phrase, what will be his reflexive attitude towards any organization that claims the mantle of “social justice”?  When he seeks out a new church, will he view the phrase “social justice” as the primary indicator of its doctrinal health? When he takes classes, will he be inclined to accept the dictates of any professor who couches his teaching in the language of “social justice”?  These questions should give us pause.

At this point, I suspect that my readers have divided into two camps.  Those who oppose the term “social justice” are probably ecstatic while those who support the term are probably livid.  And that is my greatest worry of all. The term “social justice” has become a shibboleth among evangelicals.  On the one hand, evangelicals who reject the term find themselves allied with Christians who have never seriously considered the social implications of the gospel and who need to reform their views to Scripture.  On the other hand, those who embrace the term find themselves allied with progressive Christians who often do not share the same basic theological commitments.  Either way, both sides are tempted to think that taking the “right” stance on the phrase “social justice” covers over a multitude of sins and absolves us of the need to test our views against Scripture.  Brothers, such things should not be.

While I think I’ve made a strong case that we ought to use a different term, we dare not let the words we use matter more than the biblical concepts they signify.  Certainly our devotion to, or rejection of, a certain word or phrase can suggest a deeper theological problem (homoiousios anyone?).  Yet, at the end of the day, it is Scripture -not political alignment or semantics- that should govern our commitments.

To that end, my final suggestion is that we should focus on specific actions and policies rather than on words.  Instead of arguing for abstractions like ‘social justice’ or ‘ending oppression’, discuss the concrete steps and attitudes that you believe are the implications of a biblical worldview. There will still be disagreement, but it may actually be less acrimonious.  Instead of seeing fellow believers as “Social Justice Warriors” or “opponents of justice,” we’ll all be driven back to Scripture, to be humbled, challenged, encouraged, corrected, and admonished.

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