I have been spending a fair bit of time researching the topic of social justice—something that has probably become obvious to you if you’re a regular reader of this site. The more I read, the more I see how much of the battle is not merely one of competing ideologies, but of competing vocabularies. John Stonestreet has pointed out that “it’s no good having the same vocabulary if we’re using different dictionaries.” And when it comes to social justice, that’s exactly what’s happening—we are drawing definitions from different dictionaries.
No one is arguing against justice. You don’t hear people on the streets chanting, “No injustice, no peace!” or “What do we want? Injustice! When do we want it? Now!” Of course not! Everyone wants justice. Not only that, but everyone wants justice to extend to the community, to the social sphere. In that way, everyone wants not only justice, but social justice. The problem is that different people mean very different things by “justice” and therefore by “social justice.” As long as both sides refuse to cede the term to the other, definitions will remain critical. The question is not “Are you for social justice?” but “What kind of social justice are you for?”
As I’ve read a number of books on the topic, I’ve been interested to see the specific terms authors use to distinguish between what they consider good and bad forms of social justice. Let me share a few of those and then suggest which of them, if any, we should use.
Social Justice A vs. Social Justice B
In the forthcoming book Confronting Justice without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus Williams employs “Social Justice A” and “Social Justice B,” the former to describe “biblically compatible justice-seeking” and the latter to describe its counterfeit. Acknowledging that justice is a major theme in the Bible, he says, “social justice is not optional for the Christian” and goes on to ask “What justice isn’t social, for that matter? God designed us as social creatures, made for community, not loners designed to live on deserted islands or staring at glowing screens all day. All injustice affects others, so talking about justice that isn’t social is like talking about water that isn’t wet or a square with no right angles.” Thus Christians must both seek and execute justice. Yet we must carefully distinguish true justice from false justice (which is itself injustice).
To this end Williams uses “Social Justice A” to speak of the kind of justice “our ancient brothers and sisters did to rescue and adopt the precious little image-bearers who had been discarded like trash at the dumps outside many Roman cities,” as well as the kind of justice exemplified by William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Sophie Scholl, and so on. This contrasts with “Social Justice B” which depends upon “the ‘oppressors vs. oppressed’ narrative of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the deconstructionism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the gender and queer theory of Judith Butler.” The book’s 12 chapters carefully distinguish between those two competing views.
So the first contender is Social Justice A and Social Justice B.
Social Justice vs Ideological Social Justice
Scott David Allen has just released a book titled Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice, and he uses “social justice” as the positive term with “ideological social justice” as the negative term. “I use the modifier ‘ideological,’” he says, “to indicate that we are discussing something much bigger than justice. Rather, it is a comprehensive ideology, or worldview, which helps to explain why it is attracting so many adherents.”
He carefully describes “justice” in both biblical and ideological terms. Justice is “Conformity to God’s moral standard, particularly as revealed in the Ten Commandments and the royal law: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (James 2:8). There are two kinds of justice. (1) Communitive justice is living in right relationship with God and with others. Giving people their due as image-bearers of God. (2) Distributive justice is impartially rendering judgement, righting wrongs, and meting out punishment for lawbreaking. Distributive justice is reserved for God and God-ordained authorities, including parents in the home, pastors in the church, and civil authorities in the state.” Social justice, on the other hand, is “the tearing down of traditional structures and systems deemed to be oppressive, and the redistribution of power and resources from oppressors to victims in pursuit of equality of outcome.” It is perhaps best recognized “by its bitter fruit,” for “the lives and cultures shaped by it are marked by enmity, hostility, suspicion, entitlement, and grievance.”
Thus the second contender is social justice and ideological social justice.
Social Justice vs. Critical Social Justice
In Cynical Theories, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose use the terms “social justice” (in the lowercase) and “Social Justice” (in the uppercase), though they have since decided to replace the latter with “Critical Social Justice.” Because they do not write from a Christian perspective, their interest is not a biblical view of social justice as much as a perspective that is consistent with classical liberalism. Thus their concern is not conformity to the Bible but with preserving the liberalism that has given our society “a shared common ground, providing a framework for conflict resolution and one within which people with a variety of views on political, economic, and social questions can rationally debate the options for public policy.”
Lindsay and Pluckrose define lowercase social justice as “a broad concern for justice across society.” Such justice is fostered by and leads to “political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and the freedom of religion.” Meanwhile, [Critical] Social Justice is concerned with “social inequalities, particularly where it comes to issues of class, race, gender, sex, and sexuality, particularly when these go beyond the reach of legal justice. It is obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationship between them.” It’s advocates “interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction, utterance, and cultural artifact—even when they aren’t obvious or real. This is a worldview that centers social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others.”
The third contender, then, is social justice and either Social Justice or Critical Social Justice.
What Term Should We Use?
So when we want to speak about good and bad forms of social justice, we have at least these three options: Social Justice A vs. Social Justice B; social justice vs. ideological social justice; social justice vs. Social Justice or Critical Social Justice. Each of these pairings is appropriate within the context of its book, but would there be benefit in trying to popularize any of them in an attempt to bring clarity to the kind of social justice the Bible advocates?
Neil Shenvi has thought deeply about this and warns that “social justice is not an empty catchphrase. It has a specific, consistent meaning in large segments of academia and in substantial portions of our culture.” While it does share some concerns of a biblical conception of justice, it depends upon a worldview that is diametrically opposed to that of the Christian. For these reasons he warns that “Christians should be extremely hesitant to use the term ‘social justice.’“ What’s the alternative? “Instead of redefining social justice, a simpler option is to state that Christians support justice in its full biblical sense, which has punitive, restorative, personal, and communal components. If asked to explain, we can elaborate. It may take longer, but it will lead to deeper conversations and better communication.”
I tend to agree with his concerns. He points out that Christians could, in theory, attempt to redeem and employ “reproductive justice,” but it is now so closely bound up with abortion that to do so would only bring confusion. And perhaps “social justice” is much the same. The term has been coopted and may not be worth trying to save. What is certainly most important, though, is not the specific terms we choose to employ, but that we carefully define the ones we use and guard ourselves against reacting impulsively when we hear other Christians use the ones we’ve chosen to reject. We must not allow ourselves to assume that everyone who advocates social justice is necessarily advocating Social Justice B / ideological social justice / Social Justice / Critical Social Justice. It will take time, patience, love, forbearance, and effort before we are all defining our terms from the same dictionary.