What’s in a word: Social Justice

This post was originally published on Sept. 19, 2010.

I thought exploring the term social justice was worth reviewing again given the nation is dealing with a growing debt  problem and a struggling economy. Just this month Congress is wrestling with bills dealing with payroll tax cut extensions, the Medicare/DocFix, and extending unemployment insurance. The issue is how to offset the costs of these items. Whose taxes will get raised and what social programs will be cut?

As the nation debates this the #OccupyWallStreet movement continues highlighting income inequality, corporate greed, and the need for social justice. However social justice is a difficult term to pin down.  What do you think?

Roger Olson in his blog recently asked – why is the term social justice now considered a bad phrase. He then urges Christians to save the phrase and reject any attempt by others to give the term negative connotations.

My fear is that this good term “social justice” will be demonized like so many other good terms to the point that it will be virtually impossible to reinvest with its original valuable meaning.  Christians of all political persuasions should stand up and say a loud and resounding “No!” to those who use it pejoratively.

The problem is how does one define social justice? Not that I want to step into this argument, but clearly Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis are having trouble agreeing on a definition. What does the term social justice mean to people today? How the word is defined is going to determine the reaction you get.

Olson offers these definitions (one in the blog and one in a comment):

“social justice” is any concept of improving the social order for the good of all people.

“social justice” is simply a term to cover any concern for the poor and oppressed and goes beyond charity.

If social justice is a phrase that means “concern for the poor” then it is certainly open to discussion how to best help the poor. It should also be open to discussion what “good of all means” and who gets to determine what that is and how it should be achieved.

Definitions matter. Words change. Take the word “liberal“. It used to be a philosophy that encouraged individual liberty, private property, and limited government. But today that word has a whole new meaning and generally is associated with Keynesian economics and government entitlement programs. What is interesting is Olson demonstrates in his own post why many have a negative association to the phrase “social justice”. Olson admits that the phrase has been used by the progressive movement to promote their policies. Therein lies the problem. It is not concern for the poor that is the problem but how those needs are to be met and what philosophies lie behind the solutions.

Rather than confront the progressive co-opting of the phrase he seeks to defend, Olson cites progressive movements working for the “common good against rabid individualism” (emphasis added). He then goes on to argue that  rejecting social justice means you want “social injustice” and then concludes that those against social justice probably reject the civil rights movement. This should not endear anyone to the cause Olson tries to start. Certainly we can support giving all people regardless of race or gender the right to vote without having to support unsustainable entitlement spending.

Unfortunately Olson does not mention the progressive movements “rabid” spending for entitlements that do more harm than good to the nation as it consumes more and more resources while piling up debt for our children.This is not fiscally sustainable.  Where does the Bible advocate spending more than you have to “improve the social order for the good of all people”?

While we as Christians should support helping the needy, providing equal opportunity to people so that they can work and sustain themselves, providing equal treatment under the law and making sure businesses use “fair scales” we need not rush to support the progressive policies that often undermine other Biblical principles (work ethic, marriage, and debt/spending). Nor should we rush to help Olson until he better defines the phrase “social justice” and seeks to reclaim it from the progressive movement.

What do you think?

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