“Evangelicals must make God’s Word and ways known because it is the divine will and demand that is flouted by social injustice,” wrote theologian Carl F.H. Henry, one of the architects of the Southern Baptist “conservative resurgence” during the late 20th century. “Injustice is reprehensible not simply because it is anti-human but because it is anti-God.”
After shepherding multiple Protestant denominations away from theological liberalism, he worried about the knee-jerk reactionaryism that had promptly begun growing up in its place. He spent his twilight years attempting to set evangelicalism on a sturdier course:
“Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated . . . God Himself is the carrier and communicator of [social] concern, and we finite creatures are all under orders in a community that He is insistently addressing . . . The Christian is morally bound to challenge all beliefs and ideologies that trample man’s personal dignity as a bearer of the divine image, all forms of political and economic practice that undercut the worth of human beings, all social structures that discriminate in matters of legal rights . . . The biblical view declares both individual conversion and social justice to be alike indispensable. The Bible calls for personal holiness and for sweeping societal changes; it refuses to substitute private religion or social responsibility or social engagement for personal commitment to God. If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.”
Today, Henry’s concern for “social justice” feels quaint. While a few respected leaders – like Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City – have continued to echo Henry in teaching that “social justice” is an integral part of the Christian life, examples are increasingly difficult to find as conservative religious leaders consolidate around a de facto fealty to right wing politics. PragerU’s Allie Beth Stuckey is largely representative of the prevailing attitude among conservative religious leaders when she writes that “God cannot be a God of social justice because social justice is not just.”
It isn’t just religious leaders who are hopping on the anti-social-justice bandwagon.
“Social justice is the philosophy and practice of dividing people into various demographic categories and then treating them unequally, giving unearned rewards to some and unearned punishments to others,” writes one letter to the editor at the Hillsdale Colegian. “In the American context, social justice consists mostly of punishing Asian and white people, while benefiting a relatively small number of black leftists.”
“The social justice movement that claims to seek equality is really promoting envy, which is one of the seven deadly sins because it is so toxic to society,” writes another at the Tribune-Review. “Social justice is not real justice; it’s envy that is leading our world to disaster.”
“Why is the current narrative so focused on equity, social justice and critical race theory,” writes one resident from Oak Harbor to the Whidbey News Times, “all of which lumps us into “racist” sub-classes while completely ignoring us as individuals?”
The anti-“social justice” crowd has successfully won over the kitchen table crowd. Carl Henry’s fears have come into full bloom.
What makes all of this especially ironic is the fact that, although terms like “social justice” are now largely co-opted in service of bizarre and often asinine causes by activists – like those who obsess over “men sitting with their legs apart on public transit,” seek “dissent-free ‘safe spaces’” and “cry oppression at concern about obesity’s health risks” – the reality is that “social justice” is a concept rooted in the Christian faith and basically conservative in its orientation.
Most folks trace the term “social justice” back to the 1840s, from Catholic theologian Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, who employed the term “social justice” to describe what happens when society works the way God designed it. For D’Azeglio, “social justice” referred not to “setting yourself free from the chains of tradition,” but rather working to restore society to what God meant it to be.
When D’Azeglio talked about “social justice,” however, he was essentially parroting an earlier theologian named Thomas Aquinas, who lived and wrote in the 13th century. It wasn’t even a new idea when Thomas Aquinas pitched it, though, because Aquinas was himself largely echoing an earlier group of theologians—like Basil the Great, from the 4th century.
“‘Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs,’ he bellowed forth from the pulpit. ‘Had you clothed the naked, had you given your bread to the hungry, had your door been open to every stranger, had you been a parent to the orphan, had you made the suffering of every helpless person your own, what money would you have left, the loss of which to grieve?’”
Basil excoriated the wealthy—not for being wealthy, but for refusing to put their wealth to work according to God’s clear instructions in the scriptures:
“After they have squandered their wealth among so many pursuits, if there is any left over, they hide it in the ground and guard it deep within the earth. “For the future,” they say, “is always uncertain; therefore let us take care, lest some unforeseen need should arise . . . What then will you answer the Judge? You gorgeously array your walls, but do not clothe your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister; you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed!”
Even Basil’s approach, here, was not innovative. Although he presented the Biblical vision of wealth and poverty in stunning clarity, his position was remarkably unoriginal. It was also contagious.
“Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered,” declared John Chrysostom, the man who effectively invented expository preaching. “God generously gives all things that are much more necessary than money, such as air, water, fire, the sun – all such things. All these things are to be distributed equally to all.”
“The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor,” wrote Augustine, now generally regarded as the fount of Christian politics. “When you possess superfluity, you possess what belongs to others. God gives the world to the poor as well as to the rich.”
Like D’Azeglio, for Basil and the others, the concept of “social justice” is simply what happens when society works the way God intended.
That’s why, for example, after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, pursuing “social justice” quickly became codified in the law in a way it had never been beforehand. The Institutes of the Christian Emperor Justinian defined justice as “the set and constant purpose which gives to every man his due,” appealing to “the spirit of justice and equity.” The gradual abolition of Roman slavery, coliseum battles, forced prostitution, abortion and infanticide, among other rampant ills, did not come from nowhere. They were, rather explicitly, applications of “social justice” to the present political context.
Still, even the aforementioned church fathers were ultimately parroting their musings on “social justice.” The call to remake the social order according to God’s sacred design is ultimately rooted in the text of scripture.
When Jesus announces the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, he does it by preaching from Isaiah 61. He says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When Jesus “shares the good news,” in Luke 4, he clearly has something more than just “evangelism” in mind. Jesus certainly calls Christians to evangelize, like we see in Matthew 28, Mark 6, and Luke chapter 9, but the “good news” that Jesus talks about isn’t just good news for everybody, in a general sense. It’s also specifically good news for the poor.
What is Jesus talking about?
He’s talking about one of the primary themes of the Old Testament, but it’s a theme that we rarely hear about because it’s a theme that almost nobody actually preaches on. He’s talking about God’s call on God’s people, from Isaiah 1:16-17:
“Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.”
He is likewise talking about God’s call in Jeremiah 22:3:
“Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from the hand of his oppressor. Don’t exploit or brutalize the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood in this place.”
Similarly, he is talking about God’s warning in Amos 5: “Seek Yahweh and live,” says Amos, “or He will spread like fire” and consume “those who turn justice into wormwood” and “throw righteousness to the ground.” He continues:
“Because you trample on the poor and exact a grain tax from him, you will never live in the houses of cut stone you have built; you will never drink the wine from the lush vineyards you have planted. For I know your crimes are many and your sins innumerable. They oppress the righteous, take a bribe, and deprive the poor of justice at the gates.”
After warning God’s people about their tolerance of injustice, Amos then calls them to “establish justice in the gate,” and “let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.”
Still more, Jesus is talking about God’s call in Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you.”
We see just how seriously God’s people are meant to take this call in Job 33, when Job says—perhaps startlingly—that everyone is required by God to personally care for the needs of the poor and oppressed around them:
“If I have refused the wishes of the poor or let the widow’s eyes go blind, if I have eaten my few crumbs alone without letting the fatherless eat any of it — for from my youth, I raised him as his father, and since the day I was born I guided the widow — if I have seen anyone dying for lack of clothing or a needy person without a cloak, if he did not bless me while warming himself with the fleece from my sheep, if I ever cast my vote against a fatherless child when I saw that I had support in the city gate, then let my shoulder blade fall from my back, and my arm be pulled from its socket.”
This particular scriptural thread is remarkably unambiguous: We are all held personally responsible by God for taking care of the poor and oppressed in our own communities.
That said, it’s not just a personal thing. What you might have noticed throughout all of that is that God is not simply calling out bad individuals, or calling out “personal sins,” although he is doing both of those things. Throughout the scriptures, God calls out the injustice of a society as a whole.
That includes getting specific and calling out unjust laws. For example, God says in Isaiah 10:1-2:
“Woe to those enacting crooked statutes and writing oppressive laws to keep the poor from getting a fair trial and to deprive the afflicted among my people of justice, so that widows can be their spoil and they can plunder the fatherless.”
Those include laws enabling people to prey on the poor in court and laws enabling the property of poor widows and orphans to be seized, both of which are mentioned above, as well as laws enabling lenders to extort borrowers, as God mentions in Ezekiel 22:29:
“The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.”
A clear pattern emerges, with God warning his people about tolerating social injustice and calling them, instead, to actively seek justice. We are not justcalled to personally give to charity, and so forth. We are called to reform society, to obediently rearrange public life around the design that God has given to us—and we are called by God to keep reforming our society until it works the way God intended.
But what is that design?
There’s a lot to be said, but a few obvious points come to the forefront. In the Old Testament, God called his people to establish a society built on justice: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow,” He says in Deuteronomy 16:20, “that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
That includes the simple and uncontroversial stuff, like what we see in Leviticus 19, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Society cannot tolerate a corrupt justice system. Later in that same chapter, he says, “You must not be unfair in measurements of length, weight, or volume. You are to have honest balances, honest weights, an honest dry measure, and an honest liquid measure.” Society cannot tolerate fraud.
“The solution is not obvious, but it will almost certainly involve a mass movement of people devoting themselves to organizations that sew spirituality and social justice back together.”
Then there’s the stuff bound to be “hot-button” in our present context, such as what we find in Exodus 22, “You must not exploit a foreign resident or oppress him.” Society cannot tolerate unjust treatment of any person because of their foreign-ness.
The same applies to Deuteronomy 15:
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”
Remember: That’s not Moses telling the Israelites to “remember to give to charity sometimes.” That’s a law. That was a legal requirement given to God’s people as they settled into the land on which he was building a nation.
Yahweh gets especially specific about how to pursue justice for the poor in several passages, but one particularly obvious example is Leviticus 23:22, in which God calls his people to devote a significant portion of their resources to keeping the poor fed:
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”
In all of this, the long-term goal is a society that is genuinely just. That does not mean that everyone, everywhere, all the time has exactly the same stuff—that literally isn’t an option in a universe as diverse as ours. But it does mean that a just society is vigilant and measured in removing the obstacles that prevent each person from “getting their due,” as the Code of Justinian put it. A just society is a society that works the way God designed it to.
When society is working the way God designed it to, each person can “eat of the fruit of their hands” (Psalm 128:2). When society is working the way God designed it to, a diligent worker can make a comfortable living (Proverbs 13:4). When society is working the way God designed it to, a reasonable degree of self-sufficiency is attainable for those who work hard (Proverbs 12:24). The list goes on. A just society is a society that aims to remove the obstacles standing in the way of realizing that design.
With all these threads hanging in the background, Jesus reads off the text of Isaiah 61 to the audience at the Nazarene synagogue, declaring “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” Part of the good news that Jesus Christ brings us is the glorious reality that the world will be restored to what it’s meant to be. Of course, the world will only be perfected after the second coming, when Jesus returns from heaven to finish what he started on the cross. But we are called throughout the scriptures to begin working towards that today.
Proverbs 31:9 calls on authority figures to “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.” Psalm 82:3 issues a similar call to “Provide justice for the needy and the fatherless; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and needy; save them from the power of the wicked.” Proverbs 29:7 strikes Godly fear into our hearts by reminding us that “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”
That’s one of the reasons that the New Testament is so harsh towards “the rich,” with passages like the “parable of the rich fool,” from Luke 12. As a couple of brothers argue over their inheritance, Jesus not-so-subtly tells them a story about the corrupting influence of wealth:
“A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?’ “That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
While some interpreters have taken passages like that to mean that you should not try to attempt to acquire wealth, that isn’t really the point. The point is that the human heart is deceitful, as Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, and wealth can be intoxicating. Specifically, if your heart comes to love the comforts and privileges that come with wealth, you will be easier to co-opt and turn away from God’s call to seek justice for the poor and oppressed. Hence the rather horrifying digression in James 5:1-5:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
By the same token, Jesus tells the “rich young ruler” that he needs to “sell everything and give [his] money to the poor.” It’s not because money is bad, and it doesn’t mean that everyone, everywhere needs to sell everything and give it all to the poor. It’s because for that particular man, wealth had become an idol. His comfort had choked out his willingness to obediently join in God’s call to pursue justice. His privileges had corrupted his heart. When you’ve been benefitting in certain ways from the brokenness of society, your heart will likely be reluctant about the prospect of changing it. The justice God requires of us is social. It’s always social. This was uncontroversial among Christians until about ten minutes ago.
Still, the fact remains that “social justice” has developed a bad rap for a reason.
The story of how the distinctly Christian conception of “social justice” was largely ceded to secularists is both fascinating and frustrating, but the key episode in that history is probably the unsubtle shift that took place when the term was adopted in the 1970s by the legendary political philosopher John Rawls, who effectively emptied the term of its specific religious meaning.
For most of history, the term social justice has been specifically about making society work the way God designed it to—the Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the historical consensus well: “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.” Rawls essentially agreed, but wanted to explain “social justice” in a way that would make sense to everyone—including the steadily-increasing population of non-religious people—so he began to use the term “social justice” without clearly linking “social justice” to God’s intended design for the universe. “Our concern is solely with the basic structure of society and its major institutions,” he wrote, “and therefore with the standard cases of social justice.” Rawls subsequently experienced a meteoric rise in Western socio-political thought, and the newly hollowed-out conception of “social justice” along with him. “Social justice” has gone limp because we have removed a significant part of the definition. The socio-political outworkings of “social justice” can’t sustain themselves without the supporting structure that was once provided by its religious underpinnings (hence the reason we have largely descended into manufactured rows over whether birds are racist or air conditioning is sexist).
The solution is not obvious, but it will almost certainly involve a mass movement of people devoting themselves to organizations that sew spirituality and social justice back together—to put the roots back on the tree. The small third party of which I am a member provides a particularly fruitful example of this. The second plank on the American Solidarity Party’s official statement of principles reads the following:
“We affirm a special collective responsibility to the most vulnerable members of society and call for societal structures that uphold the equal value and dignity of each person, regardless of any personal characteristics. This requires efforts to address systemic and historic injustices, including long-standing racial injustice, in a way that confronts inequalities that disparage innate personal dignity.”
But reconnecting the torn ligaments of faith and justice will take more than politicking. Returning to the conservative firebrand Carl Henry, only local churches can put our political dysfunction right again. “Who but the Christian ought to mirror to society the emphasis of Isaiah: ‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow’?” he writes. “We must confront the world now with an ethics to make it tremble, and with a dynamic to give it hope.”
We will have cause for rejoicing when Henry’s words no longer read like dispatches from another world.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.