Why do I use “justice and righteousness” instead of “social justice”?
The short answer is:
Social justice is an emotionally and politically-charged, vague term that is most often defined by someone’s personal experiences with it. Some say that it’s wonderful, and helps the world- and others say that it’s poison that destroys everything. Even when you look at what the dictionary says it means- “the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society”- that definition doesn’t tell you what to do, or what values you should use to do it.
I believe that we Christians have a secret weapon for finding unity. Instead of looking at “social justice” in the Bible, let’s take a different approach: justice and righteousness.
No matter how you feel about social justice, whether you think it’s the best thing ever or a virus destroying the plant, we can all move toward something: the Justice and Righteousness that God loves and is vividly displayed in Scripture. That anchors the meaning in the character of God and His design for the world, and provides practical models for expressing it.
The longer, theologically-colored answer:
The phrase “justice and righteousness” sounds a little strange to most English-speaker’s ears. Growing up, I don’t think I ever put them together in a sentence. For me, and many others, righteousness belongs in our personal, religious lives and justice belongs in our public, legal-ish world- so why in the world would we link them together?
Well, the simple answer is that God does- around 80 times in Old Testament alone, and the New Testament, too. And the idea the phrase expresses is powerful, that God’s original order for His Creation is happening in the world.
God loves and does justice and righteousness- and calls His chosen people to be marked by it, and integrates it as a part of His eternal Kingdom. Justice and righteousness are:
- Part of God’s character (Isa. 30:18, Mal. 2:17, Prov. 29:26, Jer. 23:6, Ezra 9:15, Ps. 4:1)
- Something that He loves and delights in (Psa. 11:7, 33:5, 37:28, 45:7, 99:4, 146:8, Prov. 15:9, Isa. 61:8, Jer. 9:23-24)
- Central to God’s reign (Psa. 9:7-10, 89:14, 97:2, 98)
- Core part of the identity of God’s chosen people (Gen. 18:19)
- Expected by those leading His people (1 Kings 3:11, 10:9, 2 Sam 8:15, Ps. 72, Jer. 22:18-19)
- What the Messiah accomplished (Jer. 23:5, 33:15, Ps. 72, Isa.16:5, 42:3, Matt. 12:20, 2 Cor 5:21)
- Integral parts of the Kingdom of God (Isa. 9:7, 32:1, 32:15-18)
Some scholars say that “justice and righteousness” should be translated as “social justice,” but I have trouble with that. Verses like this show how deeply personal justice and righteousness are connected to God: “The LORD of Heaven's Armies will be exalted by his justice. The holiness of God will be displayed by his righteousness (Isa. 5:16).” If you look at what some of what counts as “social justice” in the world, and I don’t think it exalts God or shows His holiness.
While I don't think we Christians must use the term "Social Justice"— we have to berate it either. Social Justice is the most widely-used and widely-accepted phrase we have in English to describe some good ideas, like helping orphans and making sure the poor get justice, some of which reflect Biblical values. Where it becomes a problem is when we use this vague, politically-connected to word, attach it to God, then divide the church over it.
Does loving Social Justice make you a communist? No, and not loving Social Justice doesn't make you a heart-hearted jerk. We should stop giving so much unproductive emotional and mental energy to arguing over a human-created phrase (and ironically, one that was coined by a conservative Jesuit priest). Sadly, arguments over the term have divided the church, and blinded many to very real parts of the Bible because they genuinely thought it was the right thing to do.
Use or don't use the term "Social Justice." That’s up to you. Let’s agree to stop getting hung up over a silly phrase so we can put that energy into something productive: learning about and doing the justice and righteousness rooting in God and revealed in scripture, and engaging in the process of living it out in our lives.