Any list of contested phrases in American Christianity today is going to include “social justice.” It’s not just that talking about social justice makes folks uncomfortable. The prophets were doing that all the way back to Amos and before, pointing out when Israel failed to hear the cry of the needy, failed to protect the vulnerable, and failed to offer legal protection to the powerless. In such situations, Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all other heirs to the tradition cried out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, CEB). No one sits easy on their ivory couches in their ivory palaces when the prophet is crying for justice.
But in the new vocabulary of the Great Divide which has been swallowing up our common language, ‘social justice’ has become something more than uncomfortable. It has been weaponized for the culture wars and I’m not sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about justice. Or maybe it’s that we don’t know how we’re heard.
The big moment when “social justice” was invoked for the war came in 2010 when Glenn Beck, the TV political commentator, told Christians:
I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.
For Beck they were code for a left-wing ideology of redistribution of wealth that was heavily influenced by Marxism. He also offered a highly-selective reading of liberation theology, and particularly the theology of James Cone, an African-American theologian, that made it seem as if the aim of liberation theology was to divide the whole world into oppressor and oppressed and to insist on a material transfer of wealth from the former to the latter.
Even those who don’t fill out a brief against theologians every time they hear the phrase have come to suspect that they are being asked to sign on to a political agenda when they hear calls for social justice. The tendency of every conversation to spiral down to a discussion of the current president does not help. Are social justice advocates saying that I must adopt a particular stance towards the president in order to express my outrage at the hate spewed by white supremacists in Charlottesville? It certainly seems that way sometimes.
Amos’ image of the plumb line (7:7-8) suggests that human efforts at justice are always measured against a divine standard. If the wall isn’t plumb, it means the building project has gotten out of line with its intentions.
So let me attempt a definition:
social justice means attuning ourselves to God’s intentions and aligning our selves and our systems to what God is doing.
Doing this work involves prayer, deep dives into the biblical witness, confession, reconciliation, grief, anger, and humility. It means recognizing that there is no place of purity from which to do justice. The systems of injustice are mighty and pervade our every action.
I worry when I hear calls to silence or eliminate those people we deem evil. The puritanical spirit of the age tempts us with the illusion that everything would be alright if it weren’t for [name your favorite bogeymen here]. But social justice invites us to see the world through God’s eyes – the God who sorrows over the pains of the world, who rages against the darkness, who sees how that darkness is present in each of us, who “delivers us from slavery to sin and death,” and who forms us into a diverse, beloved, ragtag community to be the church. That community’s plumb line is not defined by a party political platform.
Social justice is not a plot to take over the church. It’s the call of God to be the church.