Ancient Wisdom on the Debate Between ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Biblical Justice’

Ancient Wisdom on the Debate Between ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Biblical Justice’

In recent years, social justice has become a trigger term in evangelical circles. Some have even gone as far as referring to social justice as a “heresy” or characterizing it as a religion unto itself. 

Because the term is used in some circles almost exclusively to evoke fear or repulsion, a lack of clarity often exists about what exactly social justice is. But the basic idea is that wherever there are societal structures that have disproportionately advantaged one group over another, as evidenced by unequal outcomes, it is the call of justice to implement reparative systems that will balance the scales toward more equitable outcomes on the whole. 

Notable among the evangelical voices against social justice has been Voddie Baucham, author of “Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe,” who has paired the term social justice with critical race theory, at times almost equating the two and arguing that the whole project is the result of atheistic Marxism and therefore something Christians must oppose. 

What Do We Mean by ‘Biblical Justice’?

Accusations of plagiarism against him aside, Baucham’s definition of “biblical justice” in contrast to “social justice” has often not been terribly well-defined, but in many ways revolves around a doctrine of individual responsibility, wherein racism and poverty are seen not as systemic problems requiring systemic solutions, but as problems of the heart that can only be solved through large scale individual repentance. 

The problem with this understanding of justice is that no amount of individual responsibility can ever overcome unjust systems. When we look at, for example, the legacy of redlining in America and the way it has resulted in multigenerational racial wealth disparities, personal animus against Black people is not required for such injustice to persist. In this case, as in many others, the problem is not personal racism, but systems that produce racialized outcomes stilted in a particular direction. 

The work of social justice is to diagnose and redress the systems producing these outcomes so that opportunities can be made equal across racial lines. The success of this process is evaluated by the measure to which outcomes across groups become more equal at the macro level—in other words, that multi-generational wealth accumulation is just as statistically likely for a Black family as it is a white family.

This is the type of justice work that many evangelical theologians decry and rebuke in the strongest terms. Why? 

The answer is complicated, but I think it centers on a definition of “justice” that is entirely too narrow. For evangelicals who (rightly) emphasize the individual justification of sinners before a just God by grace through faith in Jesus, their view of justice more broadly has (wrongly) been defined by the same.  

In other words, for many evangelicals, justice is defined almost purely in terms of individual crime and punishment. Where one person has violated the law and been punished, justice has been served. Any consideration outside this narrow purview is seen as something other than justice. 

Nevertheless, while the Bible does provide a vision for justice that includes individual sin and righteousness, on the whole, the conversation is much broader. 

When sin entered the world, it corrupted more than individual souls. It corrupted the relationships between people and God, people and people, and people and the creation itself. Thus, justice is the process whereby we address these broken relationships to recapture shalom (peace, wholeness, integrated goodness)—on both an individual and social level. 

The social aspect of God’s vision for justice is evidenced by the way God instructed Israel to establish its society, key values of which were the redistribution of intergenerational wealth through regular debt forgiveness and jubilee, as well as the priority given to marginalized groups like racial minorities (foreigners or sojourners in biblical terms), orphans, and widows. 

In fact, at various points in the Old Testament when God, through the prophets, called Israel to account for their injustice, the specific indictment against them was often that they had failed to show justice to the poor and marginalized. The ministry of Amos is a prime example (though not the only example).

Thus, even if a society punishes wrongdoers, such as thieves and murderers, if they have failed to recognize and care about the plight of the oppressed, impoverished, and marginalized, they are fundamentally not a just society. 

This seems to indicate that God cares a lot about what we would refer to today as “social justice.” 

Some may argue that I’m simply starting with a Marxist viewpoint and then reading it back into Scripture. But such an accusation seems to ignore not only the relevant biblical data, but also the historic interpretations of those biblical passages.

Patristic Theologians on Social Justice

While we may use different terminology today, biblical arguments for redistribution of wealth and the idea that justice is evaluated not only by individual punitive measures but the overall human flourishing among the least advantaged groups in society have been drawn out of the Scriptures from as early as the fourth century. 

Notable among these voices was Basil of Caesarea, often affectionately referred to as Basil the Great. In a homily expositing Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:16-21 that describes a rich man accumulating grain in storehouses only to have his life taken from him, Basil condemns those in his own day who have lacked concern for those dying of starvation amid severe famine. 

Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those ​​who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.

To Basil, if anyone in the community lacked resources to care for their basic needs, and there were others in the community who had more than enough, this disparity only existed because the wealthier members of the community were unjust. They were thieves and robbers. 

Bear in mind that Basil made this argument in the middle of the fourth century, at least 1,400 years before the birth of Karl Marx, about a millennia and a half before anyone ever heard the phrase “means of production.” 

Basil was a monk and a theologian, not a political theorist or sociologist. He didn’t know anything about critical theory or free market economics. He just took the words of Jesus seriously. And if any one group could be observed suffering in a manner that was disproportionate to everyone else’s experience, and the people who had power to do something about it did nothing, it was an injustice. 

Summarizing Basil’s view, C. Paul Schroeder writes, “[Basil’s] focus is not on the individual’s relationship to wealth and possessions, but rather on the fact that having great wealth while others lack daily necessities constitutes a violation of the law of love.”

Other patristic theologians who were contemporaries of Basil, including John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, expressed similar sentiments, albeit not always as vividly as Basil. 

In one speech, Gregory said

And we ought to offer to people, as we are also people, the expression of our kindness, when they need it, beaten by some misfortune, for example widowhood or orphanhood or being in a foreign land or harsh bosses or unjust rulers or uncompassionate tax collectors, or murderous thieves or insatiable thieves or the taking away of estates or shipwreck. … Why, with all these things, don’t we help our fellow men, while it is still time? Why do we live in enjoyment, whereas our brethren in misfortune? Let me never become rich, if they are deprived! Let me not have health, if I don’t put balsam on their wounds! Let me never become filled, let me never get dressed, let me never be calm in a home, if I don’t give them bread and clothing, as much as I can, and if I don’t give them rest in my home.

Justice in the Church Today

Some may argue that what Basil, Gregory, and others have said, while true, does nothing to suggest that Christians are obligated to do anything more than ensure that they are caring for the basic needs of those within their local congregation or community, whatever their race or social standing.

But this isn’t the approach we take when it comes to other social justice issues, such as abortion. The Church has no problem seeing its role in ending abortion as far more expansive than merely ensuring that no one in their congregation has one. 

When it comes to societal structures contributing to poverty, homelessness, racialized outcomes, and the plight of marginalized groups, we need a more expansive vision. This is not an either/or situation. It’s both/and. 

While the Church has often stood alone in the gap to care for the marginalized, whenever they have also been able to partner with civic powers to sustainably mend the holes in civil structures of justice, the result has always been greater human flourishing and decreased human suffering among marginalized groups. 

For example, when we think about public education, foster and adoptive care, or even the idea of hospitals, these are all institutions that were initiated by the Church, and for a long time were exclusively funded and run by the Church. They are also initiatives that receive government funding and oversight today. 

Not many of us would argue that these initiatives should have no government funding or oversight just because they are needs that could conceivably be met by the Church. But why do we make that very argument when it comes to addressing other societal needs, such as homelessness, access to affordable healthcare, or other welfare programs that empower greater human flourishing for the most disadvantaged among us? 

None of this is to suggest that every progressivist proposal for systemic solutions to these challenges is necessarily biblical, or even prudent or effective. In fact, many of the more extreme proposals of the far left are questionable at best, and unjust ideas are too often slipped in alongside just ones. 

Nevertheless, it is simply untenable to say that cultivating a more holistic vision for justice is ungodly or dangerous. In fact, as citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world, we should pursue any means available to us to see Jesus’ kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.