Everyone wants it. Obama and the Pope agree on little, but both want it. Big businesses proclaim their commitment to it, trade unions agitate for it. Hapless Francoise Hollande, embarrassed by last week’s French elections, claimed his humiliation was in part due to, ‘Not enough social justice’. Everybody from the Marxist SWP to the fascist BNP wants social justice.
Even the dear old Church of Scotland wants it. Eager to jump on any passing bandwagon, the CofS declares concerning the coming referendum that it, ‘has welcomed the debate but insists that any constitutional change must bring about social justice benefits’.
Demands for social justice are especially appealing to Christians as God commands us to act justly. But is social justice the same thing as God’s justice?
Those demanding social justice all want different things. Depending on the source it can mean same sex marriage, women’s rights, income inequality, ‘British jobs for British workers’, child welfare, gender neutral toilets, abortion on demand, free school lunches, the list goes on. Social justice is one of those terms which actually means nothing because it can mean anything.
Ultimately it boils down to the adult version of the playground cry of ‘It’s not fair’, usually accompanied by the stamping of little feet. Social justice is little more than code, a campaign slogan churned out by the organisational publicity machine to elicit a favourable response from the public. After all, who could possibly be against fairness and social justice?
The 19th century anarchist thinker Proudhon drew a distinction between transcendental and immanent justice. He saw transcendental justice as ‘external, objective pressure exerted on the self’, an immutable external code. Immanent Justice on the other hand was based on human conscience, an imminent law inherent in the soul. For Proudhon immanent justice differs from the Christian concept in as much as it is purely human, more apparent as a feeling or emotion rather than as a fixed standard.
Proudhon’s concept of emotion based immanent justice has been adopted and rebranded by today’s more media savvy proponents as social justice. So successful is this that the UN can declare, ‘‘Present day believers in an absolute truth identified with virtue and justice are neither willing nor desirable companions for the defenders of social justice.’ Social Justice in an Open World (2006).
Thus if you believe truth and justice are absolute concepts independent of the wants and desires of whoever holds sway in society you are an opponent of social justice. Christians who identify justice as being in accord with the standards of virtue we find in the Bible as emanating from God are not even considered desirable companions on the journey towards social justice. At least the UN has a clearer idea of the ultimate issues involved than most churches.
Social justice can be unjust, being devoid of any absolute standard its deamnds for fairness too easily end in unfairness. We have gradually come to see the concepts of fairness and justice as coterminous. Yet justice to be just is blind, all must be treated equally; fairness to be fair is partial, one group has to be favoured over another.
Affirmative action is socially just but inherently unfair. Political parties, because of past unfairness, operate quotas when selecting candidates. In the case of all woman short lists this may be fair to women. But by being partial it is also unfair to those men who might wish to contest the seat, as it is to the entire electorate who do not get to choose between the best candidates, only the perceived appropriate ones. Social justice is imminent justice and without an absolute standard of justice we find fairness gradually slipping into injustice.
Perhaps the biggest problem with social justice is that the demand for social justice decreases compassion.
Cries for social justice always work from the assumption that the right people, the anointed few, can simply impose fairness, prosperity and any other good thing you can dream up. And the only institution capable of imposing social justice is the state. The greater the cries for social justice for the disadvantaged the greater the power accrued by the already powerful and the decrease of personal involvement.
In the Bible justice is about caring for the vulnerable because this reflects the character of God. It invariably involves right relationships. More than three dozen times the OT brings together mishpat or justice, meaning punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment, and tzadeqah or righteousness, the way we live before God. God’s justice demands personal involvement, it is not a matter of demanding that the powers that be do something about it, God’s justice demands that we do something about it.
One of God’s most off the wall decisions was to use us as His instruments of justice. Micah 6:8 says: ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ We are God’s plan for doing justice in His world, and He hasn’t revealed a Plan B.
Too reliant on government due to the atomisation of society, family and church are no longer the hubs of the community, localism is to a significant extent dead. There is an expectation that the state will provide the aid and support once supplied by family and church. As individuals and a society we have outsourced compassion and given it politicians and social work departments.
In a situation where the support mechanisms within society have broken down, as they largely have, the state steps in to supply what is required. The more they do this however, the more society’s support mechanisms are weakened and the more the state needs to do. The state is an institution, as such it can only take and dispense, it cannot love.
God’s just requirement is that we love our neighbour, especially our vulnerable neighbour. No one pays taxes out of love.