The above tweet encapsulates where many believe the fault lines of the conversation lies: On the one side are those who see in Scripture that God cares about social injustice and therefore pursue it and on the other side are those who think that God is only concerned about the salvation of souls. I don’t think that’s a good description of the argument.
On the surface it many seem that this is the argument at hand, but we need to dig beneath the surface here. This surface argument doesn’t usually flow from theological reflection, but from tribal and partisan reflection. Here’s how:
First, the terminology of “social justice,” while broad in its meaning, has come to be associated with certain politically and socially liberal movements, many not associated with a biblical conception of justice. It has a broad technical meaning, but a narrower connotation. Whether this is fair or not is another question.
Second, there results from this a conservative pushback. If conservatives are against a “liberal agenda” then they must also be against the language of that agenda: social justice.
Third, since justice is a very biblical concept, conservatives need some theological justification for being against social justice. Some will turn to a spiritual argument: While there will always be some injustice in the world, God is primarily concerned with the salvation of souls. After all, that is where humans will spend eternity. We should focus our efforts there, especially in the church.
There are elements of this argument that make it a good one, and parts of it that make it poor, but my point here is only that I don’t think most conservatives really believe it, and their behavior proves this to be the case.
There’s a huge overlap between those who would say “get ‘em saved” and “abortion is a moral evil.” Pro-life Christians don’t usually argue that we shouldn’t work to overturn abortion laws. Instead, most rightly recognize that abortion represents not only a problem with the hearts of individuals, but with systematic problems in our laws, our conception of humanity, and our culture more broadly. Therefore, when combating abortion, we try to solve the problems not only through evangelism, but also through votes and advocacy.
In other words, the “get ‘em saved” argument is selectively applied, and this selective application helps us see the heart of the debate. It also shows that Christian “liberals” and “conservatives” have more common ground than they think.
Both believe that God cares about justice and hates injustice. Both believe that there’s a role the government can play in ensuring justice. Both try to achieve that end through various forms of political engagement. The differences – and they are very important ones – lie in our definition of justice and our various strategies for achieving it.
What is justice? That’s a massive and complicated question: Is justice about equality of outcomes? Equality of opportunity? Equal application of the law without respect to persons? Is justice based on rights? What list of rights need to be protected? Are some rights more important than others? Is justice limited to punishment of wrongdoing or about rewarding the good? Where does “economic justice” fit into the mix? Is healthcare an issue of justice? What about justice when it comes to refugees and immigration? Does pursuing justice mean applying existing laws or trying to make those laws more humane?
Even if we agree on what constitutes justice, we may still argue over the means to achieve it. If we say that poverty is an issue of justice, do we argue for redistribution or a free market approach with robust private philanthropy?
These are important questions and questions to which I believe the Bible speaks, though not always with the degree of clarity that we would like. These are questions of Christian discipleship and Christians should pursue biblical answers. My point here is only that these are different questions than the one we started with: Does God care about injustice?
Only a brief reflection gets us to the answer: Yes, He does. And, I think it’s important that we try to find common ground on that argument first before we move on to the tougher and thornier questions.
For more on how salvation relates to justice, listen to my sermon “Receive Freedom, Extend Justice” from November 4, 2019.