Defining “social justice”

Kevin DeYoung asks Christians to clarify what they mean when they use this term:

In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell explains the difference between the constrained and unconstrained view of justice. In the unconstrained view justice is a result so that wherever people don’t get “their fair share” or don’t have as much as others there is injustice. If Goldingay is correct, most people assume this unconstrained view when they speak of social justice. For example, the RCA (my denomination) in one of its official study materials includes a glossary which defines justice as “The fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons, especially in law. Includes concepts of right relationships and equitable distribution of resources.” By this definition the inequality of opportunities, income, or outcomes is considered an injustice, a situation that in and of itself is sinful, implicates all (or most) of us in society, and demands immediate redress. In the unconstrained vision, the society has a lump of resources and if they are not shared roughly equally, then we do not have social justice.

In the constrained vision, by contrast, justice is a process where people are treated fairly (the first half of the RCA definition). The goal here is not forced redistribution; no one distributed the resources in the first place and no one is wise enough to allocate them for the good of everyone. Justice, in this vision, is upheld through the rule of law, a fair court system, and equitable treatment of all persons regardless of natural diversity. This doesn’t mean that in the constrained vision we shouldn’t care for the poor or that we simply shrug our shoulders and say “oh well” when we see people struggling through life with far fewer opportunities and resources than the rest of us. The Christian must be generous and should care about suffering and the disadvantaged. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of compassion, charity, and love, not automatically an issue of justice.

I happen to think the constrained view of justice fits the biblical definition better. But arguing one way or the other is not the point of this post. This is only a “modest proposal” after all. I simply want Christians to be more careful and more precise with their language. We don’t all mean the same thing by social justice. So when we use the term we should explain it and take pains to demonstrate why our conception of social justice is supported by Scripture. However we use the phrase “social justice” we should be slow to insist that any Christian who disagrees with our policy solution is obviously a spiritual miscreant.


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