Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Is social justice just ice?

It takes relational justice to melt frozen hearts

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

One of the favorite words of President Obama and his supporters is "justice," often combined with the adjective "social." We hear calls for government-imposed economic redistribution through taxes and various kinds of welfare, and advocates of same-sex marriage also talk about "social justice."

Education for "social justice" is now very big in public schools. At least three recent books push for teaching "social justice" even in math classes, which means spending less time learning the multiplication table and more time learning about the uneven distribution of wealth in the United States. (But isn't one of the greatest injustices leaving kids without enough math knowledge to get a decent job and begin redistributing some money to themselves through hard work?)

Do Christians have an alternative? We should begin by asking, "What is justice?"-and that question should drive us first neither to Aristotle nor to Bill Ayers, but to the Bible. One observation: Over 50 times God's inspired writers link the Hebrew word mishpat, "justice," with the Hebrew word tzedek, "righteous." They regularly declare that a central purpose of justice is to increase righteousness, as Isaiah 26:9 states: "When your justice is present, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness."

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The Bible also emphasizes justice between individuals. Psalm 112:5 praises the person who "deals generously and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice." Jeremiah 22:13 pronounces: "Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages." Justice isn't charity-recipients pay back loans and work-but it is generally interpersonal rather than collective: We might call it "relational justice" rather than "social justice."

Kings have an influence-they can walk in God's way and tear down the high places of paganism-but righteousness still builds from the bottom up. Children who receive just treatment from their parents usually don't grow up hating them. When husbands and wives act righteously toward each other, bitterness (of the sort that fueled the feminist movement) rarely takes root. Employers and employees who act righteously toward each other are less likely to feel the need to lobby or bribe officials to win by governmental force.

Deuteronomy 24:13 emphasizes person-to-person justice: A well-off person loaning money to a poor person is to "restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God." We should rejoice over justice because it points to God, as in Proverbs 21:15, "When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers."

The justice-righteousness connection shows why entitlements that go equally to the reliable and to the profligate, whether rich or poor, are wrong. Isaiah 26:10 states, "If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the Lord." Ezekiel 13:22 shows that injustice works against faith in God: "You have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not grieved him, and you have encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life."

I've also examined the New Testament linkage of justice and righteousness: It's similar, and there's a telling emphasis on relationship. "Religion" comes from the Old French religare, to bind (same root as ligament), and most religions emphasize binding to a set of rules, but Christianity emphasizes bonding into a relationship with Jesus. Most religions are exchange religions: "I do this for Shiva, he will give me a son." The apostle Paul, though, emphasized love for Christ-"We make it our aim to please Him" (2 Corinthians 5:9)-that leads to loving our neighbors.

Many other aspects of justice need consideration, and I'll deal another time with what role modern government should and should not play. I'll leave you for now with C.S. Lewis' advice: "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." Today, "social justice" aims at earth and produces just ice. Relational justice aims at heaven, and the just acts that occur along the way can melt many frozen hearts.
If you have a question or comment for Marvin Olasky, send it to molasky@worldmag.com.
To hear commentaries by Marvin Olasky, click here.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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