The Injustice of Social Justice

Affordable and accessible health care is a right, was the line. And it worked.

By shoving the partisan healthcare bill through the straw of “social justice,” Obamacare was passed, if barely, adding to the already ponderous government programs for health and welfare. But what was touted as social justice, as so many things are, is not justice at all.

Justice is about fair play, giving people what is owed them without bias or favoritism. An employee is owed a fair wage by his employer, an accused criminal is owed a fair trial by the court, a child is owed the protection and care of his parents.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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In the classical understanding, justice is about what is owed and by whom it is owed. But shaped by the oracles of liberation theology, that understanding has been turned on its head.

According to liberation theology, the bible reveals God not as Savior of the world, but as the Liberator of the oppressed. He’s the God who takes the side of the poor and calls for their relief through corporate action. Instead of giving people their just due, justice, in the liberal understanding, is giving people what they need from the civitas under compulsion of the state.

To be sure, God has special concern for those on the margins of society. Scripture is full of warnings about injustices to the poor and disenfranchised. But contrary to the Gospel of Liberation, God’s foremost concern is not emancipating us from political and economic oppression; it is redeeming us from sin.

This is not to diminish the importance of giving people what they need. To the contrary, meeting the needs of others has been at the heart of Christian action from the beginning.

In the first century, Christians took such comprehensive care of their own that St. Luke remarked, “there were no needy persons among them.” During the plagues in the second and third century, Christians attended the needs of the sick and dying who had been abandoned by their pagan physicians and civil leaders. The Christian community went on to establish the first hospitals and orphanages such that, by the fourth century, the scope of their compassion attracted both the notice and ire of the Caesars.

Frustrated over the social conditions in the Roman Empire, Flavius Julian called it a scandal that Christians “care not only for their poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

The effectiveness of charity among the early Christians is attributed to something ignored in the modern discussion on social justice.

Division of Responsibility
When Jesus taught about charity and compassion, he was not speaking to Roman consuls about their governmental duties; he was speaking to individuals about their moral duties. That’s because in the biblical division of responsibility, the Church, not the state, is the instrument of compassion.

As divinely ordained, the duties of the state are limited to restraining evil, executing justice, and securing social order. The state fulfills that high calling by protecting the rights of its citizens: first and foremost, their “natural rights” which include the freedoms of speech, thought, and religion; and secondarily, their legal rights, such as the right to vote and drive a car.

Natural rights are the birthright of all human beings, regardless of race, class, sex, ethnicity, stage of development, or stage of decline. They are conferred transcendentally, making them immutable and non-negotiable. Importantly, they are not entitlements to the services of others, but endowments to be protected.

Legal rights, on the other hand, are privileges conferred by the state and are subject to revision, emendation, and revocation.

The aim of social justice, as liberally constructed, is an egalitarian society in which citizens enjoy equal opportunities and equal outcomes, as well. Yet every step toward that goal has led to more, or created a different type of, injustice.

Roe v. Wade, which putatively leveled the playing field for women in sexual freedom, became law by denying the unborn their natural right to life. Progressive taxes and income redistribution which are intended to lift people out of poverty, instead created a subculture of dependence, fatherless homes, and gang-infested neighborhoods.

During his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama told a concerned citizen that tax hikes for the “wealthy” was a matter of “neighborliness”; “spreading the wealth” is how he put it to another person.

Spreading the wealth is neighborly, if done voluntarily. But when done by coercion, either by Tony Soprano or Congress, it’s robbery.

Achieving Social Justice
To achieve real social justice, the state must decrease and the Church increase in the area of compassion. Is that a realistic expectation? Many folks would say, no.

But given the inefficiencies and impersonal nature of the state welfare system and the fact that Christians make up over 70 percent of the tax base, the Church could take over the compassion business, efficiently and effectively, with only a fraction of the cost of state-run programs.

I have no misgivings. Such a transition could not happen over night. Even with the political will of the electorate and the moral will of the Church, it would take years, if not decades, to shrink government and prepare the Church (individual Christians, churches, and faith-based organizations) to recover its biblical role in compassion services.

But a challenge no less daunting faced humanitarian and statesman William Wilberforce in eighteenth-century Britain.

At the time Britain was the world leader in the slave trade, a practice considered essential to the economy and national security by both citizens and elected officials. Nevertheless, Wilberforce, who as a young parliamentarian became convicted of the evil of slavery, made it his “Great Object” to put an end to the brutal and unjust practice.

Against a maelstrom of public and political opposition, Wilberforce lobbied year after year for abolition in the halls of Parliament. He also took unpopular, and politically ill-advised, positions on child labor, prison reforms, factory safety, and humane animal treatment. And, in keeping with the distinct roles of Church and state, he helped start up dozens of faith-based charities aimed at bettering the condition of the poor.

Through his efforts and those of a small group of like-minded friends, Britain’s dark chapter of slavery ended in 1833, an accomplishment that five decades earlier nobody thought possible.

William Wilberforce was a champion of true social justice. And if he were alive today, I suspect he would tell those who ask whether the Church could meet the compassion needs of the country, “Yes, it could; let’s begin!”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a painting of William Wilberforce.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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