When it comes to the matter of social justice context is key.
I say this because when one examines closely the current national discourse on this issue, it becomes abundantly clear that significantly more emphasis is placed on the justice aspect than on the social.
This kind of partitioned accentuation, I believe, is the result of our acceptance of a collective assumption that a community wherein justice is consistently and indiscriminately applied to each individual is the ideal societal construct.
It is an ethos that is especially evident relative to the biblical principle of reaping and sowing (Galatians 6:7), particularly with regard to one’s actions and decisions that might prove harmful or detrimental to others.
But this mindset, in my estimation, raises a fundamental question:
What is justice?
The Definition of Justice
In his book The Gospel for Real Life, the late Jerry Bridges defines justice as: “rendering to everyone according to one’s due. Justice means we get exactly what we deserve – nothing more, nothing less (p.43).”
I consider Bridges’ definition of justice to be a very good one, as it is applicable regardless if the issue of social justice is being deliberated within the context of sociology or theology.
Even so, I am also of the opinion that this definition raises a sobering conundrum, one which, perhaps, not many of us have seriously considered.
The Nature of Justice
When we think of justice, and its broader applications and implications to society as a whole (social justice), we must understand that what we are dealing with is not merely a matter of description (as in Bridge’s definition) but of prescription as well.
Justice is innately retributive.
Its primary purpose is to chasten not to correct, to reprove not to reform, to be a voice for righteousness where unrighteousness is present.
Justice makes absolute demands that must be complied with absolutely.
To fall short of these rigid and inflexible standards, even to the most infinitesimal degree, is to bring into question the integrity of the individual or entity being relied upon to satiate that which justice demands.
Namely, as Bridges stated, that “we get exactly what we deserve – nothing more, nothing less.”
The Duality of Justice
It is this punitory aspect of justice that serves as the impetus for why people who are convicted of crimes, particularly those that warrant significant time in prison, and worse, endeavor to seek out the most competent legal counsel they can find in an effort to ameliorate the exacting discipline they know awaits them.
They comprehend fully that justice, by its very nature, is inherently unmerciful, and that it is uncompromising in its insistence that they – the guilty – pay the “due” penalty for offenses committed against their fellow human beings.
This awareness highlights an almost paradoxical duality in that it is because justice is so fixed and unyielding that those who are victimized zealously pursue its retaliatory remedies, while those who victimize try just as resolutely to avoid them.
The Divine Origins of Justice
The concept that recompense be made when a law is transgressed originated not with mankind but with God.
We are first introduced to this divine dogma in the Garden of Eden where the relationship between precept and penalty, the two fundamental elements of any just and equitable law, are presented by God to Adam in the most unambiguous of terms:
The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat [precept], for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die [penalty].” – Genesis 2:16-17 (NASB)
Contrary to what many in today’s pluralistic and universalistic society believe, the truth is we are not innately predisposed to do good to one another but just the opposite (Genesis 8:21b; Jeremiah 17:9).
It is because of our congenital predisposition to sin against one another that we have laws to begin with, the insistent penalties of which are designed to influence decisions we make to act or not on the innately sinful inclinations that arise in our hearts toward each other.
And therein lies the rub for you and me as it relates to the concept of social justice.
The Demands of Justice
In his exceptional work The Existence and Attributes of God, Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock declares that, “the justice of God is so essential to Him, as that sin could not be pardoned without satisfaction (p. 517).”
Charnock’s theology of God is important to note, for to understand that justice is so inexorable to the nature and character of God is the beginning of understanding why justice matters to us who are created in His image (Genesis 1:27).
Justice is as indivisible an attribute of a society composed of those who bear the image of God as it is of God Himself.
Nevertheless, in our search for justice, the universal problem you and I face is that though, even in our fallenness, we reflect the image of God, we are not God.
“When the human mind is focused upon the ineffable purity of God and His unchanging righteousness, it appears to fallen creatures that He no longer smiles—but frowns upon His works. That easy, peaceable disposition—so pleasing to our hearts, so soothing when we feel the stirrings of conscience—in which we contemplate God while considering His goodness alone, gives place to far sterner aspects, and we are made to tremble when He is also seen as an offended Ruler and Judge.” – A.W. Pink, The Justice of God
In our insistence that justice be exacted against those who offend us, we often want to exempt ourselves from that same standard.
When it is we who are facing the rigid and inflexible demands of justice, whether it be for a traffic violation or murder, what we want in that moment is not justice but mercy. But justice is necessitated by an innately holy and righteous God who requires that sin be atoned for.
You see, social justice, by definition, is a standard of precept and penalty that is applied equally and absolutely to every person within a given society.
In every situation.
Regardless of circumstances.
That truly is social justice.
Be Careful What You Ask For
Justice that is not indiscriminately and objectively applied to everyone is not justice.
If our personal definition of social justice is one that is influenced to any extent by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic standing, or any other conceivable variable, then, what we really desire is not social justice but selective justice.
Remember, social (or societal) justice is that standard of justice that is equally and absolutely applicable to all, so that everyone – without exception or regard to circumstances – receives “exactly what he or she deserves”.
With this in mind, the question we must ask ourselves is:
Is this the kind of social justice we really want?
What I have said in this post is neither to suggest nor imply that lawlessness, regardless the offender, should go unpunished.
Quite the contrary.
I have gone to great lengths in an attempt to exposit biblically on why the concept of justice is essential to any civilized society, namely, because we all are sinners by nature (Romans 3:23).
Nevertheless, that we, as professed followers of Jesus Christ, would be so biased in our hearts as to have our thirst for justice ignited by anything other than that one who, like ourselves, bears the image of God has been unjustly treated, is to commit as egregious a sin as the one who carried out the injustice in the first place.
“All of us have failed miserably to obey God’s Law. We disobeyed in Adam, and we have every day of our lives disobeyed in our own persons. Therefore all of us stand condemned before God’s Law, fully liable to its curse and punishment. But just as Jesus fully obeyed God’s Law in our place, so He suffered its full penalty in our place. In the same way that Adam was our representative in the garden, so Christ was our representative on the cross. He bore the full brunt of God’s justice that we should have borne. He received the full punishment we should have received. Through His representative union with us, Jesus assumed our obligation to perfectly obey the Law of God and obeyed it to the letter. Through that same union Jesus assumed our liability for not obeying the Law and paid that liability to the utmost. He fully and completely satisfied the justice of God on our behalf as our substitute.” – Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life: Justice Satisfied, pp. 44-45
Social justice is unbiased justice.
If the justice we demand is tainted in any way by such characteristics as race or ethnicity, then, I exhort you, my brother and sister in Christ, to search our heart because it is not justice we want but vengeance.
The danger of harboring such an ungodly heart-attitude, is that the standard of justice we apply to others will likewise be applied to us (Matthew 7:1-5).
Call to Action
In our efforts to advance the cause of social justice, we must be ever-mindful that the idea of justice is rooted first and foremost in a holy and righteous God in whom justice is an essential aspect of His nature and character.
Our pursuit of justice should be based solely in the truth that each of us is created in His image and not on the basis of any external attribute or characteristic – such as race or ethnicity – which, by His sovereign will, He determined to bestow upon us (Acts 17:26).
When we truly understand the justice of God, the satisfaction of which mandated the death of His own Son (John 3:16), we might think twice before demanding justice for offenses committed against us by others.
For it is in the atoning death of Christ on the cross that God demonstrates Himself to be the ultimate Social Justice Warrior, by exacting upon His sinless Son the justice that you and I rightfully deserve.
Humbly in Christ,