The Content of Social Justice: A Reply to Joe Carter

 

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Joe Carter’s recent article on social justice encourages Christians “not to shrink from the term nor to allow the secular world to distort its biblical meaning.” He notes throughout the article that the term need not carry the politically progressive and liberal connotations for which it has recently gone viral; that it simply refers to justice in a particular social context. Quoting Gideon Strauss, Carter claims that social justice refers simply to “non-political organizations that promote justice.” When you break down the word and ignore the whirlwind of cultural connotations, this approach certainly seems plausible.

In spite of this, Neil Shenvi recently released a “friendly rejoinder” to Carter in which he persuasively argues that “Christians should be very hesitant to use the phrase ‘social justice,’ both for the sake of clear communication and to avoid dangerous errors that can be promoted by ambiguity of language.”

I agree with Shenvi and think his warning should be carefully heeded by the Church at large. However, I would like to argue that there are other dangerous errors and ambiguities of language in Carter’s exposition of the topic—even if we decided to join Carter in the attempt to redeem the term, “social justice.” Over and above the language of social justice,  the ideological content which Carter seems to affirm regarding justice and its practical out-workings in society is something which conservative Christians should take serious issue with.

 

A “Christian Perspective of Justice”?

The first error to notice is Carter's prescription for a "Christian perspective" on justice. Remember that Carter wants us to understand social justice merely as justice in a particular social context.  Following his advice would mean that our view of justice, in general, would determine our view of social justice, in particular. What does Carter propose as the “Christian perspective” on justice? He cites Gideon Strauss, saying that justice is “when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence.”

The first part of that definition—receiving what is due—is simply a restatement of the classical definition of justice, which Carter draws from Institutes of Justinian just one paragraph earlier. So it seems that the second part—contributing “out of their uniqueness to our common existence”—is what Carter has in mind as the uniquely Christian aspect of justice.

The first question we need to ask is: What does that even mean? How does one “contribute out of [his] uniqueness to our common existence”? The second question is: Why should we call that—whatever it is—justice? Ideally, Christians should want to be just. It’s fair to say, then, that a Christian view of justice needs to be practicable. How would one go about practicing justice on this definition? What is one’s “uniqueness” out of which he is supposed to contribute? What is “our common existence” toward which one is supposed to contribute?

It is not difficult to see how this definition of justice could be leveraged on behalf of collectivistic—and even socialistic—policies. The man who has more wealth than another is “unique” in regard to his wealth, and thus justice would consist of him “contributing” that wealth toward the “common existence” of everyone else. When would justice be satisfied? Presumably, when all “uniqueness” has been swallowed up into the lowest common denominator of “our common existence”—when total, stagnant, equalized poverty has been finally achieved.

How else could the Church consistently practice Strauss’ (and by proxy, Carter’s) proposed definition of justice? Moreover, why does Carter see this definition of justice as a potential conservative alternative to the politically progressive connotations which are popular in the culture?

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Perhaps he would answer that the difference is political: Carter’s definition doesn’t necessarily involve political redistribution, whereas the progressive one does. If that’s his answer, then it would seem that he is claiming that conservative and progressive views of justice agree that justice demands socialistic redistributions of wealth. The only difference is that, while the progressive view forces the redistribution, the conservative view demands that the redistribution be done voluntarily. That, I propose, is not a conservative (or accurate) view of justice.

 

“Biblical Justice” – Confusing Justice & Righteousness

The next error I would like to draw attention to is the recently en vogue confusion, generated primarily by Tim Keller, concerning the Hebrew words misphat and tzadeqah. Carter quotes Keller, explaining that misphat roughly corresponds to the classical understanding of justice regarding giving people their due—whether negatively as punishment, or positively as payment. So far, so good.

The confusion is introduced in Keller’s treatment of tzadequah, typically translated as “righteousness.” Although Keller admits that “tzadequah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God,” he stresses the public implications of this righteousness in everyday life, and contrasts this with a view of righteousness which is concerned with “private morality.” The idea, Keller wants to suggest, is that Biblical rightouesness (tzadequah) is not a private thing, but rather, a very public thing—a social thing.

This makes way for the next move of combining misphat and tzadequah together to get “social justice.” Since the two Hebrew words are coupled together so often in the Old Testament, Keller (and others) take the liberty of combining them together under a new, English, term: “when the two Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat are tied together—as they are more than three dozen times—the English expression that best conveys the meaning is ‘social justice.’”

One question the reader should be asking himself is: Is it appropriate to mash two distinct Hebrew words together under a new English term merely because they are often used together in Scripture? Is this an acceptable hermeneutical practice? While my suspicion is that these questions deserve a sharply negative answer, I will set this particular concern aside for another time, and draw attention to a more fundamental concern.

There is a very important distinction between misphat and tzadequah which is often obliterated in the attempt to blend them together. Misphat is concerned with giving people their due. Tzadequah is concerned with fulfilling one’s moral obligations—first to God, and then to other people. While these often overlap (i.e., one of our moral obligations is to give people their due), they are not the same thing. For instance, as Christians, we are morally obliged to be generous. This is an obligation we owe to God. But it does not follow that such generosity is an instance of misphat—of giving people their due. Arguably, if the generosity is due to the recipient, then it isn’t generosity. Generosity is a moral obligation, owed to God. But it is not owed to the recipient. It is given, as a gift, to the recipient, but the obligation is entirely vertical. Mashing justice (misphat) and righteousness (tzadequah) together blurs the distinction between what we owe to God and what we owe to others. As I point out in another article, it also blurs the all-too-important theological distinction between justice and grace.

 

Rediscovering Justice & Righteousness

Rather than watering down the important distinctions between these two concepts by merging them under a new term, we ought to carefully investigate the way they relate to each other as distinct concepts in their own right. Regarding misphat, we ought to ask: What are people due? What determines one’s due? Is it determined by need, or inequality, as is insinuated in Strauss’ & Carter’s “Christian perspective” on justice? Or is it determined by earnings and merit, as in most classical conceptions of justice? In fact, righteousness (tzadequah) would seem to demand that we get such questions right. If we get justice (misphat) wrong, then we will not only fail to give others their due, but we will also be advocates for injustice in society. If we really care about righteousness, then we had better work a lot harder to obtain a clear understanding of what constitutes justice. Then—and only then—can we begin to apply justice to the social sphere in order to potentially redeem the concept of “social justice.” A warning to the current proponents of that term, though: It’s going to look a lot like Capitalism.

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Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.