Question: "What does the Bible say about social justice?"
Answer: Before discussing the Christian view of social justice, we need to define terms. Social justice is such a politically charged concept that it can’t really be divorced from its modern-day context. Social justice is often used as a rallying cry for many on the left side of the political spectrum. This excerpt from the “Social Justice” entry on Wikipedia is a good definition of this concept:
“Social justice is also a concept that some use to describe the movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution. These policies aim to achieve what developmental economists refer to as more equality of opportunity than may currently exist in some societies, and to manufacture equality of outcome in cases where incidental inequalities appear in a procedurally just system.”
The key word in this definition is the word “egalitarianism.” This word, coupled with the phrases “income redistribution,” “property redistribution,” and “equality of outcome,” says a great deal about social justice. Egalitarianism as a political doctrine essentially promotes the idea that all people should have the same (equal) political, social, economic and civil rights. This idea is based on the foundation of inalienable human rights enshrined in such documents as the Declaration of Independence.
However, as an economic doctrine, egalitarianism is the driving force behind socialism and communism. It is economic egalitarianism that seeks to remove the barriers of economic inequality by means of redistribution of wealth. We see this implemented in social welfare programs where progressive tax policies take proportionately more money from wealthy individuals in order to raise the standard of living for people who lack the same means. In other words, the government takes from the rich and gives to the poor.
The problem with this doctrine is twofold: first, there is a mistaken premise in economic egalitarianism that the rich have become wealthy by exploiting the poor. Much of the socialist literature of the past 150 years promotes this premise. This may have been primarily the case back when Karl Marx first wrote his Communist Manifesto, and even today it may be the case some of the time, but certainly not all of the time. Second, socialist programs tend to create more problems than they solve; in other words, they don’t work. Welfare, which uses public tax revenue to supplement the income of the underemployed or unemployed, typically has the effect of recipients becoming dependent on the government handout rather than trying to improve their situation. Every place where socialism/communism has been tried on a national scale, it has failed to remove the class distinctions in society. Instead, all it does is replace the nobility/common man distinction with a working class/political class distinction.
What, then, is the Christian view of social justice? The Bible teaches that God is a God of justice. In fact, “all his ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Furthermore, the Bible supports the notion of social justice in which concern and care are shown to the plight of the poor and afflicted (Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; 27:19). The Bible often refers to the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner – that is, people who were not able to fend for themselves or had no support system. The nation of Israel was commanded by God to care for society’s less fortunate, and their eventual failure to do so was partly the reason for their judgment and expulsion from the land.
In Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, He mentions caring for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and in James’ epistle he expounds on the nature of “true religion” (James 1:27). So, if by “social justice” we mean that society has a moral obligation to care for those less fortunate, then that is correct. God knows that, due to the fall, there will be widows, fatherless and sojourners in society, and He made provisions in the old and new covenants to care for these outcasts of society. The model of such behavior is Jesus Himself, who reflected God’s sense of justice by bringing the gospel message to even the outcasts of society.
However, the Christian notion of social justice is different from the contemporary notion of social justice. The biblical exhortations to care for the poor are more individual than societal. In other words, each Christian is encouraged to do what he can to help the “least of these.” The basis for such biblical commands is found in the second of the greatest commandments—love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). Today’s notion of social justice replaces the individual with the government, which, through taxation and other means, redistributes wealth. This policy doesn’t encourage giving out of love, but resentment from those who see their hard-earned wealth being taken away.
Another difference is that the Christian worldview of social justice doesn’t assume the wealthy are the beneficiaries of ill-gotten gain. Wealth is not evil in a Christian worldview, but there is a responsibility and an expectation to be a good steward of one’s wealth (because all wealth comes from God). Today’s social justice operates under the assumption that the wealthy exploit the poor. A third difference is that, under the Christian concept of stewardship, the Christian can give to the charities he/she wants to support. For example, if a Christian has a heart for the unborn, he can support pro-life agencies with his time, talent and treasure. Under the contemporary form of social justice, it is those in power within the government who decide who receives the redistributed wealth. We have no control over what the government does with our tax money, and, more often than not, that money goes to charities we might not deem worthy.
Basically, there is a tension between a God-centered approach to social justice and a man-centered approach to social justice. The man-centered approach sees the government in the role of savior, bringing in a utopia through government policies. The God-centered approach sees Christ as Savior, bringing heaven to earth when He returns. At His return, Christ will restore all things and execute perfect justice. Until then, Christians express God's love and justice by showing kindness and mercy to those less fortunate.