The Secularization and Reclamation of Social Justice

The following blog post was first published as two articles on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations.

Over the past decade or so, I have been realizing the extent to which my culture and upbringing have affected my theology. I have been forced to take off my cultural glasses in order to reread the Bible with fresh eyes, over and over and over again. As a result, I have noticed subtle and gradual shifts in my theological convictions (although my allegiance to the core doctrines of the Christian faith have not changed).

Most notably, one of the major doctrinal areas where I have done almost a complete about-face is social justice.

For much of my Christian life I didn’t think very much about social justice. It didn’t seem relevant to what I understood to be “the gospel.” After all, I grew up attending a large suburban Chinese American church, and like many Chinese American Christians, I was theologically conservative and politically apathetic (see here and here). Christian social justice was by and large a theologically progressive movement, so it didn’t fit into my theological conservatism. On the other hand, secular social justice was by and large a politically activist movement, so it didn’t fit into my political apathy.

But as a result of conversations, experiences, and study, I now see social justice as a pivotal task of the church.

You may react to the sentence above in one of various ways. Perhaps you are like my former self, and you react with concern. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “The church should proclaim the gospel, not pursue social justice.” Or perhaps you react with commendation. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “Bravo! I am so glad you are talking about this.” Or perhaps you react with confusion. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “What? This seems new to me.”

There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to social justice, and it is largely because people mean different things when they are talking about social justice.

What do I mean when I talk about social justice? Social justice is the justice of God applied at the social level. Because “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa 30:18), he has a moral standard for human life. And since human beings are social creatures, God’s moral standard not only has individual but social implications. When God’s justice is applied at the individual level, it can be deemed individual justice. When God’s justice is applied at the social level, it can be deemed social justice.

And justice is important because justice is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins, that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). In other words, one of the main components of the gospel is that God establishes and applies justice through Jesus. And my suggestion is that a gospel-centered establishment and application of justice is both individual and social–it includes both individual justice and social justice. In this paradigm, social justice–in its original, unadulterated form–is not an anti-gospel agenda. It is part of the gospel agenda.

For much of church history, Christians pursued social justice. In fact, the very phrase “social justice” was first popularized by Catholic scholars Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio and Antonio Rosmini in the 1840s, and it was cemented in Catholic doctrine by Pope Pius IX in the 1930s. Pius IX described social justice in 1937, “Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good.”

But although the phrase “social justice” is relatively new, what it describes is nothing new, as its meaning has been manifested throughout history. Ever since the book of Acts, Christians have been at the forefront of social justice–caring for widows and orphans, starting hospitals, advocating for prison reform, and abolishing slavery. All of these actions were examples of social justice.

However, in the modern evangelical world there are many Christians who no longer hold to the term social justice and instead view social justice advocates as people who are undermining or even preaching another gospel. In some circles, the term “social justice warrior” is used in a derogatory way to describe protesters who come across as rude, uneducated, or violent.

So how did we get to a point where the phrase “social justice” is seen in some camps as antithetical to the gospel?

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a subtle shift regarding the term began to take place in the Western world: social justice became secularized.

What I mean is that the church has largely and gradually relinquished its responsibility for social justice and handed it over to the world. The church has stepped back from this task, and the world has stepped into the resulting vacuum. Bryan Wilson wrote in his book Religion in Secular Society, “The welfare services, which once were prompted by Christian motives and a sense of charity, have been almost completely secularized. What was once done from Christian duty is now an accepted state provision as part of the extension of general political, civic and social rights.” In other words, the church has handed on the torch of social justice to the secular state.

In new hands, the meaning of social justice has evolved. The secular world has adopted and adapted the divine calling of social justice, incorporating all sorts of extra-biblical beliefs and positions along the way. And now social justice has become a shifting mixture of partially biblical and partially unbiblical origins. The phrase is now so ambiguous that in his book The Mirage of Social Justice, Frederich Hayek wrote of the phrase “social justice,” “I have now become convinced, however, that the people who habitually employ the phrase simply do not know themselves what they mean by it and just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it.”

But there is something even more lamentable than the hijacking of the meaning of social justice–the fact that this has mostly happened under the quiet watch of the church without alarm. Many Christians in the church have not only surrendered their responsibility of social justice to the world, but they have largely done so without remorse or regret. They have been content with allowing the world to tarnish God’s original design for social justice.

And when those in the church do think about social justice, they often fall under one of two unhealthy camps. Those who identify as theological progressives often pursue a worldly social justice devoid of Christian principles. And those who identify as theological conservatives often condemn social justice and attack its anti-Christian agenda. But regardless of their view of social justice, both camps have the same flaw: whether for or against social justice, they fail to see they are viewing social justice through a secular lens.

Instead, the proper response to the secularization of social justice is not to unite with nor to abandon the cause, but rather to reclaim the cause by returning it to its original biblical standards. In this third camp, social justice is not idolized, nor is demonized, but rather it is viewed in its proper place as a component of the gospel.

Understandably, some Christians may find the notion of reclaiming definitions to be foolish. “Let the secularists have their term,” they may say, “It is not helpful for Christians to use terms that are so laced with unintended cultural meanings.” And to some extent, they are right. There are plenty of words that I do not intend for Christians to claim. I suppose that one can propose new, biblical definitions for words like “humanism” or “enlightenment,” but such efforts would only be confusing.

But why should we claim the term “social justice”? I can think of two reasons.

  1. History is on our side. Not only did the term originate in the church, but the term was and still is applied regularly in the church. And the fact that others outside of the church may use the term in a different way should not hinder our use of the term (just like how the fact that others outside of the church may use the term “marriage” in a different way should not hinder our use of the term).
  2. Social justice is a natural bridge to the Christian faith. There are many things in the Christian faith that are offensive to those outside the faith, but in 21st century America, social justice is one of the few biblical concepts that is actually attractive to those outside the faith. And if we publicly hunker down on the offensive aspects of our faith while publicly stepping around the attractive aspects of our faith, then we will continue to unnecessarily segregate the American church from its greater culture. People in the secular world are longing for social justice, but too often they only encounter versions of social justice that are incomplete or distorted. If they are able to witness a biblical form of social justice, it may be the means through which they may experience the church.

But what exactly does it look like to view social justice through a biblical lens? What was God’s original design for social justice in the first place?

A Biblical Survey of Social Justice

In the New Testament, God established the church, and he gave it a mission: to go into the world in the power of the Spirit and make disciples, for the glory of God and the good of the world. However, the church is not an isolated institution in the grand timeline of history, but it is the direct fulfillment of various stories, commands, and promises in the Old Testament. God has appeared in different times and different ways through various people in the Old Testament, and all of this was to foreshadow and point to Jesus and his church. Therefore, understanding the Old Testament will help us to clarify the mission of the New Testament.

The Old Testament makes it clear that from the very beginning God has always desired for his people to pursue social justice. Therefore, if the church is the people of God, then one of the components of the church’s mission must entail the pursuit of social justice.

The Origin of Justice

When God created the world in Genesis 1, he did not create it with disorder and chaos but with order and harmony. He made it so that things were not random, but rather, so that things should be a certain way. Another way to think about it is that God created the world with the possibility of right and wrong, and he declared that the world should be right. This should-be dimension of creation is the foundation for the term justice. Justice at its core is the concept that things are to be what they should be. It is the idea that God’s standard for creation should come true in the reality of creation.

Thus, one of the main differences between biblical justice and secular justice is the origin of justice. Biblical justice rests on the unchanging values of God, while secular justice rests on the changing values of humanity. Biblical justice is to move reality toward a divine and permanent standard that is based on God’s character, while secular justice is to move reality toward whichever standard that has the most support or attention at the moment.

When God created human beings, he gave them an identity and a mission. Firstly, their identity was that they were image-bearers of God (cf. Gen 1:27), and their mission was that they were to multiply and rule the earth (cf. Gen 1:28). And in their role as image-bearing earth-rulers, they were commissioned to be the enforcers of the should-be dimension of creation. In other words, human beings were called to protect the order and harmony of creation, and to ensure that creation was filled with the character of God. They were to be advocates of justice.

But in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, that justice was lost–things are now what they should not be. God explained through his curses in Genesis 3:16–19 just how that justice was lost.

In 3:16, God declared specifically that there would be struggle within the relationships between parent and child and between husband and wife. Thus, one of the consequences of sin is social fragmentation. Sin does not just affect people but also the relationships between people. In other words, while sin operates at an individual level (we have pride, lust, greed, etc.), it also operates at a social level (we have divorce, poverty, racism, etc.).

In 3:17–19, God cursed the ground, which represents the relationship between humanity and creation. Our sin had tarnished not just humanity but also all of creation. To put it another way, sin has altered reality so that it is no longer what it should be. Before, what existed in reality was identical to the decree of God. But now, what exists in reality is different from the decree of God. One way to describe the difference between God’s decree and God’s reality is the word injustice. If justice is the establishment of God’s decree in reality, then injustice is the distortion of God’s decree in reality.

And injustice reared its head in the subsequent chapters. In Genesis 4, Cain killed his brother Abel. Toward the end of the chapter, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasted about being several times more wicked than Cain ever was. By Genesis 6:5, it was evident that injustice had manifested itself at the social level, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Therefore, God initiated a flood to wipe out almost all of humanity. It is interesting to note that in the narrative of the biblical flood, God did not just destroy individual human beings, but he also destroyed the land and the animals. After all, sin had not only tarnished individuals, but it had also tarnished all of creation. It wasn’t just that individuals required justice–creation itself required justice.

The Imperative of Justice

But immediately after the flood, God clarified something about justice. In Genesis 9:3, he declared that humans could now ethically kill animals for food, but in Genesis 9:5, he declared that it was still unethical to kill humans. And he then explained the reasoning in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

God decreed that human beings have a level of dignity and value that animals do not have because they are image-bearers of God. Therefore, to give respect to human beings is to give respect to God, and to insult human beings is to insult God. Thus God established in a sense a hierarchy of justice: while death of any sort is wrong, the death of a human being is especially wrong. Because human beings are image-bearers of God, it is especially unjust to kill a human being.

Here lies a second distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. Secular justice at its core cannot provide a philosophically adequate foundation for its declaration that some things are more valuable than other things. After all, if there is no supernatural, then reality simply consists of a collection of ever-changing chemical compounds. What reason would there be for claiming that organic compounds are more “valuable” than inorganic compounds, or specifically, that humans are more “valuable” than rocks? Biblical justice establishes a hierarchy of value. Not only are human beings the primary designated enforcers of justice, but they are also the primary designated recipients of justice, and the reason is because they are image-bearers of God. The pursuit of justice for humanity is vitally important because human beings are reflections and representatives of God. Therefore, justice cannot just be a fad, but it must be an imperative. God’s dignity and glory are at stake.

The Inevitability of Justice

A few chapters later, God initiated a relationship with a man named Abraham, and he promised to Abraham that he would become a great nation, and through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3). Although sin had cursed the whole world, Abraham’s descendants would initiate a movement that would bless the whole world. One of the crucial components of this divine blessing was explained in Genesis 18:19: they were to do justice. “For I have chosen [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice…”

It was God’s intention to reverse the effects of sin through the lineage of Abraham, by instilling blessing instead of cursing, and by instilling justice instead of injustice. Abraham’s descendants were to fulfill the original mandate to humanity–to multiply and rule the earth, so that the way things are are the way things should be.

Within God’s initiation with Abraham lies a third distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. Biblical justice has a certain and definite direction and outcome because God himself desires it. Secular justice, ultimately, has no guarantee. One generation may take up the cause and make several gains, but the next generation may undo all of the gains. There is no assurance that things will ultimately get any better. Conversely, there is the assurance that one day things will actually get worse, as the sun will run out of hydrogen in about 5 billion years. However, in the biblical paradigm, because God is watching and intervening throughout history in order to accomplish his desire for justice, one can say along with Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Nonetheless, throughout the rest of Genesis, injustice continued to play out (in both individual and social manifestations)–cities fought with one another, rich people argued over wells, relatives separated and settled in distant lands, people were sold into slavery, etc. However, in the book of Exodus, through a dramatic foreshadowing of the gospel, God rescued the Israelites from slavery. This was a beautiful demonstration of God’s power to save, and it was a beautiful picture of God’s desire for justice.

When the nation of Israel was established, God commanded them to be a nation that valued social justice. Deuteronomy 16:20 says, “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Therefore, throughout the Mosaic Law are commands about caring for the poor, the widow, and the sojourner. Israel was to be a nation that restored the justice of God on earth.

By the time David came to the throne, it may have seemed that God’s command to Adam and his promise to Abram were finally starting to be fulfilled. After all, 2 Samuel 8:15 says, “So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people.” And similarly, the prophets constantly talked of justice. Isaiah said, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa 1:17). Micah asked, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

But it soon became clear that Israel was unable to be this beacon of justice. And so, because of their wickedness, God gave Israel justice by allowing them to be conquered and exiled. Nonetheless, God did not forget his people. He told his prophets to proclaim that although injustice was rampant in their present day, there would one day be a future day of justice. He said through Isaiah, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). He declared through Jeremiah, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5). And he proclaimed through Ezekiel, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezek 34:16)

God was telling Israel that he would one day appoint a servant who would fulfill the promises of old. This servant would rule over creation, he would bless the nations, and he would establish justice. He would make all things right again.

The Climax of Justice

Fast forward several hundred years, and Jesus quoted Isaiah at the start of his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19). Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of all of these Old Testament promises. He was the royal descendant of Abraham and David who would establish justice.

Jesus intentionally sought out the marginalized of society, and he taught us to care for the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned (Matt 25:35–40), in order to show us what this new kingdom of justice was to look like. It was a kingdom that reversed poverty, sickness, and brokenness. But Jesus did even more. He also volunteered to die on the cross, and when he did, he established justice for any who would believe in him.

The death of Jesus depicts yet another distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. Ultimately, all secular justice can offer are examples of justice to counteract the examples of injustice. However, it cannot cure injustice at its core. There is a fundamental issue that it can never address: it is not just that people are sinful and broken, but the system itself is sinful and broken. Therefore, the only way the curse of sin can be addressed is if there was a new system altogether. And that is what exactly what God established through Jesus.

Throughout most of history, there has been nothing new under the sun. However, what Jesus initiated was new. When Jesus died and rose again, he established a new creation. And he declared that his followers would be recipients of a new covenant. And he declared that members of this new covenant are justified, or made right before God, because they have been born again. In other words, the whole system of injustice can be overthrown, because there is a new system of justice in place now.

The Movement of Justice

In the middle of history, in the world of injustice, Jesus initiated a movement of justice, and he has invited those who would believe to join him. And he established that this justification is not only individual but also social–“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This is a movement that not only establishes justice in individual hearts, but it also establishes justice in whole communities. This is a movement that not only makes lives right, but it also makes societies right. This is a movement that not only purifies sin at the personal level, but it also removes sin at the social level. How do we know that? Because the trajectory of history is a new creation where justice is holistically established–both individual justice and social justice. In the book of Revelation, it is not just people who will be healed, but whole nations will be healed. And it is not just sin that is erased, but curses will be erased (cf. Rev 22:2–3).

This movement is called the church. Jesus has told the church to take up the mantle of reconciling the world to himself, so that one day all the wrongs in the world will be right. Therefore, the Old Testament commands for social justice in the time of Moses, the Old Testament stories of social justice in the time of David, and the Old Testament cries for social justice in the time of Isaiah are all being fulfilled through the church.

The church is the final distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. While advocates of secular justice can offer the legislature, the military, the education system, the business sector, the non-profit sector, etc., none of these systems can ensure true and lasting justice because injustice exists in them all. There will always be government corruption or corporate greed or implicit bias. The blind cannot lead the blind. However, advocates of biblical justice have a resource like none other: the church. The church is God’s chosen method of enforcing justice, and it has the power to do the job. The church has the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever it binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever it looses on earth shall be loosed in heaven (cf. Matt 16:19).

Therefore, as the church, let us fight for justice. Let us not only offer the good news of individual justice but also the good news of social justice. Let us serve the marginalized. Let us reverse the effects of sin in society. Let us multiply, fill the earth with blessing, and rule with justice.

This is biblical social justice: to manifest God’s character and to enforce human dignity by the church throughout the whole earth in the power of Jesus, with the confidence that one day sin would be reversed and creation may be redeemed.

This is a social justice that is unchanging, for God’s character is behind it. This is a social justice that is imperative, for God’s dignity is behind it. This is a social justice that is guaranteed, for God’s hand is behind it. This is a social justice that is holistic, for God’s salvation is behind it. This is a social justice that is being fulfilled, for God’s church is behind it.

That is a social justice worth fighting for.

One response to “The Secularization and Reclamation of Social Justice”

  1. Good word! “Therefore, to give respect to human beings is to give respect to God, and to insult human beings is to insult God.“ This thought, like many great truths, is so simple as to be overlooked by many today. Thanks for the reminder.

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