“Social Justice” is a term you hear almost every day. But did you ever hear anybody define what it actually means? In the latest video for Prager University, Jonah Goldberg says that if you ask ten liberals to define social justice you’ll get ten different responses.
Goldberg, referencing Frederick Hayek, says that underlying the term “social justice” is a pernicious philosophical claim that freedom must be sacrificed in order to redistribute income. A few years ago on his radio program, Glenn Beck made similar claims and encouraged listeners to leave their church if it proclaims a concern for social justice:
I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!
Goldberg and Beck are rightly concerned about the way the left uses the term social justice. But they are wrong in implying that the term should be discarded altogether. At it’s heart, social justice is a deeply Christian term.
A Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, coined the term in the 1840s and based the concept on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “a large part of the Church’s social teaching is solicited and determined by important social questions, to which social justice is the proper answer.” Social justice is even given a section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which defines it as:
Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.
Whether we use the term social justice or not, Protestants are also obligated to seek justice and correct oppression (Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8; Psalm 82:3). But this does not mean that we have to agree with the egalitarianism and redistribution of wealth that motives and drives the type of social justice the left wants.
Rather the abandoning the term to the political left, Christians should find a way to reclaim the true meaning of social justice. We need to show that we can give people their due without resorting to freedom-destroying tactics.
The first monograph of the 2002 Christian Social Thought Series defines the relationship between economic or social justice and the classical understanding of justice as a virtue.