Speaking of Social Justice

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Speaking of Social Justice

Mar 8, 2010 6 min read

Ryan Messmore studies and writes about how religious commitment improves public discourse...

Have you tuned in to one of the most significant conversations occurring in our culture today? It's hard to miss. It takes place on college campuses, blogs and YouTube; in churches, convention halls and coffee houses; during concerts, rallies and political debates. The topic appeals especially to an emerging generation of Christians. Many even say it helps determine their vote.

The "it" is social justice. The conversations surrounding it are important, for how we talk about social justice shapes how we think about and pursue it. Unfortunately, because people discussing it tend to narrow their focus to financial status or material poverty, they miss other important resources and relationships necessary for human flourishing--the true goal of social justice.

What's Being Said

If you listen in on the social justice conversation, you'll hear some encouraging things. You'll hear a genuine desire to help others, to lift them out of poverty, homelessness, human trafficking and so on. You'll hear frustration and anger that fellow human beings are often denied dignity and treated inhumanely. You'll hear sensitivity to Scripture passages calling for the care and defense of orphans, widows and the oppressed. You'll hear intentional efforts to bring the Christian faith to bear on a wide range of moral issues.

Listen closely enough, though, and you'll also hear some puzzling things--even some that are downright contradictory.

Advocates promote social justice in the name of helping people. Yet they often designate strategies that are distant and impersonal. The adjective "social" implies that justice involves the numerous bonds, relationships and institutions of an entire society, yet its approach often seems myopic, viewing government as the sole source of effective change.

Indeed, it's hard to listen to public discourse about social justice and not get the sense that our culture has largely relinquished responsibility for "the least of these my brothers" to state, provincial and federal governments. Many seem to equate caring for the poor with advocating government redistribution of wealth. If God's call to "seek justice" (Isaiah 1:17) is the goal, the means is too often assumed to be increased entitlement and welfare spending by the state.

Ironically, this approach can actually hurt the very people it's meant to help. It often turns the needy over to someone else in the name of sacrificing for the poor. It can treat people as mere bank accounts with legs in the name of respecting human dignity. It tends to create enslaving dependence on government in the name of liberation.

What's Being Missed?

We're missing something important in today's social justice conversations.

Consider how the central issue is commonly identified and framed. Sometimes it's in the oppression of large social structures, sometimes it's in abstract "isms," and often it's in the status of one economic class compared to another (a.k.a. the "gap between rich and poor"). But whatever happens to be the point of focus, it can easily take people's eyes off the central target: thriving people in a thriving society.

This is true for social justice as well as other fields. Take medical health, for example. What would you think of a doctor who defined his primary goal as reducing the "health gap" between the healthy and the sick? What if, to even things out, he tried to make his super-fit patients a little less healthy so that his ill patients could get a little better?

Most of us would cringe at this approach, recognizing intuitively that health doesn't work that way. Wouldn't it be better--and more sensible--for the doctor to focus on improving the health of all his patients, especially those who are now sick?

Similarly, we should be wary of social justice notions that divert attention from meeting people's needs to equalizing their relative outcomes. We need to place the true flourishing of individuals and societies back in the center of the conversation. One simple way to begin is to get to know struggling people, neighbourhoods and communities by name. Doing so can remind us that we're dealing not simply with numbers and statistics of an abstract class called "the poor," but with the suffering of real human beings.

This leads to something else missing from social justice conversations: the relational nature of people and poverty.

To speak of a person is to speak of a relational being--a being created to thrive in certain foundational relationships with God, other people and the rest of creation. If human flourishing is the goal of justice, then justice has to do, inescapably, with relationships. In fact, one way to translate the biblical roots of our word "justice" is simply "right relationships." Justice has to do with relating as we should--in other words, with treating God, others and creation rightly. Speaking in these terms is one way to recover a positive--and biblical--sense of justice.

In turn, this approach enables us to understand poverty as more than the mere lack of money. Poverty and social breakdown are usually symptoms of the absence or brokenness of foundational relationships, whether spiritual, physical, interpersonal or institutional. By focusing solely on material possessions, though, advocates of social justice too often miss the other dimensions of human life and flourishing.

As a result, although undertaken with good intentions, social justice initiatives can actually treat people as less-than-full human beings--which is, in a word, unjust. (To explore this kind of relational paradigm in more depth, check out the DVD and small group guide "Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives in Need.")

A Different Approach

How might a person-centered, relational approach to social justice change the tone or direction of the conversation?

First, a relational approach can broaden and deepen the nature of the assistance we offer. We will not rest content with throwing money at the problem. Recognizing that people are much more than walking bank accounts needing deposits, we can attend to additional things they need in order to thrive, including friendship, accountability, dignity and a sense of purpose. We can aim to treat them not as passive recipients, but as active participants in the common good, with valuable gifts to contribute. We can resist imposing solutions on them and instead empower them to be a part of the solution.

Along these lines, I'm reminded of a charitable organization that changed its practice of helping poor moms at Christmas: instead of giving Christmas presents directly to the needy children, the group began allowing moms to earn and redeem points for gifts which the moms picked out, wrapped and gave to their own children. You can guess which approach gave the women a greater sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

Second, by grasping how justice involves the restoration of relationships, we can better understand it as something to be cultivated over time from the ground up. We'll be less tempted to think that we can wipe it out with a rally, petition or government program, let alone by electing a particular political leader or party. We might instead be more willing to invest the time, energy and resources into strengthening the roots of justice--the relationships that make up human flourishing.

On a personal level, this means developing the habits, disciplines and virtues needed to grow and sustain healthy relationships. At a social and political level, it means strengthening the institutions that can best cultivate and maintain these relationships. Healthy marriages and families, for instance, serve as some of the strongest buffers against child poverty.

What if churches began to view robust marriage counseling programs as ways of promoting not just personal enrichment but also social justice? What if, upon hearing the term "justice system," we began to think of not only the courthouse and jail but also the family? What if we pursued public policies that reflect this understanding?

Third, we can think differently about where responsibility for justice lies, not limiting it primarily to government. The state is responsible for maintaining conditions for justice (such as freedom, peace, law and order). But it can't cultivate all the relationships necessary for human beings to thrive. We need the institutions of civil society for that. Understanding social responsibility in this way requires a robust imagination about what families, neighbourhoods and churches can do and achieve. It also requires ways of thinking and speaking that signal the true power and potential of the local and personal.

For example, we might resist speaking as if there's only one community, centered around the federal government, that's responsible for the health and welfare of our families and neighbors. We tend to do this, for instance, by talking about the health care debate (singular). What if, instead, we talked about the debates of various communities (for instance, "this congregation's health care strategy" or "that neighbourhood's approach to health care"), referring to many diverse hubs of decision-making about how members can care for each other?

Changing the way we think--and speak--about social justice can change our effectiveness in helping people in need.

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared in Comment magazine