When Social Justice is Unjust
By Rev. Michael Hudson
The phrase “social justice” is thrown around these days like a buzz word on steroids. Almost every problem faced in society from poverty, health care, environmental concerns, homelessness, etc are now labeled as “social justice” issues.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for justice in a social setting. But what exactly does this phrase, “social justice” mean? Ask ten different people and you will get ten different definitions. Ask them what the difference is between justice and social justice and you are more likely to get blank stares. Why, then, with such ambiguity about what social justice is, do we use the term like a trump card?
The term “social justice” has only been around for the past 75-100 years. I believe people use this term because we can demand justice. If something is unjust, we have a right, a moral obligation, and a duty to God to change the unjust situation. There is power with a phrase like “social justice.” And that is where the danger lies.
Think of what we call social justice ministries today and you will most likely think of working with the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking care of the poor. All of these ministries are essential, but they are not justice ministries. They are, in fact, mercy ministries.
People have confused justice and mercy. Those who confuse justice and mercy would look at the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and surmise that Jesus is being unjust. How can the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in the kingdom of God? How can there be such inequality in talents given from the outset? Is Jesus being unjust when he takes from the servant with one talent and gives it to the servant with ten? No, the lazy servant did nothing, contributed nothing and therefore received nothing. Justice was met.
The classic definition of justice advanced by Thomas Aquinas is “the habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will.” (Summa Theologiae II-II, q.58,a.1.) To “give a person their due” is the broad definition of justice. It works on all levels. If the worker is due wages, the employer should pay. If the criminal is due punishment, they should receive it. If the employer is due satisfactory work, the employee should give it. In short, justice is something that is earned. When a person receives what is owed them, justice has been met.
But by calling merciful acts “social justice” we run the risk of injustice. When we mandate acts of charity, they cease to be charitable. When mercy is demanded or owed, it is no longer mercy. It becomes oppression. We cannot force people to be loving. Mercy and love must be freely given if it is to be mercy and love. It cannot be coerced or required by men. Only God can require it because mercy comes from the heart. When we can demand mercy, we become tyrants and “social justice” becomes unjust.
Micah 6:8 says, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In order to function properly, society needs both justice and mercy. God has judged what is just and unjust. He has determined the standard for right and wrong. We walk with humility by acknowledging that and obeying Him.
Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. In it the landowner is both just and merciful. He pays the workers the agreed upon wage. That is justice. Those who worked less were not owed the same wage but received it. They would be unjust to demand equal pay for unequal work. They received it because the employer was generous and merciful.
We are to be both just and merciful. To confuse the two takes a society towards oppression. If we cannot define justice correctly, we won’t have any.