You could see the emotion in my friend's face as he looked across the table, expecting that this statement would bring the conclusion of our discussion. After all, how can you argue with facts, right? Unfortunately for him, this was not the first time I had encountered this argument. After six years of street ministry I have plenty of practice answering similar questions of why this program or that program has not "fixed" the problem of poverty, hunger, or homelessness.
Social Justice has become such a buzzword, that most people automatically associate any social program for the poor with it. But as I pointed out to my friend, social justice and social programs are not synonymous. Many social programs are intended to bring a level of social justice, or at least economic equality, but the programs themselves cannot create social justice. What do I mean by create social justice? Lets look at an example case. (names have been changed).
Maria is a single mother of two who works as a CNA in a nursing home. She receives food stamps because of her low income and uses them very judiciously. The money she saves on food allows her to go to night school in hopes of becoming a RN and making more money.
George is an alcoholic, he lives under a bridge and panhandles sporadically. George also receives food stamps but never uses them on food. George eats free every day at soup kitchens, churches, and food pantries. He trades his food stamp money for cigarettes and alcohol and openly admits that only "suckers" use food stamps to actually buy food.
Now in both cases, a social program is in play, but while one example we see a measure of social justice, in the other, we see the polar opposite. While one person uses the opportunity created by the assistance as a means for improving their social position, another only cares about using the assistance to perpetuate their impoverished state. You see, the social program can give the opportunity for a measure of justice to both, but the program itself can not create in the person a desire to utilize that opportunity.
What is Social Justice?
Social justice is more than just giving people the opportunity to do better. In fact, it is more than making everybody positionally equal. We can look at the myriad of examples of corruption and abuse in socialist and communist countries as proof that just leveling the socioeconomic playing field does not necessarily result in "justice".
In my opinion, social justice means making things as "right" as they can be. I believe that because of sin this world is full of not-rightness and that while we can bring a level of rightness, complete perfect rightness is not possible. But I also believe that Jesus prayed for those things that are already true in Heaven to become true here on earth. I don't think Jesus would have prayed for something that could not happen, so I believe that it is possible for us to bring some level of rightness back to this world and to those around us. So for me "Social Justice" means a little experience of heaven right here on earth.
If People Abuse the Programs, Shouldn't We End The Programs?
Usually, when I give the above example, I get something like "you see, that's exactly the problem, people abuse the system, so we should just do away with the social programs." Unfortunately, that misses the point entirely, yes, people are not right, and the system is not right, and people will take advantage of the system, and the system will allow them to take advantage. The problem is that this approach forgets about the Maria's of the world who, because of that system, get to experience a little bit of rightness in their lives.
It is impossible to eliminate all those who would take advantage of the system, and it is impossible to create a system that cannot be taken advantage of. It is, however, possible to make difficult situations a little more right, to allow someone who is experiencing not-rightness to get a degree of rightness and that is social justice. I believe in making the programs as right as possible, we can put checks and systems in place to prevent some of the abuses, and I am in favor of programs that create opportunity rather than dependency, because dependency is just another form of not-rightness. In the end, I am in favor of social programs, not because they create social justice, but because they can create opportunities for social justice.
If Social Programs Can't Change People Then What Can?
I believe that only real personal experience with Jesus can change people, and I believe that the number one way that those experiences happen is through interaction with other people. Those of us who do have a relationship with Jesus and who have committed to following His ways, bring his presence with us when we sit in the coffee house, or walk down the street or volunteer in the soup kitchen or just sit and talk with our friends. As much as I HATE Christian cliches, we really may be the only Jesus these people encounter, and social justice demands that we relate to them is a way that brings the experience of the Kingdom to them.
For example, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 tell us that in Christ, or in the kingdom, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ. Social justice would say that in order for those I come into contact with to experience Kingdom, I cannot treat people differently based on religion, gender, social status, or any of the countless other things that we have used to divide, belittle, deride, and marginalize. When we treat every voice as important, every person as valuable, and every idea as valid, we bring a little piece of heaven here to earth, and that is what social justice really is about.
Social Justice or Social Programs
I think that the answer is both, as long as we don't get the two confused. Social Programs can be useful tools to give opportunities for social justice and it is essential that those with a voice use their voice to promote, advocate for and to vote for social programs that can bring social justice. But I don't think that social programs, even really good well thought out "Christian" programs are the only answer.
Each and every one of us needs to commit to living our lives in light of social justice. Whenever we have the chance to speak out against inequality or unfairness we should stand and shout. Whenever we encounter a person whose voice has been silenced, we should lend them our voice. Whenever we find a person who has been devalued or marginalized, we should strive to make them feel valued and included. We need to seize onto every opportunity to bring a little bit of Heaven's rightness into a world that is full of not-rightness and maybe introduce some of those we encounter along the way to Jesus the source of all rightness (justice).
This post is part of the October Syncroblog. Please check out other synchrobloggers wrestling with what social justice is this month:
- K.W. Leslie – Social Justice and Social Darwinism
- Jeremy Meyers – Did Jesus Teach Social Justice?
- Glenn Hager – Notes on Not Saving the World
- J.A. Carter – The Gospel Truth About Social Justice
- Sherri Huleatt – Sex Trafficking: the Story of a Young Girl, the Problem of a Generation
- Kathy Escobar - Justice is more than Equality
- LIz Dyer – A Social Justice Story
- Carol Kuniholm – Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places
- Leah Sophia – Justice is Important, Food is Essential