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The elements of social justice

There is much rhetoric about social justice but few frameworks for sustainable economic empowerment and liberation for the truly disadvantaged. Whatever one's conception of justice is it must be applied in a way that does not do more harm in the name of "doing good." Without an integrated synthesis of theology, anthropology, and economics, as Abraham Kuyper explained in 1891 in The Problem of Poverty, our conceptions of justice will dehumanize the poor. What I am proposing is a basic structure for social justice that can move us toward sustainable empowerment.

(1) Love. It is not random that Jesus' first word when he was asked about the greatest commandment was "love." Jesus makes a simple, yet profound re-statement (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18) that a human's greatest vocation is to love God and his neighbor as one loves himself. Love properly orders our affections, desires, and actions so that we seek the good. Love, then, must be the presupposition of social justice so that our conception of justice is in harmony with the will of the Triune God. (Matthew 22:36-40)

(2) Human dignity. There will be no justice for the truly disadvantaged without a commitment to human dignity. In Genesis 1:26, God says, "Let us make mankind in our image." The image of the Trinity is imprinted upon every human. When you see another person you see the goodness of being made in the image and likeness of God. The truly disadvantaged should be directed toward realizing the freedom and responsibility, the spirituality, the excellence of character and holiness, the expected contribution to the social good, and the application of creativity and rationality in the arts and culture that are necessary consequences of bearing the image of the Triune God.

(3) Solidarity. Solidarity reminds us that we are all in this together. We are truly responsible for each other's well being. There is no "us" versus "them." There are only "we" and "us." The Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us that solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of humans made in the image of the Trinity. Therefore, "the equality of all and the dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples moves towards an ever more committed unity."

(4) Flourishing Social Spheres. Pope John Paul II explained in Centismus Annus a vital principle called subsidiarity that weds human dignity with solidarity. When thinking about social justice, the principle of subsidiarity must be respected, namely, "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

Additionally, Kuyper developed an idea called "sphere sovereignty," which reminds us "that the family, the business, science, art and so forth are all social spheres, which do not owe their existence to the state, and which do not derive the law of their life from the superiority of the state, but obey a high authority within their own bosom; an authority which rules, by the grace of God, just as the sovereignty of the state does." In other words, it is a violation of human solidarity and human dignity for higher orders of society to undermine and violate the functions of lower orders, as well as for spheres to extend beyond their expertise, competence, or design into other spheres.

(5) Desert. Who or what determines what the truly disadvantaged deserve? This depends on how we care about those who are suffering, what we think about them as humans, and what we expect from people relationally. If we love people and seek their good, what people deserve are opportunities live out their vocations as human beings---having freedom to do the things that humans were created to do. This includes freedom from surrogate decision-makers for the development of moral virtue and also freedom to loose oneself in the good.

(6) Reciprocity. David Schmidtz, a professor of philosophy and a joint professor of economics at the University of Arizona, coined a profound justice principle called "transitive reciprocity." Transitive reciprocity teaches that the response to help is to pass it on by helping someone else. Schmidtz said, "When people reciprocate, they teach people around them to cooperate. In the process, they not only respect justice, but also foster it. Specifically, they foster a form of justice that enables people to live together in mutually respectful peace."

(7) Equality. What does "equality" mean? Do we want a society that considers equality on the basis of treatment in accordance with human dignity? Or do we want a society that orients equality materialistically in terms of how much "stuff" some people have versus others? If justice is essentially material, then we will institutionalize injustice in the pursuit of "equality" of portions or shares between the "haves" and "have nots." We will regularly rob Peter to pay Paul.

(8) Need. Unfortunately, "need" is culturally defined in a world where yesterday's luxuries have become today's necessities. Schmidtz argues that need-based distribution is not always what justice requires. Distributing according to need does not necessarily result in people being treated with dignity. "If we care about need---if we really care---then we want social structures to allow and encourage people to do what works," said Schmidtz. What the truly disadvantaged need is a context where they are free to be truly human and virtuous in accordance with love, human dignity, solidarity, and our social and economic interdependence---that is, economic empowerment.

Because Christians tend to emote about justice instead of building sustainable frameworks that liberate and empower the poor to be fully human, good intentioned people and organizations like T.D. Jakes, Cornell West, Jim Wallis, Shayne Claiborne, most Christian "urban ministry" programs, the CCDA, and the Micah Challenge support wealth redistribution programs and policies that enslave people to permanent charity, dead aid, or government programs instead of initiatives that empower and liberate the poor to make their own virtuous contributions to helping the world become a better place without the patronization of surrogate decision-makers. Justice should lead to freedom.

Anthony Bradley Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.


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