Everyone wants justice. Not only that, but everyone wants justice to extend to the community, to the social sphere. In that way, everyone wants not only justice, but social justice. The problem is that different people mean very different things by “justice” and therefore by “social justice.”
I have been spending a fair bit of time researching the topic of social justice—something that has probably become obvious to you if you’re a regular reader of this site. The more I read, the more I see how much of the battle is not merely one of competing ideologies, but of competing vocabularies. John Stonestreet has pointed out that “it’s no good having the same vocabulary if we’re using different dictionaries.” And when it comes to social justice, that’s exactly what’s happening—we are drawing definitions from different dictionaries.
No one is arguing against justice. You don’t hear people on the streets chanting, “No injustice, no peace!” or “What do we want? Injustice! When do we want it? Now!” Of course not! Everyone wants justice. Not only that, but everyone wants justice to extend to the community, to the social sphere. In that way, everyone wants not only justice, but social justice. The problem is that different people mean very different things by “justice” and therefore by “social justice.” As long as both sides refuse to cede the term to the other, definitions will remain critical. The question is not “Are you for social justice?” but “What kind of social justice are you for?”
As I’ve read a number of books on the topic, I’ve been interested to see the specific terms authors use to distinguish between what they consider good and bad forms of social justice. Let me share a few of those and then suggest which of them, if any, we should use.
Social Justice A vs. Social Justice B
In the forthcoming book Confronting Justice without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus Williams employs “Social Justice A” and “Social Justice B,” the former to describe “biblically compatible justice-seeking” and the latter to describe its counterfeit. Acknowledging that justice is a major theme in the Bible, he says, “social justice is not optional for the Christian” and goes on to ask “What justice isn’t social, for that matter? God designed us as social creatures, made for community, not loners designed to live on deserted islands or staring at glowing screens all day. All injustice affects others, so talking about justice that isn’t social is like talking about water that isn’t wet or a square with no right angles.” Thus Christians must both seek and execute justice. Yet we must carefully distinguish true justice from false justice (which is itself injustice).
To this end Williams uses “Social Justice A” to speak of the kind of justice “our ancient brothers and sisters did to rescue and adopt the precious little image-bearers who had been discarded like trash at the dumps outside many Roman cities,” as well as the kind of justice exemplified by William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Sophie Scholl, and so on. This contrasts with “Social Justice B” which depends upon “the ‘oppressors vs. oppressed’ narrative of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the deconstructionism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the gender and queer theory of Judith Butler.” The book’s 12 chapters carefully distinguish between those two competing views.
So the first contender is Social Justice A and Social Justice B.
Social Justice vs Ideological Social Justice
Scott David Allen has just released a book titled Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice, and he uses “social justice” as the positive term with “ideological social justice” as the negative term. “I use the modifier ‘ideological,’” he says, “to indicate that we are discussing something much bigger than justice. Rather, it is a comprehensive ideology, or worldview, which helps to explain why it is attracting so many adherents.”