I’ll begin candidly, with a statement that might sound uncharitable: The modern Religious Left has perverted “social justice,” if not hijacked the term altogether. It has so misappropriated and mangled the term that many Americans—including commentators like Glenn Beck—now reflexively think “socialism” when they hear “social justice.”
Indeed, the most enthusiastic practitioners of social justice tend to advocate Big Government collectivism, pursued via a single, seemingly ever-expanding federal government. And although “social justice,” in its origins, does not mean socialism, many liberal Christians have veered to that extreme.
Speaking of extremes, the radical left long ago took notice, employing the language of “social justice” to appeal to liberal Christians, especially in education. Sixties Marxists Bill Ayers and Michael Klonsky now write books like Handbook of Social Justice in Education, Teaching for Social Justice, and A Simple Justice: The Challenge of Small Schools—the latter two published, naturally, by Columbia Teachers College—and not because of any allegiance to Christ. These militant secularists know which buttons to push to dupe liberal Christians.
That said, here’s a word in semi-defense of some “social justice” Christians; that is, those not duped by the likes of Ayers:
I don’t think we can say the Bible explicitly prohibits all public welfare. Nor would I argue that government has no role addressing the needy. While I’d avoid defining healthcare as a “right”—widening the umbrella of “rights” is precarious, especially amid secular progressives—I believe a moral society/state has a duty to ensure its people aren’t denied health coverage if they show up uninsured in an emergency room. Of course, that’s the law of the land anyway.
Besides, I’d be surprised if even 10 percent of Christians give 10 percent of their income in tithing. (Generous tithing becomes difficult when Uncle Sam takes so much of your income.) A people that don’t give, of their own accord, fuel the collectivists.
Personally, I subscribe to the teaching of subsidiarity, which encourages localism as much as possible. Localities, public or private, are closer to the problem, offering a more efficient, human touch than a distant federal bureaucracy that subsumes the traditional role of counties, states, churches, and non-profits.
I’m convinced, from study after study, and years of observing public policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society, to (on the plus side) the successful decentralization/block-granting of welfare done by President Clinton and the Republican Congress in the 1990s, that addressing poverty in the federal way preached by modern progressives—secular or non-secular—is counter-productive, fostering dependency.
Really, the debate is over means, not ends. Liberals must realize that conservatives are hardly lacking in compassion when they oppose transferring poverty solutions to a single authority in Washington. Conservatives simply have a different prescription they feel works better.
In fact, the long experience of economies shows that those disproportionately tilted toward collectivism become so unproductive and lacking in prosperity that they can’t produce the very wealth the Religious Left wants to redistribute. That’s the self-defeating danger that social-justice engineers face as they shift private voluntarism to federal fiat.
That brings me to a fundamental point regarding Scripture: As my colleague Mark Hendrickson notes, the core Biblical parables where Jesus engaged the needy favor individual action. The Good Samaritan himself helped the wounded traveler, giving his time and resources. He didn’t round up authorities to demand 20 percent from everyone, threatening penalties if they didn’t forcibly chip in.
Consider another parable: the rich man and the eye of the needle. Here’s another New Testament passage the Religious Left horribly misunderstands, conveying it into class warfare (read: envy) against the wealthy. Here, Jesus calls on the rich man to give his own wealth—all of it. It’s a very high standard. The obligation, however, falls to the rich man—not government. Christ didn’t demand that authorities intervene, confiscate, and redistribute the man’s earnings.
God is impressed when His creatures do good freely, out of genuine charity. If the rich man is coerced to give his wealth, then no pleasing human act is performed.
In sum, my take on the “social justice” debate echoes that of some of my colleagues: Yes, Christians are exhorted to help the needy. The question is one of means, not ends. As for those means, the Religious Left couldn’t be more misguided in appropriating Christ’s exhortations as excessive demands for self-destructive welfare-statism.