What is particularly alarming is the number of evangelicals who jabber about social justice. Most often these people fit into two categories. Some are using the phrase without understanding what it really means. Others believe that they can redefine the term in ways that allow them to keep using it. But why use it at all? The reason is that “social justice” is more than a label. It is an incantation of power. Its utterance conveys one to the moral high ground. Some evangelicals want to be able to speak this Word of Power even if they don’t mean what it means.
All people everywhere want justice. Even a hardcore logical positivist feels a sense of injustice if you step ahead of him after hours of waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The universal yearning for justice has been expressed in documents from the Code of Hammurabi and the book of Job to the American Pledge of Allegiance, which promises loyalty to the flag of a nation that provides “liberty and justice for all.”
The classical and Christian understanding of justice has been summarized in the phrase, “To each his due.” On this understanding, justice can be directed only toward persons. These persons are entitled to some things simply by virtue of their existence as persons. These things are called rights. To withhold what is due—i.e., to violate these rights—is to become unjust. Consequently, a right represents a claim that must be recognized by all others.
Justice is tied to a certain kind of equality. A just God is no respecter of persons, and neither is a just law or a just judge. In this sense, justice is blind: it is concerned with formal questions, not substantive ones. A just footrace is one in which all athletes must cover the same distance, not one in which they have the same stamina.
Recently, however, the word justice is increasingly paired with the modifier social. In fact, this combination—social justice—has become one of the incantations of the present age. One need only utter it with approbation to position one’s self in a stance of moral superiority. But what is social justice, and how does it differ from ordinary justice as the West has understood it for millennia?
The main difference is that social justice is not formal, it is substantive. Social justice is sometimes called distributive justice because it measures justice according to distribution. It demands equality, not of standing, but of condition and outcome. Consequently, advocates of social justice assume that wherever some imbalance exists, whether of wealth, power, education, or prestige, injustice is at work.
The first figures to advocate social justice in this sense were concerned primarily with economic imbalance, particular the imbalance between capital and labor. Because they saw this imbalance as unjust, they wanted governments to use their coercive power to remove wealth from those who had it and to increase the wealth of those who did not. In their scheme the state would become an agent of planned economic redistribution, at gunpoint if necessary. This scheme was called socialism in its milder forms and communism in those forms that advocated violent revolution.
This kind of redistribution was not justice at all. Property rights are among the rights that must be recognized and protected by true justice. For states to use the threat of violence while trampling property rights cannot be sanctioned as any kind of genuine justice.
Socialism has not been tried in all places. Where free markets and capital enterprise are allowed, virtually all classes have grown in wealth. Consequently, socialists have found it difficult to motivate the “working class” to comply with schemes of wholesale economic redistribution.