By John Hatch, Ph.D.
Eastern University (retired)
CCSN Senior Fellow
August-September: “Cancel Social Justice?”
Column Description: As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ. This goes against the grain of our social and cultural conditioning. We seek personal or political advancement; Christ seeks the lost and the least. We grasp for cultural ascendency; Christ descends to the cross of love. This column is dedicated to thinking about culture and communication under the sign of the cross.
Cancel Social Justice?
A lot of ink has been spilt on social justice of late. The most extreme, polemical accounts seem to get the most attention. On one side, some social justice warriors paint a picture of systemic injustice that obscures individuality, human complexity, and the good that our admittedly flawed founding fathers handed down to us. On the other side, some conservative culture-defenders decry social justice as a Marxist or even heretical concept.
When Christ-followers get sucked into this “culture war,” it’s easy to lose sight of truth. For example, how many of us are aware that the term “social justice” originated in Christian thinkers’ reflection on Scripture? In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes space to explaining it: “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.”[i] In other words, social justice is about ensuring that all people not only have rights under law but actually have a fair chance of enjoying those rights and flourishing as human beings. The roots of this principle lie deep in the Law and Prophets of the Jewish Bible.[ii] Nonetheless, social justice has become a dirty word in some corners of the Church. Instead of offering a robust, biblical vision of social justice, some of us seem content to bash Marxist versions of the concept.
In these polarized times, we would do well to avoid imposing partisan/ideological lenses on Christ and His kingdom. St. Paul warns against conceptual blinders that would cause us to miss the fullness of Christ: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Colossians 2:8-10, NIV).
Using an image from Christ’s crucifixion, early 20th-century Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton eloquently captures what happens when opposing schools of thought impose their limited frames on the Son of God: “They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips . . . They have parted His garments among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.”[iii]
Given these warnings, it behooves us to take a step back and take in the whole message of Jesus.
If Christ’s earthly ministry had a slogan, it was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[iv] Over the course of the gospels, we learn much about the nature of the kingdom inaugurated by his coming:
It belongs to the poor, the humble, the sorrowful, and children.[v]
It belongs to the merciful, the pure-hearted, and peacemakers.[vi]
It belongs to those who “hunger and thirst after justice,” especially those “persecuted in the cause of justice.”[vii]
It brings liberty to the oppressed and imprisoned, healing to the sick and disabled, and wholeness to individuals and communities.[viii]
It flattens social hierarchies, scales of privilege, and human power structures.[ix]
It calls its citizens to non-retaliation, forgiveness, and reconciliation.[x]
It transcends human laws and traditions, fulfilling the higher law of love.[xi]
It affirms and addresses the unique personhood of every individual.[xii]
It calls every person to search and cleanse their own heart, so as to love God and their neighbor fully.[xiii]
Clearly, Christ’s kingdom is neither partial nor partisan—though it does give special attention to those who have been oppressed, left out, or left behind by the partial/partisan systems of this world. Calling out both the individual and society, this kingdom is all-encompassing in its response to human brokenness. Christ calls us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”[xiv] Or, as the Common English Bible puts it: “just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”[xv] Christ calls us into the complete and impartial goodness of God.
One of my favorite verses in the Psalms foresees a redeemed Israel, characterized by complete goodness: “Mercy and truth have met together. Justice and peace have kissed!” (Psalm 85:10, The Living Bible).
What a beautiful picture of shalom—the holistic well-being-in-community for which the Jewish prophets longed, and God promised. These values find fulfillment in the coming of Christ:
“‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations’” (Matthew 12:17-20, NIV).
“He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one . . .” (Ephesians 2:14, NIV).
“We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NIV).
In Christ, grace and truth come together; justice and peace embrace. He calls us to truth-speaking, grace-giving, peacemaking, and justice-working, both as individuals and communities.
That being the case, we cannot remove social justice from our Christian agenda without doing violence to the King, who identifies completely with the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, and incarcerated of the world.[xvi] Jesus’s Jewish ancestors were instructed by God to implement systemic correctives on behalf of the poor (gleaning laws, the Year of Jubilee, limitations of property accumulation, etc.), and his first followers worked to reduce the gap between rich and poor (through voluntary property redistribution, etc.).[xvii]
Of course, we cannot fulfill Christ’s call by sacrificing truth or peace in the name of pursuing justice. There must be room for honest questioning and fact-finding about any given social injustice, how it might best be remedied, and how this remediation can contribute to communal or national healing.
Perhaps the reason we struggle to hold justice, peace, and truth together as kingdom priorities is that we have not fully laid hold of God’s grace.
The centrality of grace distinguishes a Christian approach to justice. Grace is a free gift, breaking the cycle of tit-for-tat justice with creative goodwill. Grace liberates us for the work of collaborative problem-solving. It frees us to admit our injustices, take a hard look at uncomfortable truths, and make peace with adversaries. Grace allows us to treat members of other groups charitably.
As revealed in the cross, genuine grace is not cheap. In the face of falsehood and injustice, it speaks truth, extends forgiveness, and opens the door for repentance, reconciliation, and transformation. This is not a merely human effort; it is the graciousness of God pouring into and through human vessels. The cross explodes our self-righteousness and exposes our need for divine grace.
Sociologist George Yancey contends that recognizing humanity’s sinfulness and need for divine grace is the key to moving toward genuine social justice without compromising truth or undermining peace. It allows members of a group that has profited from past oppressive policies to face their complicity in injustice without being paralyzed by guilt or shifting blame toward the victims. It enables members of historically oppressed groups to work for justice without demonizing others or excusing their own faults. Grace paves the way for reconciliation in accepting mutual responsibility to rectify lingering, systemic inequities together.[xviii]
So, how do we promote shalom in our communities, our nation, and the world?
Simply stated: Don’t cancel social justice. Bring grace.
[i] Joe Carter, “The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Social Justice,” The Gospel Coalition, August 17, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-christians-know-social-justice/.
[ii] For a good overview of justice in Scripture, see Chris Marshall, The Little Book of Biblical Justice (New York: Good Books, 2005).
[iii] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1990), pp. 44-45, italicized phrases mine.
[iv] Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:15 (NASB).
[v] Luke 18:16; Matthew 5:3-5.
[vi] Matthew 5:7-9.
[vii] Matthew 5:6, 10-12 (NCB).
[viii] Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 4:23-24; Mark 5:15; John 13:34, 17:20-23.
[ix] Luke 3:2-6; Mark 10:31, 42-45; Luke 6:20-26; 9:46-48, 22:25-27; John 9:39, 13:13-16.
[x] Luke 6:27-31; Matthew 5:21-24, 38-45; 6:12-15, 26:52.
[xi] Mark 12:28-31; Matthew 5:17-20, 46-48; John 13:34-35.
[xii] Luke 8:42b-48, 15:1-31, 17:11-19; John 4:4-26, 9:1-7, 35-37.
[xiii] Matthew 6:1-6, 19-24, 7:3-5; Mark 7:5-23; Luke 8:11-18.
[xiv] Matthew 5:48 (NIV).
[xv] Matthew 5:48 (CEB).
[xvi] Matthew 25:34-36.
[xvii] Deuteronomy 24:19-22, 28-29; Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25; Acts 4:32; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; James 2:1-9.
[xviii] See George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006); George Yancey, Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2022).