The cry for Social Justice is getting louder among Christians. This is surely an expression of the heart of God. It is also a point of connection with the cry of the world that previous generations largely missed. But as we rise to the challenge of injustice in our fallen world, we must be careful that our definition of justice is biblical.
The paradigm-creating evangelical book on the theme of social justice, a book that still dominates the thinking of the church on the issue, was Ronald Sider’s book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”. Central to his thesis, he writes: “The problem we know is that the world’s resources are not fairly distributed ...[T]he rich elites around the world are an affluent minority in a world where half the people are poor. How will we respond to this inequity?”
In many people’s minds, justice is a matter of dealing with inequality. The problem, as Sider puts it, is the unfairness of the distribution. “Half the people are poor” he says – which is not a particularly profound statement in a statistical sense, since it is inevitable that half the people will be richer than average and half the people will be poorer than average. But too many people really are tragically poor. The root of the problem in Sider’s mind seems to be the unfairness that some have more, some have less. And if the inequitable distribution is the injustice, the solution will be redistribution.
However, a biblical approach must acknowledge that at a fundamental level, God is the one who distributes. He is not to blame for all the exploitation that exacerbates the problem; but it remains true that he sovereignly gives one, two, or five talents (Mt 25:15). There is no equality in the gifts that he gives people, be they financial, intellectual, artistic or sporting. God is not fair, but he is always right.
Sider stirs up the cry for social justice with his penetrating question: “How will we respond to this inequity?” But in biblical terms, justice is a matter of dealing with iniquity, rather than inequity. The issue is not the gap between the rich and poor but the sins of the rich and the poor – what they do with their position, their wealth, or their poverty. There are different kinds of sins associated with each state (pride among the wealthy, or envy among the poor, for example). Social justice is not primarily about more or less; it is about right and wrong. It has to do with dealing with sin. When the sinful hearts of rich or poor spill over into actions that harm others, the cry for social justice must be heard.
We know that God has a heart for the poor, so there is, in the Bible, a particular focus on the need to address the sins of the rich and powerful, for “of those to whom much is given, much will be expected”. Because they hold key positions of power, it is much harder to hold them accountable – but all the more necessary. However their sin in the public square is not simply in having more; so the solution is not in making sure they have less. Their sin is in what they do with what they have, in light of God’s Word. This is the root of social justice: responding to iniquity rather than inequity.