The Secularization of Social Justice

Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

Over the past decade or so, I have been realizing the extent to which my culture and upbringing have affected my theology. I have been forced to take off my cultural glasses in order to reread the Bible with fresh eyes, over and over and over again. As a result, I have noticed subtle and gradual shifts in my theological convictions (although my allegiance to the core doctrines of the Christian faith have not changed).

Most notably, one of the major doctrinal areas where I have done almost a complete about-face is social justice.

For much of my Christian life I didn’t think very much about social justice. It didn’t seem relevant to what I understood to be “the gospel.” After all, I grew up attending a large suburban Chinese American church, and like many Chinese American Christians, I was theologically conservative and politically apathetic (see here and here). Christian social justice was by and large a theologically progressive movement, so it didn’t fit into my theological conservatism. On the other hand, secular social justice was by and large a politically activist movement, so it didn’t fit into my political apathy.

But as a result of conversations, experiences, and study, I now see social justice as a pivotal task of the church.

You may react to the sentence above in one of various ways. Perhaps you are like my former self, and you react with concern. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “The church should proclaim the gospel, not pursue social justice.” Or perhaps you react with commendation. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “Bravo! I am so glad you are talking about this.” Or perhaps you react with confusion. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “What? This seems new to me.”

There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to social justice, and it is largely because people mean different things when they are talking about social justice.

What do I mean when I talk about social justice? Social justice is the justice of God applied at the social level. Because “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa 30:18), he has a moral standard for human life. And since human beings are social creatures, God’s moral standard not only has individual but social implications. When God’s justice is applied at the individual level, it can be deemed individual justice. When God’s justice is applied at the social level, it can be deemed social justice.

And justice is important because justice is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins, that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). In other words, one of the main components of the gospel is that God establishes and applies justice through Jesus. And my suggestion is that a gospel-centered establishment and application of justice is both individual and social–it includes both individual justice and social justice. In this paradigm, social justice–in its original, unadulterated form–is not an anti-gospel agenda. It is part of the gospel agenda.

For much of church history, Christians pursued social justice. In fact, the very phrase “social justice” was first popularized by Catholic scholars Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio and Antonio Rosmini in the 1840s, and it was cemented in Catholic doctrine by Pope Pius IX in the 1930s. Pius IX described social justice in 1937, “Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good.”

But although the phrase “social justice” is relatively new, what it describes is nothing new, as its meaning has been manifested throughout history. Ever since the book of Acts, Christians have been at the forefront of social justice–caring for widows and orphans, starting hospitals, advocating for prison reform, and abolishing slavery. All of these actions were examples of social justice.

However, in the modern evangelical world there are many Christians who no longer hold to the term social justice and instead view social justice advocates as people who are undermining or even preaching another gospel. In some circles, the term “social justice warrior” is used in a derogatory way to describe protesters who come across as rude, uneducated, or violent.

So how did we get to a point where the phrase “social justice” is seen in some camps as antithetical to the gospel?

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a subtle shift regarding the term began to take place in the Western world: social justice became secularized.

What I mean is that the church has largely and gradually relinquished its responsibility for social justice and handed it over to the world. The church has stepped back from this task, and the world has stepped into the resulting vacuum. Bryan Wilson wrote in his book Religion in Secular Society, “The welfare services, which once were prompted by Christian motives and a sense of charity, have been almost completely secularized. What was once done from Christian duty is now an accepted state provision as part of the extension of general political, civic and social rights.” In other words, the church has handed on the torch of social justice to the secular state.

In new hands, the meaning of social justice has evolved. The secular world has adopted and adapted the divine calling of social justice, incorporating all sorts of extra-biblical beliefs and positions along the way. And now social justice has become a shifting mixture of partially biblical and partially unbiblical origins. The phrase is now so ambiguous that in his book The Mirage of Social Justice, Frederich Hayek wrote of the phrase “social justice,” “I have now become convinced, however, that the people who habitually employ the phrase simply do not know themselves what they mean by it and just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it.”

But there is something even more lamentable than the hijacking of the meaning of social justice–the fact that this has mostly happened under the quiet watch of the church without alarm. Many Christians in the church have not only surrendered their responsibility of social justice to the world, but they have largely done so without remorse or regret. They have been content with allowing the world to tarnish God’s original design for social justice.

And when those in the church do think about social justice, they often fall under one of two unhealthy camps. Those who identify as theological progressives often pursue a worldly social justice devoid of Christian principles. And those who identify as theological conservatives often condemn social justice and attack its anti-Christian agenda. But regardless of their view of social justice, both camps have the same flaw: whether for or against social justice, they fail to see they are viewing social justice through a secular lens.

Instead, the proper response to the secularization of social justice is not to unite with nor to abandon the cause, but rather to reclaim the cause by returning it to its original biblical standards. In this third camp, social justice is not idolized, nor is demonized, but rather it is viewed in its proper place as a component of the gospel.

In my next blog post, I will explain what this looks like.

Larry Lin

Larry was born and raised in San Jose, CA and now lives in Baltimore, MD. He has a BS from Cornell University and a MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Larry is the husband to Van-Kim and the father of one daughter and one son, and he enjoys songwriting, basketball, Wikipedia, graphs, and conversations about politics and culture. Larry previously served for 8 years as a vocational pastor at Village Church Hampden in Baltimore, where he continues to serve as a lay elder.

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