The problem with social justice

In the last few weeks, the world has witnessed a rather extreme example of what may be dubbed ‘social justice’—an attempt to make the world a better place for all (or, at least, an attempt to prevent the world from being quite so bad a place as it might be). Following the lead of the USA, many world governments have made bipartisan decisions to pledge billions of taxpayer dollars to prevent the collapse of major financial institutions. This will, it is argued, prevent serious damage to national and international economies, and so will protect individuals in society (particularly those who are weak and vulnerable) against the serious consequences of economic collapse. It seems that most (but not all) economic commentators agree that this sort of intervention is required, and that it will be effective, at least, to some extent.

However, there is an inherent problem in this solution. The problem is not just that it may not work; the problem is bigger than that. It’s that this bailout, even if it does work, is fundamentally unjust. Many of these financial institutions have been led to the brink of collapse by greed, or at least because of ‘unwise’ decision-making on the part of the institutions and their representatives. Wouldn’t it be far more just to let them collapse? The inherent injustice of the decision to give away hard-earned taxpayer funds to bail out the rich and greedy banks to ensure that they don’t ultimately face the consequences of their unmitigated thirst for profit seems to be one of the reasons that the attempt failed on its first pass through the US Congress. Yes, the bailout is true ‘social justice’ on a macro-level, and we should be seemingly grateful for the economic wisdom and the foresight of political leaders who put the package together. But even so, at the level of individual justice—basic justice—it still just seems plain wrong!

Our God is a God of righteousness—a God who is keenly interested in world justice (e.g. Ps 9:7-9). He created the world to be a place where righteousness abounds, and he actively seeks to restore the world to rights when there is wrong (e.g. Isa 45:8). But what is the form of God’s justice? Some say it is primarily a social justice—a ‘macro’ kind of justice that aims to restore the world to rights, first and foremost. According to this view, God’s righteousness is not so much about each individual receiving what he or she deserves, but about mending the fabric of the world and society so that individuals (especially the weak and vulnerable) can continue to live in peace and security. Also according to this view, the retributive kind of justice (where each individual gets what he or she deserves) takes second place to the bigger plan of the restoration and salvation of the created world order.

However, the Bible bears witness to a very different kind of justice on God’s part. In Psalm 62, David is looking for salvation in a world where wicked and deceitful enemies are attacking him. Where does he look? To God, of course, but to what qualities in God? To a great social justice scheme? To a bailout package to restore an economic order where prosperity may abound? Here are the final three verses of the Psalm which show us where David’s hope lies:

Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For you will render to [each] man according to his work.

(Ps 62:10-12)

The emphasis of the Hebrew original in the last verse is on the individual nature of retribution and reward from God—that is, God’s justice is not, in the final analysis, a social justice, but an individual justice. God’s justice does, indeed, reach to the restoration of the whole created order (e.g. Ps 96:10). Yet it doesn’t do so by papering over or showing leniency to the sins of individuals. At its heart, God’s justice is an individual and retributive justice. According to Psalm 62:12, God renders to each person according to that person’s deeds.

The Apostle Paul sees this view of God’s justice as being a necessary prerequisite to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ atoning death. In Romans 2, he argues against people who thought that they would be protected from God’s judgement simply because they had the privileges and they held to the principles of membership of God’s people. Presumably they thought they would be protected from the coming wrath because God, in his kindness and patience, would restore Israel to rights, and they (as members of Israel) would be on the winning side. Perhaps they were looking for a social justice in which God’s society (Israel) would be saved from its enemies and from its own (corporate) sins. What mattered, then, was being a member of Israel. On the contrary, says Paul, God’s justice is not that sort of justice: it is more radical than that. To make his point, Paul quotes directly from Psalm 62:12: “he will render to each one according to his works”. Paul then goes on to explain in the rest of the chapter that whether or not you are part of God’s society is irrelevant to this principle of justice. Privilege and principles provide no protection from the coming just wrath of God; it’s all about what you have done.

Only when we understand the radical nature of God’s justice can we understand the radical nature of Jesus’ atoning death. For if God’s justice is fundamentally retributive and individual, we will not find shelter in a scheme of social reordering (even if we think it’s going to come from God himself). We need something far more radical. The only thing that will do is Jesus’ death, which is fundamentally a payment for the sins of individuals—individuals with whom God would otherwise be angry. That is why Jesus had to be presented as a sacrifice of atonement. This atonement was not just a restoration of world order in a general sense; Jesus died to pay the penalty for the sins of individuals so that God might be both truly just and also the one who justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26). The consequential world-transforming nature of Jesus’ sacrifice is, of course, profound and far-reaching (this is the subject matter of Romans 8). But we must keep remembering that, at its heart, Jesus’ atoning death is not a bailout of the system, or an economically savvy re-ordering of society, or a program of social reform. In Christ, God took upon himself the individual sins of each man who stands guilty before God, and paid that penalty for us. This is why, in the gospel, the power, the faithfulness and the righteousness of God is fully and finally revealed (Rom 1:17).