When I was 13, I had a classmate who brought a rock to school claiming to be “chock-full” with gold. Crowds of young men gathered around him as he spun a tale of finding it in a shallow cave near his home. The starry-eyed boys began to froth at the mouth: “You can quit school and mine that cave!” “You are gonna be a millionaire!” “You’re RICH!” Soon the huddled mass of boys drew the attention of a teacher who waded into the crowd and asked, “Whatcha’ got there?” My classmate squealed, “Gold,” as he held out his prized rock. The teacher calmly responded as he looked at the rock: “Aw, iron sulfide.” “Is that another name for gold?” the young gold-miner asked. No, that is what is known as “fools gold,” and then the teacher described the characteristics of genuine gold and how it differed from gold-colored iron.
While I am no longer a teenager and certainly not as impressionable as when I was young, I have found that it is easy to be duped without a standard to measure the “trueness” of something. I have also found that very little is required to be deceived when something sounds true or right. The subject of “justice” in our world today is a superb example of people not only being confused but masterfully duped into supporting causes that are the moral equivalent of cherishing “fools gold.”
What is Justice?
Justice, rightly understood, is an extension of/or aligning with God’s character in an attitude or action. Rightly understood, “justice” flows from the objective standard that all people have intrinsic value and worth given they are made in the image of God. Therefore, “doing justice” is fundamentally and essentially God’s idea. When injustice does occur, it is primarily an offense to the Lord and then, secondarily, an injustice toward the individual. Notice this connection made by the Prophet Jeremiah:
“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. 8 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.Jeremiah 7:5-11
Notice that God makes the connection between “doing justice” to another person as an expression of allegiance to Himself. In other words, when an Israelite would oppress a person who had no “power” or standing in society – a sojourner, fatherless, or widow, it was a sin against God and an injustice to the person because it disregarded God’s identity in that person as an image-bearer. To “shed innocent blood” also devalued the person in the act of murder. Taking the life of an innocent person is also wrong because life and death are a realm reserved for God alone. Injustice was done when God was replaced with an idol (to “go after other gods”) because the pursuit of a non-existing god violates the truth of reality – there are no other gods. It is an act of injustice for people to believe there is any god other than the one/true God of Israel. When we define “justice” in this way, we find that our Country is actually teeming with injustice. Injustice is being perpetrated in abortion, “no-fault” divorce, pornography, corporate greed, prostitution, drugs, and the list goes on and on. It could be said that when a person is devalued, manipulated, or in general “used” to satisfy the desire of another person, it is an injustice.
Let’s now turn to the challenge with the “social justice” of our day. At the outset, our great difficulty would be to define what “social justice” even means. Groups ranging from Antifa to the American Nazi Party to Black Lives Matter to various university professors have all defined social justice differently. For example, Black Lives Matter has as its mission to “disrupt the western-prescribed nuclear family structure” as part of their “justice” initiative. Antifa believes social justice includes violence against those who think differently as “both ethically justifiable and strategically effective” to the point that they celebrate “righteous beatings.” Professors such as Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the deconstructionism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the gender and queer theory of Judith Butler see “justice” being done through undoing existing social structures as well as erasing the belief that sexuality is only male or female. Why? Each has crafted a narrative of “justice” along the lines of their own reasoning and personal desires.
Given that each group defines and, therefore, applies “social justice” differently, they also demand varying remedies, creating more confusion than a correction within society. What has been the result? Varying definitions and degrees of “wokeness,” a new class of cultural elite’s who “cancel” the unacceptable people in society. Strange… isn’t the model that these elites are providing through judging, boycotting, not tolerating, and even threatening an act of injustice itself? Hence the problem when humanity takes the reigns from God in defining right from wrong.
Social justice and recent history
It is essential to consider that before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the impetus for protest and calls for change were rooted in “the dignity and worth of human personality” and that rights are “God-given” (an echo of our Declaration of Independence). That man is haunted by “tragic sinfulness,” but that we should be like Jesus Christ – the “extremist for love, truth, and goodness.” Martin Luther King penned those human qualities from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. However, the forty-year migration from Dr. King’s message to the “social justice” merchants of our day is rooted in a new paradigm – deny the reality of sin, reducing people to homo economics, and blame all evil on “systems” that oppress. Personal responsibility has been abandoned, words redefined, and victimhood has become the new cardinal virtue. The goal is not to elevate “the content of one’s character” but to acquire as much power as possible. We have come a long way from the leadership expressed by Martin Luther King as he wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Today, the merchants of “social justice” would not recognize nor follow the leadership of Martin Luther King of yesterday.
The Bible provides a stark contrast to the peddlers of “social justice” today and provides a better way forward – social justice as defined by God. As cited previously (Jeremiah 7:5-11), the people of Israel were basking in religious activity and were simultaneously committing injustice. How? Israel was not treating people according to their God-determined values. The sojourner (i.e., “foreigner”) was being oppressed, the fatherless being taken advantage of, and the widow’s needs were being ignored. Furthermore, the injustice of adultery was being committed. Adultery is the violation of the vow of faithfulness between a man and a woman. Marriage was created and defined by God, and therefore, any deviation from His design is an injustice. Lying is also an injustice since it attempts to alter or create a new reality, fashioned according to what the individual wants to be true. Idolatry is an injustice because allegiance to a man-made image over loyalty to the universe’s Creator does not reflect reality. No man-made object can be a god. Therefore, when something is worshiped in place of God, an injustice has taken place. Notice in each example, when someone or something is disconnected from God’s declared value or intended function, it is an act of injustice as well as an invitation for more injustice. Said another way, anything that does not align with God’s character reflected in an individual’s value was considered an injustice. When we consider justice according to God, do we realize our own acts of injustice toward the Lord? Do you see how deeply sinful our nation is, how utterly desperate our condition really is?
Jesus, the true social-justice warrior
In His very first message, Jesus commits Himself to execute true justice: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In aligning Himself with the LORD on the issue of justice, Jesus reveals Himself to be the Messiah, the deliverer we desperately need. In other words, the idea of justice is so closely aligned with the character of God that Jesus enters into this characteristic to reveal Himself as the Messiah of God. Jesus is the Savior sent to pay for our sins of injustice toward others through dying on the cross and then rising from the grave – the confirmation that the Father will accept the Son’s payment for our sin. To recognize Jesus as Messiah is part and parcel of remembering Jesus’ commitment to justice.
Any attempt at “doing justice” that does not have at its center an allegiance to Jesus will distort justice and eventually oppose justice. Why? Because there are people in our world seeking to manipulate the true God-authored virtue of justice to gain power over others. Given that “justice” sounds so good and noble, the masses can easily be manipulated. Without addressing that injustice is primarily a sin against God and then, secondarily, a wrong committed against a fellow image-bearer, there will be no lasting change. This is why the Gospel is essential if true justice is to be wrought. Without an aligning of people to God within the justice delivered in the Gospel, only outward actions can be altered, but not inward renewal. Due to this fact, followers of Jesus are uniquely prepared to truly and rightly “do justice” when they extend the message of reconciliation with God through the cross of Jesus to others. There can be no doubt that Christians must stand against anyone being unjustly oppressed. However, let’s not stop at merely standing for people, we must also strive to engage with the message of the Gospel, to give voice to the need for justice between humanity and Holy God in the truth of Gospel reconciliation through Jesus alone.
Where does “doing justice” begin?
Jesus revealed “gold” when it comes to where social justice begins: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). When you obey Jesus, you will “do” social justice. True social justice is moored to the truth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Therefore, advocating for social justice also means addressing the injustice committed by humanity against our Creator. Repentance of sin and trust in Jesus as our only Savior from sin must be our agenda. Don’t believe in the “fools gold” of your own goodness or innocence when it comes to having violated God’s commands. God’s wrath will be poured out on all acts of injustice in the end. If you have not been forgiven by God through the atonement secured by Jesus in His life, death, burial, and resurrection, you will stand condemned for having committed injustice yourself. God has made a way for us all to be reconciled to Him. The first step in helping the oppressed is to recognize our own rebellion against our Creator God. When our eyes are clear and trained on what justice truly is and means, then we will be enlightened and empowered to stand for those who are being oppressed in society.
Where do I start?
First, spend time in God’s Word and prayer. Get to know who God is better and so develop your discernment on issues such as this. Ask the Lord to make you sensitive to injustice in society and boldness to enter into gospel conversations with friends, family, and coworkers. Develop a daily quiet time with the Lord moving through Scripture. For example, Paul Tripp New Morning Mercies is a great resource. Also, John Piper’s, A Godward Life is also fantastic to cultivate a Biblical worldview. Second, join a God-centered, Christ-exalting local church to be both encouraged and challenged in following Jesus. Third, shut off influences from social media, cable news, and other “agenda-oriented” sources. Sensationalism and social conflict are a moneymaker for many “news” sources who have no interest in solutions. Both the “left” and the “right” make money when they generate more viewers. Don’t feed the machinery of dysfunctional and God-dishonoring messages of either “social justice” or left-wing conspiracy. Develop discernment for the truth of justice that flows, rightly, from God’s Word and stand on THAT message and bring relief to the oppressed in Jesus’ name.
Beware the “fools gold” of “social justice warriors” who seek power for themselves through dismissing God-centered values. Followers of Jesus are in a unique position to see this subject with the clarity provided by God’s Word. In other words, when it comes to social justice, we can live with eyes wide open in recognizing what is true as well as what is false.