Everyone has words that make them shrivel up inside when they hear or read them. I always want to lose my mind a little bit when I read “trigger warning” (thankfully, I’ve never met anyone who has said this phrase without a hint of irony). “The feels” makes me feel ways about stuff, but it’s not good. “YOLO”makes me think NOLO…
Then there’s one that probably shouldn’t bother me, but it kind of does. It’s also one that’s nearly inescapable: social justice.
Obviously, I don’t have a problem with what the term is intended to convey—the idea of pursuing the common good, as seen in caring for those in need, rescuing women (and men) from sex trafficking and other forms of slavery, providing safe water for communities and the like. And, of course, none could easily deny the obvious connection between being declared justified in the eyes of God and living a just life. The Bible itself makes this connection in many different ways, from the great commandments, to James’ argument of faith displaying itself in works, and of course, the oft-quoted Micah 6:8:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Many Christians and Christian organizations are quite vocal and passionate about this call, and rightly so. After all, if we say we love Christ but don’t love others, what are we? If we walk away from someone in need, wishing them God’s best but doing nothing to help them in their need, what does that say about us?
So what’s the big deal? Is this just an issue of semantics? Maybe (probably). But there is a reason I’m not a fan of it. And that reason really comes down to one thing: the term “social justice” is too impersonal to capture the biblical ethic. In “social justice”, people can easily become merely needs or problems or priorities. People are helped, certainly, but they risk becoming disembodied.
And for the Christian, this isn’t possible. When the Bible calls on us to meet the needs around us, it does so in deeply personal terms. We’re to bring a cup of cold water to a brother, to give a cloak to the one who has none, to assist the widow and the orphan. The biblical ethic goes beyond merely meeting a need to expressing love to a person. And a term like social justice just doesn’t do that well enough, at least not in my mind.
So what’s a better term? Personally, I prefer compassion (and not just because of where I worked for nearly 10 years). Compassion has a weightiness to it, a grit. It is not mere pity, but a heart-moving call to action. When Jesus saw that crowds of people were like sheep without a shepherd, that they were harassed and helpless, he had compassion on them (Matt. 9:35-38). He cared for them. He healed their sicknesses. He taught them and made the gospel known to them. Jesus’ compassion didn’t move him to lobby the government (to be clear, this sort of action is a good thing), but to show love to those he met in their midst. This is the heart of Christian social action—it’s a person-to-person encounter. It is not love in the abstract. It is love encased in flesh.