One of the major buzzwords in recent years (particularly with Millenials) is social justice. Social justice is a difficult to define, and there is no agreement on what consitutes social justice; in fact, like most elements of political philosophy social justice is dependent on elements that are more central to a worldview. For example, as a Christian, I consider God’s statement that a man is not to be punished for the sins of his father to be central a central concept in any discussion of justice. A full discussion of this debate is larger than a blog post, and I would rather not devote this entire blog to that discussion. Instead, I will set my sights lower, at least for the moment, and seek, not to prove a Christian view of social justice, but a brief thumbnail sketch of a Christian approach.
Usually our thoughts on social justice are rooted in the past, such discussions often involve issues involving individuals who are long dead, for example, slavery in the American South, Colonialism, and the treatment of indigenous peoples by settlers. There are problems even getting out through the doors because in many cases, historical ignorance, or a propagandistic approach to history is involved; in many cases we discuss the Andersonville’s of our history but not the Camp Douglas’s. Most cultures have bloody hands in their past. But to over simplify to make my point, for the purposes of this discussion only, let’s assume every atrocity charged against Europeans is true, without question, and that all of these atrocities were unquestionably unprovoked, and no groups have committed any atrocities other than Europeans. In most cases, the actual participants in the atrocities are dead, their estates settled long ago. It is not possible to punish a guilty person who is dead, and to punish someone for a crime committed by his ancestors is unjust, and could lead to a cycle of reprisals that are common in war and generational struggles. One might limit measures to institutions (at least those still in existence) instead of descendants, but this has odd consequences. For example, a government might pay reparations for past offenses, but it is the modern tax payer, not the actual perpetrators who will be taxed.
To put this more succinctly, the question is not whether social justice is desirable, it is. The question is whether it is possible, and the answer to my way of thinking is, if the guilty are dead, they cannot be punished by human courts. Unfortunately, the Perps got off. Punishing their descendants is unjust, and merely multiplies the problems. So do we assume that social justice is a nice dream that cannot be realized? For the Christian, the answer is the same as in other cases of justice, it cannot be done by human courts within the rule of law, but our understanding and longing for justice points not to the events of this world but to the world to come. In this sense, social justice is like justice in other respects.
Most people assume that the Zodiac killer will never be identified, and in all probabilities he is already dead. Jack the Ripper will never stand trial for his (or her) crimes. Many Americans, myself included, believe Lizzy Borden was guilty of the crimes she was accused of, but the jury favoring the American tradition had difficulties convicting her because she was a woman; if she was innocent, then once again the guilty went unpunished. After the O J Simpson trial, many Americans believed that justice had been denied, I was myself somewhat disenchanted with the distinctions between the theories of the justice system and the realities of it. A friend reminded me OJ will stand trial again, in front of Heaven’s bar unless he repents. We all have a natural desire and longing for a just society, a longing that, as we age, we begin to realize will never actually exist in this world. Yet, this desire like all desires, points towards an ultimate fulfillment at the time of the judgment.
Social Justice is much the same way, we do the best we can down here with the materials we have, realizing that our work will not be adequate. And yet, we recognize that there will come the “judgment of the nations,” when the sheep are divided from the goats. From this, we neither give up on the ideal of justice nor misappropriate the concept. Perhaps, as in all things, Christianity is the real means of solving this longing of the heart.
Many activists (particularly after the writings of a post-modern philosopher named Michael Foucault) will argue that these discussions, debates and points of view are merely a means of maintaining power. Of course, we cannot argue that people might make a case for something out of impure motives, but the real problem with this analysis is that analyzing motives is that this argument is a knife that cuts both ways—after all, someone can argue that activists interested in “social justice” view their activism as a means of gaining power, tenure, getting donations, or building a name to sell books. Without specific evidence of bias, it seems most prudent to avoid this line of thought on the grounds that it is Argumentium Ad Hominem.
 Many times, social justice is discussed in recent allegations of police brutality, often showing up in recent discussions of police shootings. But these are not cases of social justice, they are arguments about individual alleged crimes; often the hype fails to capture the actual state of the evidence in the cases involved. Someone might argue that these shootings are the result of a bias by the police, but once again, one can make the same claim that protestors have an anti-police bias on the same grounds. Either way, discussions of social justice seem deeper than an individual case involving law enforcement.
Discussions of Colonialism are more difficult than I can address here, in part because once again, “Colonialism” is not easy to define. Activists, for example, who discuss Neo-Colonialism are often operating from a Neo-Marxist perspective and will define colonialism to include any corporate interests that are involved with local governments or aid to governments that were not Marxist in orientation.
In fact, one of my great fears about millennial discussions of social justice is that it could backfire, and lead to new recruits for groups like the Klu Klux Klan. If people begin to tire of being blamed by the government or in the job market for the sins of their ancestors, particularly since these groups recruiting strategy often uses propaganda presenting themselves as the protectors of the downtrodden.