The Meaning of Social Justice

by Ken Oliver

To understand Social Justice from a Christian perspective, it is important to understand that we can be responsible for sin even if we are not aware of that sin at this moment.

Some sins require discernment and understanding to be revealed. Two affirmations that I would like to start off with:

  1. I am as responsible for my sins even if I am not conscious of them.
  2. God’s mercy toward me is so great and overwhelming, I can never fully appreciate it.

Why do I put these two together? Because I think that #2 helps us cope with #1. This, I think, goes to the heart of the gospel. Our natural inclination is to justify ourselves. We want to put on a defense and plead mitigating causes. Jesus goes to the heart of the matter – our heart, and the picture is not pretty. The gospel wipes away all excuses.

So to our issue, how does this apply? When someone comes to me and says that I have done them wrong, in my own human nature I want to challenge that claim and prove my innocence.

Yet as a Christian, I know that I cannot claim innocence. I may not be guilty of the particular charge, but I must hear it out; I must be open to the possibility that I indeed participated in evil, even if, at the time, I was not conscious of doing so. All claims of oppression must be heard respectfully, even if at the end proven wrong.

But can I be guilty even if I personally did not participate in the crime? Could my passive enjoyment of the ill-gotten gain be a form of participation? This is where we need to get beyond a mere “personalistic” understanding of evil. For example, if I engage in active discrimination against a minority, it is an active and conscious sin. If, however, I live in a society where I benefit from being part of the group that exploited people in the past, I am still participating in the fruits of that sin even if I am not personally bigoted or actively discriminating today. This is where we need to understand that sin and evil can take on a systemic quality. It is a type of collective responsibility, but one that is also generational. In this respect I am guilty.

I know that this can be a hard concept for some people because I do not feel that I did anything wrong. In fact this is a participation in evil that is mostly passive on our part. Yet, we are responsible. Think of it this way: suppose I live on a farm and have earned, through hard work, a good living for my family. But also suppose that, unknown to me, the family farm was actually land stolen by my great-grandfather and the family kept this a secret so that by the time I inherited it, I was unaware of the origin. The descendants of those who rightfully owned the farm have been living in poverty since that time. What should I do? What is justice in this circumstance? While I have not personally stolen from this poor family, I none-the-less carry the generational guilt of those who did. My prosperity was enabled by an evil in history.

In this instance, the persons or group that has benefited from evil need to acknowledge that reality and act accordingly. The correct form of repentance is restitution. That is we should try to return to the ancestors of those who were oppressed some of the benefit that we have enjoyed as descendants of the oppressors. In this way, justice has a social dimension. It is legitimate to talk about Social Justice in this way. Social Justice is a concept that is in harmony with the Gospel.

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