The phrase “social justice” has made a surprising comeback within Evangelical circles in the past few years. But what exactly do people mean when they use this phrase? For some, it simply means helping the poor in general, but I’ve found that when you push a bit, it often involves a particular approach, namely by means of expanded government programs that offer services to the needy. But Christian compassion and government bureaucracy are two entirely different things.
Compassion literally means “to suffer together with another” and is perfectly demonstrated by Christ who came to suffer together with us in His incarnation, and ultimately to go to the cross on our behalf. Compassion is also demonstrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan who didn’t just transfer money to help a dying man, but got his hands dirty and suffered together with him. By its very nature compassion cannot be done by people (for example, government bureaucrats in Washington) who are physically removed from needy people themselves.
Christians would do well to think carefully before using the phrase “social justice” as I was reminded recently by a speech by Catholic theologian and economist Michael Novak titled “Don’t Confuse the Common Good with Statism.”
[Some] seem to think that the way to achieve “social justice,” that is, to help the poor, is to give more money to the state to distribute (or whatever it does with the money, once it flows into Washington’s coffers). [They] equate social justice with turning over to the state the project of “fighting” poverty.
Where…is [the] evidence that this dependence on the state actually helps the poor?
The 2011 Census Report on Poverty and Income…displays contrary evidence. After pouring three trillion dollars (going on four trillion) during the last three years, in the name of helping the poor and creating jobs, the federal state’s failure is breathtaking. The ranks of American poor have swollen to the highest number (46.6 million) since poverty figures first began to be recorded, 52 years ago. The percentage of Americans who are poor (14.1 percent, or nearly one in seven) is the highest in seventeen years. Is giving so much of taxpayers’ money to the state helping the poor?
… Those who insist that the only (or the best) way to achieve the common good is to give more resources (and more control) to the federal state, had better go looking for some evidence somewhere that undergirds their self-righteousness. They insist that others of us, who do not support the expenditure of more state money, are immoral.
Yet the first moral obligation, Blaise Pascal wrote, is to think clearly. And with evidence.
What is true for the common good is also true for social justice. Those who insist that the test of social justice is giving more tax revenues to the state need to display their evidence.
For myself, a mountain of evidence convinces me that Thomas Sowell is right: Giving money to the state in order to help the poor is a little like trying to feed the swallows by feeding the horses. The swallows get very little of it.
- Scott Allen