Darrow Miller and Friends

Why So Much Heat About Social Justice? Part 2

In our previous post we discussed the heat in discussions of social justice. Today we want to answer the question, Where does the heat come from?

In a word, the heat comes from different sacred belief systems.

One’s paradigm of choice between an open system or a closed system will determine how social justice is defined, what policies are established, and which programs implemented.

Most people who argue for social justice occupy the top half of our diagram; they believe that we live in a moral universe and thus, as we have seen before, have a responsibility to seek justice. But some do not acknowledge the left column, i.e. an Open System of reality.

An open system is derived from the reality and existence of a Transcendent God. The God of the universe stands outside of creation and thus the system is open to intervention and to the Creator’s involvement. The universe is also open to the activity of angels and to imago Dei  – humansA closed system is the illusion of atheists who assume there is no God, that nature is all there is, and no God  or angels exists to intervene in the system, and human beings are simply a cog in the machine of the universe.

Two of the quadrants in our diagram are self consistent, two are inconsistent. The upper left quadrant is consistent with the reality of God’s existence. We live in a moral universe and an open system. The bottom right quadrant is also consistent but with the atheistic-materialistic assumption that there is no God and thus the universe is a-moral and closed.

Many people with a heart for the poor and the moral motivation to seek justice in the world function from the upper right quadrant. But this quadrant, along with the lower left quadrant, is inherently inconsistent.

Those in the upper right quadrant understand the universe is moral, but they begin their reasoning from a closed-system mentality. This is the socialist position that I held for many years as a young adult. Those who function from a moral framework want to help the poor and seek justice and even to do so sacrificially. But because they consciously or unconsciously function from a closed system”  of limited resources, their approaches to help the poor are radically different from someone functioning from the theistically consistent quadrant.

The table below indicates how our paradigms drive very different principles regarding social justice.

  Judeo-Christian Theism Atheistic-Materialism
The Universe Open System Closed System
Human Beings The Image of God Mouths to feed
Resources Product of human imagination Physical things in the ground
Economics Positive Sum Zero Sum
Nature of equality Equal  before the   law Equal outcomes
Solving poverty Create wealth Redistribute scarce resources
Government Internal self government; the state is responsible to free   citizens. The state must be large enough to force its will on the   people
Property Private Belongs to the state
Social Justice Personal and public flourishing Material equality
Operating Principle Freedom Tyranny
Poor People Individuals in the community A class that only a large government can help

People who recognize the system is open understand that resources are the product of human imagination and creativity. Wealth may be created. The way to solve the problems of hunger, poverty and injustice is to create an economic and political environment of freedom where people and communities may flourish – creating and stewarding wealth. This leads to a positive sum economic system. The truth is that all human beings are created in the image of God and stand equal before the law. Human creativity and innovation is the source of resource. Private property is to be respected. People are free and responsible moral agents who are to practice internal self government, allowing for small state government. Social justice focuses on personal and public flourishing in all areas of life.

People who believe the system is closed think that resources are physical things in the ground and, by nature, limited. Human beings are the product of an evolutionary process, merely animals: mouths and stomachs. More and more people means more and more mouths to feed. In a world of scarce resources the way to solve poverty is by reducing the number of mouths and/or redistributing resources. This leads to a zero sum economic system.  Social justice is defined as equal outcomes. Only a large government with authority and power to redistribute scarce resources can achieve equal outcomes.

This perspective reduces social justice to a focus on the narrow realm of material poverty. Poor individuals are not seen as neighbors to be provided with care and opportunity, they are rather treated as a class which is encouraged to create docking mechanisms with government programs. This leads to dependence and greater poverty. Thus we end with a modern institution of economic and political slavery where the well-intended political class gains power and influence by a compliant poor class, the new dependent slaves.

What we have just described are the two distinct responses – open system vs closed system,  to the moral imperative to work toward social justice.

Having said this, it is also important to realize that there are those who, consciously or unconsciously, see the universe as amoral. For these there is no moral imperative to help the poor or to seek justice in any form. These positions are represented by the two lower quadrants of our diagram.

In the lower left quadrant are people who live off a memory that explains how wealth can be created; but by mixing the memory of an open system with an affirmation of an atheistic-materialistic amoral universe they are inconsistent. Their only interest is money. They want to gain as much as they can, as quickly as they can without moral constraint about how they get it or use it. I call these folks consumer, hedonistic, predatory or nihilistic “capitalists.” (I put capitalist in quotation marks because what is described here is not capitalism in its true, original form as envisioned by people who affirmed a moral framework for both the creation and sharing of wealth.)

The second group is represented by the lower right quadrant. These are people who function consistently from an atheistic-materialistic perspective. The system is closed, resources are limited, and the universe has no moral constraints. Such people are interested only in power – after all “nature is red in tooth and claw.” There is only one “law,” the survival of the fittest!

The first group is not interested in social justice, only in the self and the amassing of wealth. The second group cynically use the term social justice to accumulate power. They seek to expand the size of the state or national government to accrue control over the masses. They do this by taxing one group of people, the creators of wealth, to give to the consumers of wealth. The greater number of those consumers of wealth becomes dependent on the government for their welfare, health, education, etc. The larger and more powerful the government, the “smaller” each citizen becomes.

These folks are intentionally creating institutional dependency to accumulate political and economic power for themselves. The result is a modern form of slavery, an economic and political plantation where the poor are enslaved in political-economic programs. In contrast to the physical slavery of pre-Civil War U.S., or the apartheid of South Africa, this is a psychological dependency: “We are poor and there is nothing we can do about it.  Our masters, the omnipotent government, will secure food and shelter for us.”

–         Darrow Miller with Gary Brumbelow

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Gary is the Disciple Nations Alliance editorial manager. He manages Darrow Miller and Friends and serves as editor and co-writer on various book projects. For eight years Gary served as a cross-cultural church planting missionary among First Nations people of Canada. His career also includes 14 years as executive director of InterAct Ministries, an Oregon-based church-planting organization in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Gary is a graduate of Grace University, earned an MA from Wheaton College and a Graduate Studies Diploma from Western Seminary. He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, Valerie. They have two married sons and twelve grandchildren. In addition to his work with the DNA, Gary serves as the pastor of Troutdale Community Church.


  1. Michael James Soderling

    February 23, 2012 - 7:50 am

    It almost feels as though we are at critical juncture in the US. (though I currently live in Central America I keep up with the cultural goings on in the US) Because the positive residual effect of a society living, in general, consistent with a Christian worldview is wearing off we see an ever increasing disintegration of what has made our country great in the past. Most notably we see an ever increasing crumbling of the most basic foundation of our culture, the family. And as the foundation crumbles around us the society in general demands the government do something to control the chaos. So more and more laws are required to keep bad human behavior in check and the population in general ends up with less and less freedom. The amazing thing is they don’t even recognize this fact. And I think the Church has the greatest responsibility for this current state of affairs. If the Church had not largely disengaged from most aspects of culture we would not be in the situation we find ourselves presently.

  2. mcmeeshi

    February 23, 2012 - 8:25 am

    Can you explain a little further what you mean by resources? I applaud your identification of poverty as much more than a material problem and social justice as “personal and public flourishing.” But I’m a little unclear about the separation between resources as “a product of human creativity” verses “physical things in the ground.” Is it not both? Yes, wealth is about being in right relationship with God, self, and others … but also with creation. It is about having freedom and choice and the ability to be all the God intended us for. But are we ignoring the need for physical resources in all that?

    There is a Haitian proverb that says “God gives but He doesn’t divide,” meaning God has given us everything in creation that we need to flourish and thrive. But He has left it to his people to determine how resources are divided up amongst everyone. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that theology.

    • disciplenations

      February 24, 2012 - 12:19 pm

      Dear mcmeeshi,

      Thanks so much for your continued engagement. I hope you are finding our posts helpful.

      The simple answer to your first question may be found in our small book The Forest In the Seed. This will provide you with the most comprehensive framework for what we have written on the expansive nature of resources for personal, community and national flourishing. You can freely download the book and print copies. Or you can order a hard copy from the DNA bookstore.

      You wrote: “I’m a little unclear about the separation between resources as ‘a product of human creativity’ versus ‘physical things in the ground.’ We are not arguing that material resources are not physical things in the ground. However, those physical things in the ground do not become resources until a human being sees their potential and develops a way to use them productively. We are trying to help people see the error of a materialist worldview that reduces resources to dollar bills or physical things in the ground. Resources are far more than that.

      Oil is a resource. It has always been in the ground. But for much of human history, oil was not seen as a resource. It was “gunky stuff” that seeped out of the ground and got all over your feet. Not until someone conceived of a purpose for this oil did it became a resource.

      Our understanding of resources is broader than that of the World Bank, which recently described the three major types of resources and how much each contributed to the wealth of a nation:

       25% Natural Capital (Environmental)
       16% Physical Capital (Infrastructure)
       59% Human Capital (Natural Endowment)

      The conclusion of the World Bank is, “In the [materially] wealthiest countries, human capital accounts for three-quarters of the producible forms of wealth.” Actually at the Disciple Nations Alliance we argue that even natural capital only becomes capital when the human mind is applied to it. So in a sense you could say that human capital accounts for 100% of the producible forms of wealth.

      You have written “There is a Haitian proverb that says ‘God gives but He doesn’t divide,’ meaning God has given us everything in creation that we need to flourish and thrive. But He has left it to his people to determine how resources are divided up amongst everyone. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that theology.” I agree with the first part of the proverb. In fact God has given each people and all nations everything they need to flourish. I disagree with the second half of the proverb. While we must ask what is the human responsibility to create thriving communities and flourishing nations, the human task is not to divide fixed assets. This smacks of the atheistic materialistic perspective that resources are fixed. I would make the second line of the proverb something like this: “But God has left it to his people to discover the resources He has hidden in creation and to be moral stewards of those resources so they will grow, multiply, and create more wealth to bless the larger community.”

      I hope these thoughts are helpful.

      – Darrow

  3. Scott

    February 24, 2012 - 12:54 am

    Nailed it guys. The point about Internal self government is so true. Jesus spoke on this truth – “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28 NASU).

  4. disciplenations

    February 24, 2012 - 9:59 am


    Thanks you for your feedback. Your comments are very well said and I agree completely. I have always said that when judgement comes, it will not come against the secularists, but against God’s people for failure to be God’s people. Here is another example.

    The nations was built by men and women on the foundations of Judeo Christian Theism. The foundations have been destroyed and thus the nation is crumbling. It is time for those who profess Christ to draw the clear lines between worship (Cult) –> and the creation of culture. From culture springs the laws, structures and institutions of society. May the church be the church again in America.


  5. mcmeeshi

    February 24, 2012 - 9:00 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to explain. I think I understand what you mean in that physical things cannot be resources until humans think to use them. Is the table with the dichotomy between Theism and Materialism meant to depict mutually exclusive characteristics or are they just a difference in emphasis with potential for some overlap?

    You said “the human task is not to divide fixed assets,” and a Theistic view sees the solution to poverty as “creating wealth” (positive sum) while Materialism argues for “redistribution of resources” (zero sum). Although I believe in God, I would still have a hard time seeing how resources are never fixed. I do see that with our creativity, the possibilities are plentiful. But take water, for example: it’s an absolutely necessary resource for our survival but there is a fixed amount on Earth. Also because we are a broken people, we sometimes denigrate and deplete the physical things available to us, which I believe can sometimes lead to “not enough to go around.” How does this fit into the picture?

    Thanks again for helping me understand!

    • disciplenations

      February 27, 2012 - 10:33 am


      What we have been saying is that the universe is both moral and it is open. Because of this, the way that we treat people and creation are important. There is a moral framework that must be applied in both the creation and use of wealth.

      For more on this please see my book Discipling Nations, especially chapters 7 and 8 on Creation and chapter 11 on the Stewardship of wealth.

      – Darrow Miller

  6. Steve

    March 4, 2012 - 3:38 pm


    Let me preface this response with our common ground: I affirm our shared belief in orthodox Christianity, and the reality of the kingdom of God both now and future. I resonate strongly with the approach to poverty called transformational development, as a way to address all aspects of poverty including broken relationships between God and man. Poverty will not be solved with dump loads of money applied from the top down. People, who are created in the image of God, have incredible skills and assets that should be recognized and built on, a process that builds their self-worth, and brings reconciliation with their communities and with God.

    However, I don’t believe that all underpinning beliefs related to social justice can fit into a 2 by 2 box. Sometimes God works through a supernatural “open” process and through “moral” people, but surely we have sometimes seen the poor cared for by “amoral” atheists within the “closed” government system, sometimes better than the church has. There are millions of well-meaning Christians who pity the poor as simply lacking material resources, and think the solution is to go on a mission trip to build stuff for them. There are also many non-Christians who see the poor as real people whose skills are neglected, and work to build their capacity to develop their own communities. God can choose to work through all people for his own purposes, sometimes through the most unlikely agents, to bring Himself glory.

    Splitting people into those who either follow a Judeo-Christian or Atheistic-Materialistic paradigm also misses the possibility that people (and belief systems) are more complex and nuanced. For example, solving material poverty will certainly require creation of wealth through development of human skills, but may also require that government play a proper role in protecting society’s most vulnerable citizens. This is a God-given role for the state, and in a kingdom-of-God world the state should offset the selfishness of individuals to provide opportunity for all. Government also rightly gives a safety net for those who are crushed by the fallen human economic system. Instead, right now government seems to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, and defends those interests through militarism or exclusion. So if we advocate for the government to actually care for the poor by providing the services it should, it is not to grow the power of government but simply to restore the right function of government as God intended. By walking alongside government (which is made of people, after all), we can advocate for a kingdom perspective and contribute to the transformation of those institutions as well.

    Let’s be careful about how we characterize those who see a right role for government: not all who want the state to provide services for the poor want them to be “enslaved” or dependent on an all-powerful massive bureaucracy. Instead, perhaps we should ask what the “creators of wealth” have done for the 50 million people in the US who have no health insurance, or for the 2.7 billion people who live on less than $2 per day.

    In Christ,

    • disciplenations

      March 8, 2012 - 1:38 pm

      Steve, thanks so much for your readership and for your comment.

      Darrow will respond to your comment via a new post. Please be watching.

      Thanks again.