Social Justice and its Dangers

Justice is an attribute which is consistently ascribed to God in Scripture and presented as a defining characteristic of his reign (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 97:2; Isa. 30:18b; Rev. 15:3; etc.).  Because he is just, he calls us to live justly with one another (Gen. 18:19; Ps. 33:5; Jer. 5:1; Mic. 6:8; etc.).   This call includes laboring to form a just society (Deut. 1:13-17; 16:18-20; Isa. 1:16-17; Jer. 22:3; Amos 5:15, 24; etc.).   This is not merely incidental to our call, but integral to it.  Pursuing justice—both personally and in broader society—is one of the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23).  It is, in fact, one of the ways in which we live by the golden rule and fulfill the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39; Jas. 2:8). 

There are few who would argue against justice as the foundation of civilized society, but there is perhaps less consensus now than at any point in our nation’s history as to what justice is.  It’s becoming painfully clear that not everything that goes by the name of justice is what it claims to be.  For this reason, we must be careful not to jump on the bandwagon of every movement that claims to advance its cause.  Many people want the benefit of the noble connotations of the word but drain it of its meaning.  Worse, they fill it with an opposite meaning.  It’s a classic example of doublespeak—a distortion of language for political purposes.  This is especially true with the buzzword, “social justice.” 

Social Justice

It’s a pity that this otherwise good and useful term has been co-opted to promote a vision of society that is profoundly unjust.  As a result, some have argued that we should avoid using it altogether.  This may indeed be wise given how muddled the definition has become. 

Some, too, have argued that we shouldn’t use the term social justice because justice needs no modifier.  Justice is just justice.  No adjective needed.  In a saner world, modifiers would be unobjectionable.  They would simply refer to different spheres of justice.  Social justice would then simply refer to justice as it relates to public policy as distinguished from the behavior of individuals in their daily lives (i.e., personal righteousness, integrity, and fair-dealing).  Criminal justice, economic justice, and racial justice, in turn, might be considered subsets of social justice—public policy as it relates to each of these issues.  However, we encounter the same definitional problems with these subsets as we do with the general category.[1] 

If we use the term social justice to describe the historic efforts to abolish slavery, end Jim Crow, and ensure civil rights, or the current efforts to abolish sex-trafficking, protect the unborn, and root out government and corporate corruption, all well and good.  But the term today has become loaded with a set of assumptions that are the very antithesis of justice—assumptions associated with Antonio Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony and the call for a “long march through the institutions,” together with the critical theory and neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School, postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives,[2] and the activism of groups like Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the Me Too movement. 

Assumptions of the Social Justice Movement

What assumptions are we talking about?  Perhaps more could be identified, but these are the ones I have in mind.[3]

Assumption 1:  Human relationships are best understood in terms of power dynamics and these dynamics affect relationships between both individuals (husband-wife, parent-child, employer-employee, etc.) and groups (sexes, races, classes, etc.)
Assumption 2:  A power imbalance necessarily creates an adversarial and abusive relationship between those in power (“the oppressors”) and those lacking power (“the oppressed”)
Assumption 3:  Our identity as individuals is subordinate to and inseparable from our group identity, such that we share in the status of either oppressor or oppressed, relative to a given identity marker (sex, race, class, etc.)
Assumption 4:  The most important human endeavor is liberation of the oppressed by destroying all hierarchies and achieving a completely egalitarian society

Evaluation and Critique

Each of these assumptions contains an element of truth but is otherwise deeply flawed.

Assumption 1
The first assumption, that human relationships are best understood in terms of power dynamics, is reductionistic to the extreme.  There is no doubt that power plays a role in human relationships, sometimes a deleterious one; but only the most cynical people could view it as playing the most important role.  Depending on the relationship in question, why may not love, trust, friendship, respect, a sense of ethical responsibility, or a commitment to cooperation for mutual benefit lie at the heart of it?  Most human relationships have a mix of motives and goals that can’t be so easily explained in terms of power. 

Assumption 2
Second, where power is a prominent element of a relationship, it isn’t necessarily abusive, as the second assumption suggests.  For example, parents have physical, legal, and other forms of power over their children; but most parent-child relationships are loving, protective, and nurturing.  Their power is not a threat, but a benefit to their children.  Likewise, employers have power over their employees; but if both parties are thinking properly about it they’ll recognize that cooperation toward the success of the business benefits them both.  Employees will work diligently, and employers will compensate them as well as possible.  There are temptations and potential failings on both sides of the equation, of course, but there is nothing inherently abusive about the power differentials in these relationships.

Assumption 3
The third assumption—that our identity as individuals is subordinate to and inseparable from our group identity, such that we share in the status of either oppressor or oppressed, relative to a given identity marker—is manifestly and dangerously false.  This is where the concept of power dynamics between group identities comes into play in the most invidious ways.  It’s what lies behind the identity politics that has proven to be so divisive in our country over the last few decades.  This group is pitted against that group in terms of the alleged oppressor and oppressed categories.  The individual members of each category are viewed as either perpetrator or victim accordingly.  All women are victims of “the patriarchy,” for example.  Never mind if you’re a woman but have never been personally mistreated by a man; you’re a victim in other ways you may have never realized.  If you’re a man, you’re complicit in the abuses of “the patriarchy” even if you have never personally abused a woman.  Likewise, all racial minorities are victims of white-supremacy; all homosexuals are victims of hetero-normativity; all poor people are victims of exploitation by the rich; and on and on and on. 

If you’re a member of the dominant group, you’re an oppressor, even if you’ve never personally done anything to harm anyone.  If you’re not a member of the dominant group, you’re a victim even if you don’t realize it.  Despite protests to the contrary from the other side, this is straight-up sexism, racism, classism, etc., the very things they say they oppose. 

There’s no doubt that we are all influenced by our sex, race, and class, but also by a host of other variables:  natural intelligence, education, looks, height, weight, health, upbringing, social circles, religion, and culture.  All these things go into the shaping of one’s personality and character, but in the final analysis, individuals must be evaluated in terms of their actual behavior not on the basis of the supposed collective guilt or innocence of their “group identity.”    

Social justice advocates often refer to a concept they call intersectionality, which is the multiple layers of victimhood one suffers.  For example, a black lesbian is a three-fold victim.  As a woman, she’s a victim of the patriarchy; being black, she’s a victim of white-supremacy; as a lesbian, she’s a victim of our culture’s adherence to hetero-normativity.  If she should also happen to be a Muslim, she would have yet another claim to victimhood.  And we should understand that there is no more valuable currency today than possessing the status of victim.  One can say all kinds of outrageous things, and get away with all kinds of outrageous behavior, if one plays the victim card properly. 

Take as an example, an article that recently appeared in the Washington Post, entitled Why can’t we hate men? in which the author explains why she believes men as a class deserve to be hated.  She says she objects to other feminists who say, “we don’t hate men,” and “men are not the problem, the system is.”  She objects to feminists saying these things because she believes men are the problem—not simply bad men, misbehaving men, but men as men.  How is it that she is not scorned as a sexist?  Because according to social justice assumptions, only men can be guilty of sexism. 

Why is that?  For the same reason that only whites can be guilty of racism.  Recently the New York Times hired an editorial writer named Sarah Jeong who tweeted a number of insulting things about white people, including, “It’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”  Many people pointed out that if a white person had said this about an Asian or Black or Hispanic person, it would rightly be called out as racism.  Her defense was that in these tweets she had adopted the tactics of those who had directed racist tweets at her.  In other words, she was “counter-trolling” them and she apologized for saying such hateful things. 

Fair enough.  But what I found interesting—and what was perfectly consistent with social justice assumptions—was that many of her defenders claimed that even if she had meant what she said about white people, it wouldn’t have been racist because as a minority she is, by definition, incapable of racism.  Historically, racism has been defined as racial prejudice—negatively stereotyping members of a racial group.  The new social justice definition requires the element of power.  Racism is not merely prejudice, they say, but prejudice + power.  As a minority, Jeong doesn’t have power; therefore, she can’t possibly be a racist.  Or so the reasoning goes.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them that as an editorial writer for the New York Times she has far more power than say an old white farmer in Kansas. 

It’s fair to observe that racism is at its most dangerous when it’s combined with power; but the absence of power doesn’t excuse negative racial stereotyping no matter who does it to whom. 

Social justice warriors assume a general complicity in evil among members of dominant groups.  And if there should happen to be a specific charge of wrongdoing, there is a presumption of guilt if the accused is in a dominant group relative to the accuser.  These assumptions skew the very concept of justice.  The traditional Western view, which is grounded in Biblical jurisprudence, holds that the accused is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof lies with the accuser.  The social justice view is that the accused is presumed to be innocent or guilty depending on his or her power status vis-à-vis the accuser.  This stance is taken by activists associated with the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements.  It’s quickly becoming the default assumption that if a white cop shoots a black suspect, it must be due to racism; that if the suspect had been white he wouldn’t have been shot.  Further, if a police inquiry into the shooting exonerates the officer, it’s assumed to be evidence of institutional racism in the department.  The actual evidence of the case is of less importance than the power dynamics involved. 

This is the origin of the “believe all women” campaign.  Certainly, allegations of sexual assault should be taken seriously.  They should be investigated thoroughly, and if the accused is found guilty, he should be punished.  But a judgment must be made based on the evidence, not based the sex, race, or socio-economic status of either the accuser or the accused. 

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
Leviticus 19:15

It is as wrong-headed to say “believe women” because they're women, as it is to say “believe men” because they're men, or whites because their white, or blacks because they're black, or citizens because they're citizens, or aliens because they're aliens, or the rich because they're rich, or the poor because they're poor.  Justice demands that a decision be reached based on the evidence, nothing else. 

Assumption 4
The fourth assumption—that liberation for the oppressed comes by tearing down all hierarchies to achieve an egalitarian society—reflects animus toward reality itself.  To be rid of all power is impossible.  Hierarchy is written into the very fabric of creation.  It’s inescapable. 

At various times in life we will either be in authority or under authority, and usually both at the same time in different relationships.  For example, a man may have authority in the church as an elder but be the low man on the totem pole at his place of work.  A woman may be in authority in the work place as a business owner, with employees under her, but she’s under the authority of the law of the land.  One may be both in authority and under authority in the same setting.  A mid-level manager has those over him and those under him, much like a member of the military.  A centurion told Jesus, “I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” (Matt. 8:9a). 

Our task is not to rid the world of hierarchies, but to exercise power and respond to power in godly ways.  Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1 are very helpful.  In these passages he deals with three domestic relationships:  husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves.  In each case, he first addresses the party under authority and then the one in authority.  Summarizing, the one under authority is instructed to be submissive, as unto the Lord, and the one in authority is instructed to exercise a gentle and beneficent rule. 

See part 2, Social Justice:  What's Marx Got to do With It?

[1] This is true at least with economic and racial justice, not so much with criminal justice.
[2] See for example, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, MN:  University of Minnesota Press, [1979] 1984), p. xxiv
[3] I have adapted and expanded the four premises of Critical Theory identified by Neil Shenvi in A Long Review of Race, Class, and Gender – Part 3 (


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