Friday, March 26, 2010

The threat of 'social justice' -- it's NOT about the money

Lost in the hullabaloo of the health-care insurance bill that passed Congress this week is a situation that hasn't raised a whole lot of controversy -- yet. But it will.

Last week, Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck decided to turn his guns on the concept of "social justice," which he (as well as the conservatives who follow him) interprets as "economic redistribution." When Jim Wallis of the Washington, D.C.-based Sojourners ministry decided to challenge Beck on that, Beck decided to go after Wallis. (You can read about it on

The trouble is that Beck is wrong.

So what is "social justice"? Well, as I understand it, it's the willingness to change structures -- laws, customs etc. -- so that people have the opportunity to experience "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Justice allows people to work for a decent wage free of discrimination, legal or otherwise, so that they can support their families and contribute to their communities.

Here's the problem: Justice often means changing the status quo, which is threatening to a lot of people because political means often must be used to achieve it. (Yes, that can, and often does, mean government involvement.) It's the real reason why folks favor "small government" -- its only purpose from that perspective is to protect "my status and my stuff." For that reason, when people do stand up for justice they raise hackles and even may risk their lives.

The American civil-rights movement is the most obvious example. In the 1950s African-Americans in the South were not permitted to vote, shop where they pleased, use public facilities except those designated for them, attend decent schools etc. So black churches began to mobilize to fight for change -- and then the people who wanted things to stay the same decided to push back. Eventually people would pay with their lives for the cause, but the South was eventually transformed. (Poverty wasn't really the issue because many of the foot soldiers were actually fairly wealthy and prominent citizens.)

That theme -- the powerless rising up and demanding their rights and the powerful resisting them -- has repeated itself time and time again through history.

Anyway, as part of a move toward a more just society, in the 1960s President Lyndon Baines Johnson organized what we call the "Great Society" -- from which come such Federal programs as Head Start, educational grants and cut-rate loans and affirmative action -- to give the formerly locked-out a chance to succeed and to "catch up." Trouble was, all this was seemingly done at the expense of those who already had such advantages, who became resentful as a result (and that resentment is still in play as I write). This is where the complaints about "big government," the "welfare problem" and "economic redistribution" come in, with the insistence that such programs actually hurt people in the long run. (As if they know what's good for them.)

So what's wrong with private charities doing such work? Three things: One, there's simply not enough manpower or money available in the private sector to do all that's necessary. Two, the people who are donating their money or services are still very much "in control" -- which is part of the problem. Three, charity doesn't cause any substantive change in their basic state. (Remember the cliche that "you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have any boots.")

That said, with all the bellyaching about government help for the poor, I never hear critics actually talk about empowering them by encouraging them to vote, run for office, become community activists or even buy homes -- the things that cause people to "own" their lives. It's no accident, for example, that government agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were singled out for particular scrutiny after the housing market tanked in 2008. And do you think for a second that Beck went after ACORN last year for no reason? (Hint: Most of the people it was registering to vote in 2008 would have been Democrats.)

Bottom line, we need to rethink our concept of justice, which can be best summed up by our LORD: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." And part of that is understanding what they really need instead of simply deciding what we want them to have.

1 comment:

Don said...

"Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily ... We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."--Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail"