Trawl through history and you will find the phrase “social justice” tagged to the revolutionaries, visionaries, and esteemed civilizational bricklayers responsible for the freedoms our world enjoys today. MLK Jr., Mandela, Wilberforce. The suffragists, the abolitionists, the free thinkers. People who stood for what is right and fought for an ideal, who suffered for the sake of a cause, and who sacrificed for the good of others.
Troll through the internet today and you may find a very different definition of social justice. “Warrior” is added pejoratively and the phrase is employed dismissively. And not without some justification. Too often our impulse for social justice is cynically or lazily crafted as a cheap, dubious cover for our own regard, a virtue signal spouted as a platitude and a self-deception that replaces meaningful, IRL action. We see the many problems of the world (easy enough), and then we turn to our keyboards and smartphones to “call out” and dog pile others. We become performative online activists and poisonous part-time prophets, heckling and moralizing and menacing away, all the while viewing ourselves as the modern day equivalents of the great, noble forbearers of the great, noble causes. Too often we try and pretty-up shallow political point scoring by adding the veneer of a moral cause. Us versus them, in perpetuity. Us (good) versus them (evil) is easy and feels good. No wonder people see right through it. Social justice has a PR problem.
The base impulse of the SJW-inclined is admirable (a better, fairer, more just world should always be sought); the practice of mud-slinging slacktivism less so. And that is not to say that this practice encompasses the extent of social justice today, just that it is prevalent enough to be of notice, and to discredit or at least damage real social justice efforts.
Diagnosing the problems of the world and working towards solving them is not a problem. But this is often a half-solution that misses the root issue. In the Christian Scriptures, God commands in the book of Zechariah (chapter 7, verses nine and ten): “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Another translation states that last line as: “…let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
This is the key distinction between social justice warfare and true social justice. How you fight injustice is dependent on where you find its source. The problem of injustice may be cemented at the institutional level, but it is actualized at the individual level, in each of our own hearts.
Us versus them falls apart when we recognize that evil is not solely some other thing done by other people. Evil finds in each of us willing and capable companions. Recognizing this predilection in ourselves is essential to identifying and eradicating injustice with grace and forgiveness—forming a lasting justice. This allows us to humbly deal with others as individuals who are just as fallen and just as deserving of grace as we are, not as a collective of unworthy enemies to oppose and humiliate.
For social justice to last it must leave space for reconciliation with others, even at the cost of excessive and seemingly intolerable amounts of effort, love, forgiveness, and every other good thing we claim but do not practice. If the extent of a cause is reprisal, it will enjoy a spoiled success.
If the injustice you see in this world is a vision of oppressive systems, of powerful and privileged people and institutions asserting and dominating and exploiting, you may not be wrong, but you are not fully right either. The harmony and the inescapable responsibility of Christianity is that synchronizes all things macro and micro, the universal with the personal. It gives no ground for any prideful self-righteousness, not even in the grand pursuit of justice. For all have sinned and are unworthy of the glory of God. But, just as radically, none are excluded from it either.
True justice demands the administration of justice with mercy and compassion, to remember and account for the weakest, the most mistrusted, the least privileged. To sacrifice your time and resources defending the small and the overlooked. And to always purge from your own heart the evil that would cause you to view your enemies as impersonal and irredeemable. Locate injustice in the oppressive and corrupt—and in your own being as well. Social justice entails the recognition that responsibility resides first and foremost in the realm of the individual, in how you choose to live your life.
Social justice is healing the world, yes, but it is healing yourself also.
Written by Luke Smith
/ Luke is a graduate of the Mac Ewan University Communication Studies program. He works in marketing and writes in his spare time. He has had the pleasure of designing a tee for The Joyful Project.