Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Adjective 'Social'

I found this article over at the American Spectator, to be quite apt as a discussion of what adding the word "social" in things like "social business," "social justice" and "social Gospel" can do in robbing the terms of their power. As it points out, on the face of it adding social really should add anything because business, justice and the Gospel are inherently social: namely they involve people and interactions.

Here are several paragraphs that stuck out:

I'm all for spiritual renewal and the common good, but the term social gospel leaves the impression that the ordinary Christian Gospel is some sort of Gnostic religion -- without a horizontal plane extending through the flesh and blood and toil of human society -- until properly incarnated by good-hearted socialists. The notion is odd in the extreme. Christianity played a pivotal role in the birth of political, economic, and religious freedom in the West, and was crucial in establishing institutions like the university and the hospital. At a more obvious level, the Gospel involves a billion or so people getting together every few days in things called churches in anticipation of what's supposed to culminate in an enormous cosmic wedding feast. 
The third term, social justice, is unlike the other two in its having a justifiable raison d'ĂȘtre. It stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought and was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice. Unfortunately, this nuance and precision usually falls away in popular usage, and the term has been co-opted by the left to imply that ordinary justice is a mere tool of the ruling elite, with the real deal being "social justice." 
This impoverished meaning needs to be addressed. If a society extends justice to the rich and well-connected but allows the poor to be bullied and swindled by corrupt players inside and outside of the government, the problem isn't unsocial justice but a lack of justice. If the poor in many developing nations can't get access to credit or the courts because they can't register their businesses, and they can't register their businesses because they don't have the bribe money and connections to navigate a byzantine regulatory maze, the problem is injustice, plain and simple. Such a society doesn't need a social brand of justice any more than a poor neighborhood without stores needs a social grocery store. The neighborhood needs an ordinary grocery store, and the unjust society needs basic justice. Grocery stores and justice are already intrinsically social. 
More than accurate semantics is at stake here. Often the popular call for "social justice" boils down to an ill-conceived call for coercive wealth transfers -- for instance, getting rich countries to transfer more of their tax revenues to the governments of poor countries as foreign aid. It'd be nice if this approach actually helped the poor, since we've been using it for the past 60 years. Unfortunately, the statistical and narrative testimony on this strategy hovers between mixed and scandalous.
Christian should of course be concerned with justice. God's character in the Old Testament was one of justice and righteousness. God established his King, David, to rule in justice and righteousness. The OT prophets were concerned with Israel's failure of justice and righteousness. The Messiah would rule in justice and righteousness.

But we need to be careful of the fallacy of equating Old Testament conceptions of justice and righteousness with modern concepts of social justice. If there are people that do not have equal treatment under the Law, then of course that is a matter of justice. The rich and the poor are to be treated equal according to the OT. In fact, not only was one not to favor the rich because they were rich, the OT was clear you were not to show favoritism to the poor simply because they were poor going up against the rich. That to was deemed injustice. (Exodus 23:3; Lev. 18:15)

The article goes on to highlight the devastating effects 'social justice' can have. It can actually lead to moral corruption and it can cultivate to situations where actual injustice is perpetuated upon those one seeks to help. This should not be an argument against the right kind of help and true showing of mercy--but rather an honest evaluation of whether or not one's efforts do more harm then good. Even unintended consequences are still consequences one bears responsibility for.

As Christians we should avoid what is trendy just because the crowd is telling us it is trendy. Is the addition of the adjective 'social' one of those trendy words? Has it become a sort of Shibboleth for identifying particular 'it' crowds or signaling who is truly compassionate? While it may seek to add content what has it actually take away from the discussion? 

As the article concludes: "All the same, it's important to recognize that these terms, as often used today, share some of the same confusion that characterizes socialism. It's a confusion that sees business, profit and the market economy as intrinsically greedy and predatory; that undervalues the power of ordinary justice for liberating the poor; and that regards the problem of poverty in materialistic terms."

Read the whole thing here.

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