Real Social Justice
Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2010 Oct 08
It was pitched as a matter of social justice. "Affordable and accessible health care is a right," was the line. And it worked.
By shoving the partisan healthcare bill through the straw of "social justice," Obamacare was passed, if barely, adding to the already ponderous government programs for health and welfare. But what was touted as social justice, as so many things are and have been, is not really justice at all.
Turning justice on its head
Justice is about fair play, giving people what is owed them without bias or favoritism. An employee is owed a fair wage by his employer, an accused criminal is owed a fair trial by the court, a child is owed the protection and care of his parents.
In the classical understanding, justice is about what is owed and by whom it is owed. But shaped by the oracles of liberation theology, that understanding has been turned on its head.
According to liberation theology, the story of Exodus reveals the true nature of God; not as Savior of the world, but as the Liberator of the oppressed. He's the God who takes the side of the poor and calls us to do the same through social action. And that starts by approaching justice as a matter of corporate compassion, rather than one of fairness. Instead of responsible individuals giving people their just due, justice is about the civitas giving people what they need.
To be sure, God has special concern for those on the margins of society. Scripture is full of warnings about injustices to the poor and disenfranchised. But contrary to the Gospel of Liberation, God's foremost concern is not emancipating us from political and economic oppression; it is redeeming us from sin.
Caring for the least and last
This is not to diminish the importance of giving people what they need. To the contrary, meeting the needs of others is at the heart of Christian teaching.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples to "give to the one who asks." Later, he frustrated a man of privilege by advising him to give his wealth to the poor. He used the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach a teacher about true neighborliness. Then, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he warned a group of religious experts about their moral glaucoma. But his sternest words came near the end.
In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus warned his disciples about neglecting the needs of the needy. He then made a stunning disclosure: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." His teachings had their effect.
In the first century, Christians took such comprehensive care of their own that St. Luke remarked, "There were no needy persons among them." During the plagues in the second and third century, Christians attended the needs of the sick and dying who had been abandoned by their pagan physicians and civil leaders. The Christian community went on to establish the first hospitals and orphanages. By the fourth century, the scope of their compassion attracted both the notice and ire of the Caesars.
Frustrated over the social conditions in the Roman Empire, Flavius Julian called it a scandal that Christians "care not only for their poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them."