Jim Wallis continues to confuse the definition of justice. In a blog post on Martin Luther King as a social justice Christian, he offers this statement.
This is why in the Old Testament, God commands his people to be charitable but also to work for justice. The people of God are to give offerings of their own free will, but there are also laws that show the government has a legitimate role to play. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus changes people’s hearts and lives, and that is something that government policy can never compete with. But, I also believe that personal charity does not do the work of justice.
There is a lot of confusion packed into this one little paragraph so let’s take the points one at a time.
1. Justice is rendering to each one his due. So when rich people oppress poor people by bribing judges to render unjust rulings and take their land, for example, that is an example of how working for justice can help the poor. (See Amos, for example.) We should be all for this kind of justice. But Wallis is clearly going beyond this definition of justice in what he calls “social justice.”
2. When Wallis says that the government “has a role to play” in the OT, he subtly implies that that role might be a redistributive role, yet the OT does not say that. The OT concern is that the government be honest and uncorrupted so that each one gets what is his due. This concern is not the total answer to the problem of poverty because poverty has other causes than simply injustice or oppression of the poor by the rich.
The poor also get poorer sometimes by themselves without being oppressed by anyone. This is why the Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, emphasizes the virtues of hard work and condemns sloth. Also, there are many life exigencies such as illness or the desertion of his family by a father that can cause poverty that have nothing directly to do with the government. Many of these situations are best addressed by civil society at a lower level than that of the central government.
3. When Wallis says that charity is not sufficient and that a social welfare state is necessary he is making a prudential political judgment and reading his view into the OT. That is not what the OT teaches. When the OT commands charity, it addresses the individual. It never says that the king should raise taxes and redistribute the proceeds to the poor; in fact, increased taxation by the king is always seen as a form of oppression in the OT. It was one of the things Samuel warned Israel about when Israel unwisely demanded a king.
4. For Wallis, personal charity is insufficient because his vision is a high-tax, welfare state and in such a state individual giving to charity always goes down instead of up. His big government preference, however, is the main factor in depressing individual charitable giving and so his prophecy becomes a self-fulfilling one to the extent that his leftist ideology prevails.
In conclusion, Wallis wants to create a hybrid out of a fusion of justice and charity called “social justice” which is neither just or charitable. It is a continuation of the centralizing power of the monarchy that proved fatal to Israel as a nation in the OT and which was condemned by the 8th century prophets. It involves government unjustly appropriating the wealth of ordinary people in order to redistribute it to those whom government bureaucrats deem to be more in need of it. It squeezes out charity and discourages hard work and productivity.
For Wallis, the term “social justice” is indistinguishable from socialism. There is a legitimate Roman Catholic tradition of social justice teaching which developed in conscious opposition to socialism, which is very different. Unfortunately, such subtle distinctions as the meaning of justice, the meaning of the principle of subsidiarity, and the on-going necessity of charity seem to be lost on Wallis. He is the kind of progressive for whom “progress” ultimately leads to socialism, tyranny, poverty, and the loss of individual freedom and responsibility before God.
Originally posted at The Politics of the Cross Resurrected on Aug. 27, 2010.