Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century that justice is “the virtue of a good citizen, whereby a man is directed to the common good.” Today the popular cry for social justice is less about Christian generosity and more about government-run welfare programs.
In 1840, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, an Italian Jesuit scholar named Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio coined the term “social justice.” Taparelli saw massive changes in society and he believed true justice cannot be achieved without doing justice through the institutions in our civil society, the family, church, and local organizations. True social justice will protect and allow those institutions to flourish, and not be crowded out by governmental programs. (For more: Read Rethinking Social Justice, by Darrow Miller.)
Today the “common good” is not so commonly understood. Common good requires common grace. Christians enjoy special grace, or saving grace. But even special grace has been misunderstood. Special grace leads a person to show compassion, to suffer with others, which is something government programs cannot do. The Good Samaritan understood social justice.
Here’s what we’ve done to grace. We reduce our witness as a church when we count how many have received saving grace, as if we do the work of salvation. “It’s the true gospel,” we hear the preachers say, “it’s the most important work.” So sharing the good news of Jesus Christ has been reduced to three steps: A-accept, B-believe, and C-confess. And our outreach as a church has been reduced to an invitation to attend services. The mobilization of the members is reduced to finding the right volunteer job for people in the church. Of course, God wants every person to come to saving faith. What God requires is for everyone, especially those who believe, to fulfill the one command that is all about the common good: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:14 NIV)
Common grace is available to everyone, not just Christians. Jesus taught his followers about how God’s common grace is for the common good: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45b NIV)
Here’s what we’ve done to social justice. We reduce those who are living in poverty to people who lack material things. We reduce Christian charity to writing a check or giving a handout. But the poor will tell you it’s powerlessness and shame they feel. They seek dignity. When our charity is reduced to handouts, we reinforce a lie from hell that tells to the poor, “We are empowered, and you are not.” And when we fail to love our neighbor, the world will flood the void with angry judgment and government programs. Everyone loses.
True social justice is when a common person does the common good for their neighbor.
“Carrying out this social relief work involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone. Meanwhile, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives, they’ll respond by praying for you in passionate intercession for whatever you need. Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!”
2 Corinthians 9:8-15 MSG