Wikipedia’s circular definition is this: The application of the concept of justice on a social scale. But the concept of social justice involves things like a living (or minimum) wage, as proposed by John A. Ryan, prison reform and abolitionism as proposed by John Wesley in the Methodist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated for social justice when he expressed the wish that his children would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.
Good things, yes?
Then you’ve got Glenn Beck railing against any religion that preaches social justice. When I heard that, at first I was a bit taken aback. Why should anyone want to rail against social justice? That doesn’t seem right.
Then this weekend, listening to Conference, it dawned on me what he was talking about. Not that I want to politicize Conference, but I think that a few things said this past weekend cleared the air for me.
First, consider what Elder D. Todd Christofferson said Saturday afternoon in his speech The Blessing of Scripture (emphasis mine):
In a complete reversal from a century ago, many today would dispute with Alma about the seriousness of immorality. Others would argue that it’s all relative or that God’s love is permissive. If there is a God, they say, He excuses all sins and misdeeds because of His love for us—there is no need for repentance. Or at most, a simple confession will do. They have imagined a Jesus who wants people to work for social justice but who makes no demands upon their personal life and behavior. But a God of love does not leave us to learn by sad experience that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10; see also Helaman 13:38). His commandments are the voice of reality and our protection against self-inflicted pain. The scriptures are the touchstone for measuring correctness and truth, and they are clear that real happiness lies not in denying the justice of God or trying to circumvent the consequences of sin but in repentance and forgiveness through the atoning grace of the Son of God (see Alma 42).Jesus indeed taught social justice. But he taught it in a way that put requirements on that justice. We have to modify our behavior and personal lives in order to find the social justice he teaches. It’s true that many preaching social justice today do so at the expense of things such as marriage – we’re supposed to believe granting the right of homosexual marriage is socially just, even when it goes against scriptural doctrine. Those who point to the social justice of Jesus without regard to the requirements put forth – obedience to the commandments and ordinances of the gospel – want to have the security or the finger-pointing ability to rail against those denying their “rights” or their “social justice” by in turn denying that their behavior must be modified. Jesus taught us to love the sinner and hate the sin, not to tolerate the sin because we love the sinner.
Scripture tutors us in principles and moral values essential to maintaining civil society, including integrity, responsibility, selflessness, fidelity, and charity. In scripture, we find vivid portrayals of the blessings that come from honoring true principles, as well as the tragedies that befall when individuals and civilizations discard them. Where scriptural truths are ignored or abandoned, the essential moral core of society disintegrates and decay is close behind. In time, nothing is left to sustain the institutions that sustain society.
That concept is echoed in Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk, We Follow Jesus Christ. He said (again, emphasis mine):
The Savior’s charge to His disciples to love one another—and the dramatic and powerful way He taught this principle at the Last Supper—is one of the most poignant and beautiful episodes from the last days of His mortal life.Again, those who point to Jesus as a great moral teacher or philosopher and who transpose modern ideals of social justice into these moral teaching and philosophies are giving only half the truth, half the story. God’s law must be obeyed while his children work to be socially just within the bounds of the laws God has set.
He was not teaching a simple class in ethical behavior. This was the Son of God pleading with His Apostles and all disciples who would come after them to remember and follow this most central of His teachings. How we relate and interact with each other is a measure of our willingness to follow Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately for Mr. Beck, this kind of thing isn’t easy to say or sum up extemporaneously on television, so it’s clear why he was misunderstood. I’m glad I listened enough at Conference, and thought about these things enough on my own, to recognize how the concept of social justice fits within the Gospel of Christ.
If we want to apply the social justice as taught by Jesus Christ – love your fellow man as yourself, love the sinner, hate the sin – we can’t at the same time negate the laws that have been set in order to squeeze in our modern concept of social justice. Negating the rules, or seeking to have one’s cake and eat it, too, is a logical, intellectual and spiritual fallacy.