“It’s not nice to take people’s L’s”, she told me. “There’s an L in my name and an L in your name, but lots of poor people out there don’t have L’s like we do.” She’s only four, but my young friend already has a sharply defined sense and right and wrong. Much as I’m glad to see her advocate for the less fortunate, I do think this alphabetical approach to social justice is taking things a little too far.
A lot of well-meaning adults make the same mistake in their approach to social justice, and for some of the same reasons. My preschool-aged friend thinks it’s unfair that not everyone enjoys the status conveyed by her favorite letter; she has no way of knowing yet that not everyone would benefit from the imposition of that coveted consonant.
Similarly, not all adults are the same. When social justice involves trying to provide universal human necessities like food, clothing, and shelter to those who have none, this can be good. Unfortunately, the more popular this catch-phrase becomes, the further it tends to drift from these goals and the more often it serves to disguise an imposed cultural or political agenda. The world is more complicated than most of us realize.
Take, for example, Bill Clinton’s recent comments on immigration reform:
In a panel discussion with moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Clinton said that the United States has become an “older society” and needs newcomers to provide the labor force and pay the taxes necessary to finance the retiring generation…
“You’ve got to have more immigrants. You’ve got to reverse the age ratio,” Clinton told an audience heavy on Washington policy wonks and media types.
Calling the United States an “aging civilization,” Clinton cited nations throughout history in which “older societies become obsessed with security.” Now, in the U.S., he said, that’s driving interest in national defense, Social Security and Medicare.
“America has got to get back in the future business. We’ve got to be a tomorrow country,” Clinton said. “We need more immigrants.”
Clinton’s observations, which will no doubt be applauded by social justice proponents as they protest Arizona’s new immigration policies, are correct: America does need new citizens. Those who protest the new laws on the grounds that they are socially unjust are also correct.
However, they fail to note the fact that abortions performed in the name of social justice are the reason America needs an influx of new people. Social justice work is a mixed bag; it doesn’t always lead to real justice.
Even if you leave the pro-life/pro-abortion debate behind – a daunting task, and usually a bad idea – it’s hard to deny that, in this case, correcting one perceived social injustice only leads to another. It’s not often easy to give people the help they really need, and in an integrated society the help you offer one group may easily bring unintended harm to another group.
That’s why the recent resurgence in the popularity of social justice efforts, while admirable, is also dangerous. Social justice work is risky because there’s no easy way to know how changing the social and economic status of one group may change it and its surroundings in the long term. Short term gains may easily lead to long-term harm; a single mother on welfare, for example, will benefit in the short term from the rent assistance she receives. She will be badly harmed in the long-term, however, if she comes to rely on this assistance instead of on her own abilities and resources.
Social justice work is also dangerous because in their efforts to live out Jesus’ commands, too many people may unintentionally replace them. Jill Stanek observed before the 2008 election,
Liberals have garnered success with some Christians by diverting their eyes from abortion/homosexuality to “social justice.” This is a relief to Christians who don’t like feeling conflicted about abortion. They can appease their consciences and put abortion on the back burner by becoming righteously indignant about other causes in Jesus’ name. Some of these causes are even valid. Satan is expert at blending truth with lies.
This applies to immigration reform as well as abortion. There’s no question that many of our Mexican neighbors would benefit from a new life in the United States, and we should do what we can to help them. Doing what we can, however, should not include giving them a free pass into our country–this approach harms more people than it helps. The other extreme is also wrong, as Arizona will no doubt discover. As our own Lindsay has already explained, aggressive enforcement of immigration laws will also harm far more people than it will help.
Popular conceptions of social justice are typically in favor of these and other similar extremes. Social justice is easily taken too far, despite the good intentions of those who work towards it. It may also too easily replace other work the church should be doing. Be wary, then, of supporting a cause because it fits the current stereotype of “social justice” – the issues at stake may be more complicated than you can know. ‘