A Case for Social Justice

Following a recent meeting of Adventists for Social Justice, an organizer expressed her frustration with continually having to “make a case for social justice.” Her efforts to mobilize Seventh-day Adventists around improving the lives of those experiencing marginalization, discrimination, and oppression are hindered by a seemingly endless need to explain why Seventh-day Adventists should not only be concerned about but should actively engage in social justice work. Her exhaustion was palpable. Why is social justice a controversial topic? Why are calls to enlist Seventh-day Adventists in social justice work met with hesitation? I asked the same question. Why are so many Adventists resistant to ideas of social justice and social justice work despite a wealth of biblical support for such efforts?

Part of the problem may be that social justice is understood differently by different people. News outlets and political rhetoric have cast “social justice” as a way to “take from the rich and give to the poor.” Implying that social justice is an unfair redistribution of wealth from those who have “worked hard for their money” to those who are “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “just working the system.” I have even heard it argued that social justice programs are unbiblical, that the Bible teaches that “those who don’t work, shouldn’t eat” and certainly, the Bible encourages honest labor. However, social justice is not a political power play or a partisan soundbite. How can we rethink what social justice is and means?

I once heard a pastor explain it this way. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is commendable. Feeding the hungry is charitable and the Lord commands us to love each other, to have charity. Working to end hunger is social justice. In the same way, teaching our children to respect law enforcement and to obey civil laws is good and right. Working to end the reality that not all children are safe in the hands of the law is social justice. We are called to both kinds of work.

Social justice is fundamentally about fairness which often simply means equal treatment. When I apply for a job, my chances of being offered employment should be the same as those of other similarly qualified candidates. My parents are not as young as they once were; when a family member is sick, injured, or dying, their chances of receiving high quality health care should be similar to anyone else’s ability to receive that same care. The argument follows similarly for prison sentences and access to housing or education.

Communism and socialism are forms of government that have tried to attain social justice. While many stable and successful countries operate under socialist frameworks, conflating social justice with oppressive systems of government may be one reason why some Adventists oppose ideas of social justice. Systems of government and social justice are not the same thing. In fact, social justice continues to be an important “American” value. Democracy in the United States makes claims to social justice through equality under the law and the notion of a level playing field.

There is an expansive theological literature for social justice. A recent Sabbath School quarterly drew from a number of those arguments to walk readers through biblical and spiritual mandates to care for the sick, orphaned, oppressed, and immigrant. But many individuals contend that those texts apply to a different place and political time. There are better systems now, they argue. And they’re not entirely wrong. Existing social welfare programs were designed to assist individuals and families in need. However, those programs were not designed to address inequalities built into the system or outside of the specific goals of each program. Additionally, those interventions do not address new forms of inequality. For instance, rising tuition rates are making access to higher education impossible for a growing number of students. Political instability around the world has increased the number of individuals seeking asylum and refugee status at U.S. borders. If biblical guidelines for social justice were written for another time and if previously implemented programs are inadequate to confront new forms of oppression and marginalization, where can we find a relevant moral compass? Our bank accounts or personal comfort are not safe guides and even a superficial study of social justice in the Bible reveals its urgency for Christians and Seventh-day Adventists today.

I suspect something darker hides at the heart of our resistance to social justice. “I worked hard for what I have. Why can’t others do the same? What’s wrong with them and why is it my problem? If I could ‘pull myself up by my bootstraps, why can’t they?’” I have heard these words, sometimes from people I love. They need to be addressed. Yes, most successful individuals have worked hard for their success. But the question of why others can’t “just do the same” assumes that everyone has the same opportunities and support, that each person is perceived equally, valued for their unique gifts and intellect, that we all somehow arrived with strong arms and a good pair of boots. We know this isn’t the case. Individuals with certain physical attributes seem to come out on top more often than others regardless of their aptitude, education, or skill. The hardest workers often work the most difficult jobs, jobs without insurance benefits or the promise of a glowing retirement. Ignoring this unfairly favors some individuals over others.

The United States was built on an ethic of individualism and current social thought not only valorizes the strength and accomplishments of individuals, it also rests responsibility for success, for safety, for wellness and more, squarely on the individual rather than on other factors, communities, or on state structures or policies. We reason that if I can “pull myself up” and someone else hasn’t or can’t, the fault must lie with them. We separate ourselves from those in need. We place responsibility for their suffering on their own shoulders and we wash our hands from any responsibility to help because we are unwilling to confront the prejudices of our worldviews or the selfishness of our own hearts.

It is not too late though. We can learn better. We can do better. Find the work in front of us and ask how we can help. Seek forgiveness for our callousness and determined blindness. Pray for new hearts and eager hands to love not only charitably, but justly and mercifully. We can rethink what social justice means and why the Bible might be so full of texts about it. I am grateful for organizations like Adventists for Social Justice and I look forward to next year’s conference. I am grateful too for opportunities in my community, in my church, and in our country. Justice and righteousness are the foundations of God’s kingdom. They should be an active part of who we are too.

Stacie Hatfield is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Her work examines intersections of race, gender, and everyday activism in the United States.

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10038

Practicing Social Justice? Impossible for a Denomination that keeps discrimination of women ingrained in it’s skin. Until discrimination is officially denounced by the Church, and the discriminators are “shoed away,” there can’t be social justice in our Church.

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Interesting how the article ignores the origin of the term social justice! Also interesting that it says systems of government and social justice are not the same thing, which is true enough but social justice is not the same thing as justice! The US system (A Republic not a Democracy) makes claims to Justice not to social justice. As long as people pretend to equate social justice which is extremely politically oriented to simple justice it has to be rejected. see more on my blog at http://cafesda.blogspot.com/search?q=social+justice


And of course, the “Yes, but…” excuses, smoke screens, and justifications for bad behavior begin almost immediately, as is the unfortunate habit of humanity. Same thing happened in Christ’s day and look what happened to him? From the highest levels of the church.


Our last few weeks Sabbath School lesson in Nehemiah has discussed social justice. There are many Biblical examples of social justice; do not practice usury, pay a living wage (the parable of the owner of the vineyard who paid a living wage no matter the time spent on the job), care for the infirm (which covers mental health, physical health, drug addiction, etc.), elderly, widows, orphans. Should we start by studying the Israelites system of caring for those in need and in teaching our children how to work and also help others? What God wants from us is responsibility not as Noah who did not question God, but because we trust when we do not understand, and we have become mature and deliberative in doing HIS will because we do understand and trust. Abraham internalized what God wanted from him and asked for clarification when he did not understand. He trusted God but he wanted a more thinking and mature relationship with God, not as an obedient child but as a responsible and understanding adult who knew why God wanted him to do what he was asked him to do.

It takes courage to step out in faith without asking permission and take the risk while trusting God . It takes courage to change your trajectory and do what you know God wants you to do to advance social justice.


LThe first problem is an almost uniquely American obsession amongst developed countries with categorising sensible government social safety nets as SOCIALISM! The Church has difficulty separating itself from its US roots and a myopic view about the structural roadblocks that make achieving the American dream much more difficult to achieve for some over others.

The other problem is the difficulty distinguishing between social justice that endeavours to even out the playing field and the doctrine that has been birthed by academia in particular that sees everything through a group identity or gender lens and creates an outrage culture looking for grievances at every turn.


My experience over the years, when this subject came up among SDA’s, was conservatism. We are a people of rules and regulations. So, we need rules and regulations to help us decide who would be benefited and in what way. The majority of the time, the conservation quickly became, ‘others must meet our long term standards’. In other words, strings attached. To those persons, when hearing the word, ‘social justice’, it meant there were no ‘standards’. Basically we have a carrot and stick philosophy style of religion.

According to Wiki; “While the concept of social justice can be traced through the theology of Augustine of Hippo and the philosophy of Thomas Paine, the term “social justice” became used explicitly in the 1780s. A Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli is typically credited with coining the term, and it spread during the revolutions of 1848 with the work of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.”

It has certainly become politicized over the years. During the Vietnam War, I remember a pair of priests, Berrigan Brothers, using that terms, when speaking out against the war, were labeled as communist.


I believe in equal justice for all. The entire topic of social justice seems to lead people astray with a concept that some people do not get what others are getting and that those who do not get deserve what others have gotten, so it doesn’t seem to offer anything helpful with which to guide one closer to experiencing fulfillment in life. And, since we live in a capitalist society there will always be those who didn’t study well or try hard and must live with the choices they have made.


Thanks for posting an example of what I was talking about.


This article is so full of stereotypes and mistakes it is hard to make a comment. For instance,

The most successful form of economic activity that has pulled billions out of poverty is capitalism. Nothing has been so successful and nothing else comes even close. Yet. not even mentioned here.

There will never be equal treatment. Rather than worry about that so much, it is best to teach others to find their strength and go to it. There will be inequities, but there are ways to handle these a bit without stifling initiative, the creator of wealth in a capitalist society.

If the present American system with Trump is on top could be transferred elsewhere, it would take a big bite out of poverty.

Are you kidding? There is a huge welfare state.

It is also interesting to note that Americans give more to charity than just about all others. Especially the eastern block countries that were under communism. The state did it all, so they had no incentive to give of themselves. They became quite uncharitable.


Better not look too closely then, Alan, lest you see something to upset your apple cart. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


While I may not agree with your first paragraph I am so glad you quoted the reference above. You can trace the development of the so-called “social justice” attempts in modern Western civilization from the reductions of Paraguay, Bolshevik revolution or Maoist system and find a common link that has very little to do with “forms of government that have tried to attain social justice” as the gullible statement made in this article.
Unfortunately it has “worked” perfectly as intended for millions as revealed by the last 100 years of history and even by the many subjective comments posted here over time. We should all remember how the Bible deals with less than ideal social justice conditions that were brought on by the fall, from Leviticus 19:33-34 where the Israelites are taught to treat the alien as one of their own, to the most elementary teaching we find in Philippians 2:1-8 where the Bible teaches that the feeling of superiority is sin.

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Thank you, Stacie. You present some worthwhile ideas. Your words challenge me to continue to rethink Social Justice. Surely, it is not a static endeavor, and I hope to see how to be a catalyst in my context. Best wishes as you continue your work in anthropology.


If social justice “is fundamentally about fairness which often simply means equal treatment” and at the heart of our church DNA is the belief that we are “a chosen people, a remnant church,” isn’t it only fair to conclude that this is the psychodynamic BEHIND the darker” that hides at the heart of “our resistance to social justice.” To think otherwise would negate the very foundation of why our church exists.

Why should I claim to have preferential treatment then espouse the concept of equality, all at the same time? It makes no sense . Talk about schism of the mind.


I always keep one eye closed on these matters, but as you have not provided any data to refute my position, I will let it go. Indian, Chinese and western successes seem to support my view.

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You have to explain why the Jews, the quintessential chosen people, were given the command to treat the alien as themselves etc. Being the remnant has nothing to do with whether you treat people justly or have a schism in the mind.

In fact a remnant would be even more responsible for doing righteously.


personally, i find your equating ‘social justice-paying a living wage’ a bit of a stretch. in my study, Jesus was telling His disciples that those who, on their death-bed accept Christ have the same reward that a life-long Christian gets…

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Two things:

  1. We all are equal in the matter of righteousness: we don’t have it.
  2. God’s grace is so powerful and amazing it can snatch a sinner from the edge of a well deserved trip to hell and transport him to Paradise itself. Hallelujah!

Thanks for your thoughts!!!

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I was recently talking to a good friend who served as a church pastor then went up the ranks in the NAD and asked him why the SDA interpreted the Bible so differently than the other denominations and he told me our church reads the Bible from a prophetical standpoint trying to read into the future whereas the Jewish midrash was meant to discover relevancy of God’s words through time and generation into the current generation. So the Jews focused on the “here and now” but the SDA remains preoccupied with the future resolution of EGW’s Great Controversy. Our social justice is deferred into the future, therein lies the difference.