Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Meaning of Words

The youth pastor was moving on today, and gave a short exhortation about the high school mission trip to Benton Harbor, MI. Nice young man; a friend of my oldest son. He smiled that he was again going to mention social justice, as he did every time he spoke. He quoted Micah 6:8 about doing justice and loving mercy.

Hmm. The trip to Benton Harbor, where they painted houses, did vacation Bible camp, and otherwise hung around being helpful, was certainly about mercy, or kindness, or charity. And a good thing, too - we should see more of rich teenagers being bundled off to help poor people. But "justice?" How do we get to the concept of justice there? The rich teenagers in NH hadn't taken anything from the poor people in Benton Harbor - hadn't wrecked their stuff, vandalised the neighborhood, scammed them on the street, or taken their jobs. There wasn't an injustice that needed to be righted. Justice would mean that the people of Benton Harbor have a right to demand that someone come in and paint their homes and teach their kids Bible stories.

That is, unless you are smuggling in the idea that the poverty of one is a direct result of the wealth of another. It's the only way to get to the idea that charity is only giving people something that is already rightfully theirs. Charity is a gift, not a redress. Justice is something a person can rightfully demand from others.

The word justice has a meaning. It is a useful concept, and not one that should be toyed with, because there is justice that the poor have a right to demand in our society - the right to be treated the same before the law, even if they don't have connections or haven't paid a bribe; the right to buy and sell, the right to be in public places, the right to speak, or vote, or cling to their guns and religion even if the president disapproves, just like anyone else. When someone is trying to change the meaning of a word, it pays to perk up one's ears and ask why.

Not that this youth pastor is conscious of any attempt to redefine the word, of course. He's not part of any conspiracy or devious attempts to deceive others. He's just caught in the rather vague set of associations that it's a good thing for people who have things to share them, and some people have had hard luck, and Christians should feel obligated to help others, and African-Americans are the best example of people who didn't get a fair shake while rich white kids are the best example of those whose life has been more than fair. So it all sort of fits in together, you see. Besides, everyone puts these types of ministry under the category of "Social Justice." It's right there on the denominational website as a dropdown and everything.

Yes, everyone is starting to call these things social justice, it seems. The idea has become fully embedded in the thinking of folks of uh, certain political persuasions. We can now slide back and forth between the meanings as is convenient, so that when someone - oh, I don't know, someone with a national plan to require kids to volunteer at some approved good work in order to be given a high school diploma - can manipulate words so that a voluntary gift becomes a rightful demand that the government can impose. Because it's justice.

We discussed a similar redefining of terms when I reviewed the book True Patriot. Patriotism had a common meaning which everyone understood. One might validly claim that patriotism is not the highest virtue, or that it is a virtue only when combined with other virtues, or when the patria-object is itself worthy of affection. But the word means love of country, both in behavioral and symbolic acts, such as enlisting in the military or flying the flag. You can say that merely flying the flag and doing nothing else for one's country is cheap patriotism, or maintain that love of the environment, or rights for women, or love of all God's people is a superior virtue, and that's fine, too. But the word has a meaning, and when people are trying to intentionally redefine it, we should be suspicious.

It goes by degrees, each perhaps sensible enough in itself. To say that patriotism is "wanting what is best for my country" can mean something quite close to the original. But it can also, with no change of words, mean something quite far away from the original - the idea that "I only love my country when it looks like I want it to." Justice can slide into fairness can slide into equal fortune can slide into equal luck can slide into the idea that any inequality is in fact injustice.


james said...

I like a formulation that defines "justice" (responding as someone's actions deserve) and "equity" (treating equally). The tension between the two principles is obvious to parents with more than one child. I rambled on a few years ago about how one doesn't work well without the other.

RonF said...

You have yet to run into the concept, then, that sums up a lot of this. That's the use of the word "privilege". The white teenagers in this story are considered to possess "unearned privilege". Being white means you have unearned privilege. Being born to middle-class or upper-class parents means you have unearned privilege. Being male means you have unearned privilege. This in turn means that you have an unfair advantage over those who do not have unearned privilege, and justice demands that the government take money, etc. from those who have unearned privilege and use it to compensate those without.

james said...

This kind of "privilege" is what you work to provide for your children.

mollo said...

As a Christian, it hurts me a lot to see the phrase "social justice" used because it has replaced another, stronger, biblical word: MERCY. The bibical concept of mercy is love showered without a reason, while social justice is more about correcting a wrong done to somebody. I'm sad to hear that youth pastor forgot his bibical roots.

GM Roper said...

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