Defining Social Justice

As I’m sure most of you have noticed the recent improvement in the caliber and thoughtfulness of the posts recently. That’s because my husband, who has posted here before, has been taking more of an active role on this blog. This post and the previous one were written by him. I, personally, think he is a genius and a leader who is quietly changing the world. Read his thoughts below and let me know what you think…


Social justice seems to be receiving increasing attention amongst Christians, however it can be somewhat challenging to pin down the meaning of the phrase. I wanted to try and give a definition and some thoughts on it based on my understanding and reading on the topic. Probably the most influential book I have read on the topic is Mobilizing Hope by Adam Taylor of WorldVision. In a recent Q conference, he gave a presentation that summarized the book.

My definition of social justice, summarized, is: the Biblical mandate to pursue justice, proactively applied to our social structures, including, but not limited to economics. It is more (but not exclusively) focused on distributed justice, and empowering the weak.

  • Social justice is Biblical. It may have many secular proponents, but the very origin of the term came from Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian theologian’s, exposition and application of Biblical justice to social structures. In the OT, righteousness and justice, depending on the translation, can both come from the Hebrew word tsedâqâh, which is found several hundred times in the Bible. These ideas are tied together, and the combined concept doesn’t exactly match any English word, but speaks to equity, virtue, and prosperity as well, and social justice attempts to convey the societal implications and meaning of this idea.
  • Social justice is broad. Often times we have a narrow view of justice, where justice is defined only as enforcing consequences for individual perpetrators. Social justice acts against unfair social structures, that may not have specific perpetrators to blame, and social justice can include positive, empowering actions as well as penal.
  • Social justice is focused on empowering people, removing the barriers, traps, and hindrances that stand in the way of the weak and vulnerable growing stronger and prospering.
  • Social justice is not new, the pursuit of social justice has been integral aspect of Christianity since Christ, and has only been somewhat foreign to modern evangelicalism, in their uniquely narrow conversion focus that is a marked deviation from traditional orthodox Christianity.
  • You are may already be participating in social justice, at least obtusely. Any time we are helping those that are disadvantaged, we are participating to some degree in social justice. However, while you may be contributing to social justice, without focus you might not be pursuing it effectively in the truest sense of the word.
  • Social justice is deep. Mercy/charity alone is prone to merely treating conditions, many of our mercy efforts, valuable as they are, are often band-aids to deeper problems. Social justice seeks to understand and address underlying systematic issues of oppression, prejudices, and injustices that lead to poverty, avoidable illness, debilitation, and exploitation. Consequently, social justice can be more challenging to implement. It is often much easier to diagnosis a condition than the cause. The treatment for conditions also tends to be simpler and less contentious, one can provide money to feed a starving child in nice tidy private way that doesn’t intrude on anyone else. On the other hand, social justice’s concern for root causes often requires systematic changes that tend to face much stiffer opposition from people who don’t like to see particular changes in policies, disruption to profitable corruption or economic structures that arenfavor some, progressive taxes, and other mechanisms that are perceived as intrusive. Challenging societal injustices often requires collective sacrifices than are much less popular. For example, the abolition of slavery in Great Britain is estimated to have incurred the US GNP equivalent of 14 trillion dollars of economic loss. It is not surprising that this required enormous advocacy effort to overcome.
    As Dom Camara said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
  • Social justice is unifying, integrating and harmonizing the efforts of relief, development, human rights, health improvements, education, policy improvements, legal enforcement to towards a more righteous and just society. Social justice can span liberal and conservative ideals, yet challenge methods from both sides. Social justice seeks a fair, equitable society, a value shared by liberals, but that also challenges liberals to move beyond the tendency to correct surface level conditions, and examine causes. Social justice seeks to empower individuals and give them the opportunity and freedom to thrive on their own, free of dependencies, a value shared by conservative, but that also challenges conservatives to think beyond purely privatized approaches of laissez-faire policy, and consider multiple paradigms, private and public, of proactively pursuing a just society.
  • Social justice is strategic and purpose-driven, assessing where the greatest needs and injustices exist, bringing equality, fairness, as well as improved life quality in an intentional way, instead of simply random acts of kindness that are not driven towards any objective and clear guiding vision.
Anyway, that’s my understanding of social justice, let me know if you think it has a different meaning.
“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed non-comformists…The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority” – MLK jr.
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4 responses to “Defining Social Justice

  1. We would agree with the majority of this. As Christians who spent the majority of 2010-2011 unemployed and homeless, we’re very interested in social justice. The problem we’ve found among Christians is an extreme hatred of the welfare system, but a refusal to truly get dirty, make true sacrifices, and help. We say “that’s like being taxed twice!” So, the government system is what kept our family fed and paid the medical costs when our infant required hospitalization in a NICU center. When most Christians talk social justice, we get the distinct impression that they’d have rather seen our children starve and our baby die than let tax dollars pay for food and medical care. Yet, they are unprepared to cover those costs themselves for those in need. Nor are they able to provide family wage jobs or know where to direct those who need them.

    After a year of learning that all is grace, I’m happy to say that my husband is now gainfully employed in his field. But we have been left passionate about helping those in need. Our frustrations lie in finding that the church seems to think that nearly all help is simply a “band-aid.” But we need both. The children need to be fed while Daddy works at finding that job.

    Any thoughts on practical outworkings of social justice for Christians in America?

    • Amber, thank you for your comments and perspective, I totally agree with everything you are saying. I certainly was not intending to belittle public welfare. I agree that the unfortunate distrust that Christians have for welfare seems to contradict a true pursuit of social justice. Welfare has been an important part of just sustainable economic structures, because it provides reliable safety nets, like you clearly articulated. While it is also important that the church directly help those in need, removing welfare systems and societal structures that contribute to economic justice in hopes that the church will pick up the slack is unrealistic, unsustainable (perhaps unsustainable is better word than bandaid), hurts the poor, and the antithesis of holistic social justice.

      • I don’t mean to imply that we received no help from the church, because we did. However, most of that did come from churches that weren’t our own, and with different theological persuasions. We have been left doing a lot of thinking about our own persuasions, and the practical implications of one’s theology in regards to how it practically impacts those in need around us. Thank you for your refreshing perspective in what has become a very discouraging conversation with the church for us.

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