What is social justice? Should Christians advocate for social justice? Is it even a term that Christians should use?

Over the past few years the rise of the term “social justice” among Christians has coincided with a growing level of misunderstanding, misuse, and misapplication of the term. Here are a few things Christians should know about social justice.

Where did the term “social justice” originate?

Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio coined the term in the 1840s and based the concept on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Taparelli used the term to refer to the ordinary and traditional conception of justice applied to the constitutional arrangements of society. At the time, Taparelli’s concept was considered a significant contribution to conservative political philosophy.

Taparelli has a good claim, the religious historian Thomas Patrick Burke says, to being the “father of Catholic social teaching.” As Burke notes, one of Taparelli’s students wrote the first draft of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes), the first papal statement on “the social question.” Pope Leo and Pope Pius XI were also students of Taparelli’s work. Another student wrote Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which officially adopted “social justice” as part of Catholic doctrine.

According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “a large part of the Church’s social teaching is solicited and determined by important social questions, to which social justice is the proper answer.” Social justice is even given a section in the Catechism of the Catholic Churchwhich defines it as:

Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice that the term became widely associated with liberal secular political philosophy, particularly with changing social institutions. As Rawls wrote, “Our concern is solely with the basic structure of society and its major institutions and therefore with the standard cases of social justice.”

What exactly is social justice?

Because of the fluid nature of the English language, words take on meaning not only through their primary or literal meaning (denotation) but also through their emotional association (connotation). The connotation of “social justice” has often overwhelmed the denotation, making it difficult to understand how the term is being used. As the political journalist Jonah Goldberg has said, social justice has become code for “’good things’ no one needs to argue for and no one dare be against.”

Part of the problem is that the root word—“justice”—is also misunderstood or used by different groups in different ways. The Oxford English Dictionary defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society” but vaguely defines justice as the “quality of being fair and reasonable.”

A more useful definition comes from the Institutes of Justinian, part of the sixth-century codification of Roman law ordered by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In the Institutes justice is defined as “the set and constant purpose which gives to every man his due.” The philosopher Michael Sandel similarly defines justice as “giving people what they deserve, where what they deserve depends on their virtue and depends on sorting out hard questions about the good life.”

From a Christian perspective justice can be defined, as philosopher Gideon Strauss says, as “when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence.” From this Strauss identifies two broad streams of justice—public justice and social justice. “Public justice is the political aspect—the work of citizens and political office bearers shaping a public life for the common good,” Strauss says. “Social justice is the civil society counterpart—nonpolitical organizations that promote justice.”

What is biblical justice?

The biblical conception of justice is primarily captured in two Hebrew words—mishpat and tzadeqah. As Tim Keller explains,

The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.

But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.

But to understand the biblical idea of justice, Keller says, we must also consider tzadeqah:

We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as “being just,” though it usually translated as “being righteous.” The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.

When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity. It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.

These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.” Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.

Note: The tzadeqah word-group sometimes refers to declaring a person just, i.e., it is a judicial decision. (See some of the writings of Mark Seifrid or Stephen Westerholm.) That notion stands behind the Greek dikaiosyne—which, in various shadings, can mean, depending on context, justice (righteousness) or justification.

How does social justice relate to biblical justice?

As Keller says, when the two Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat are tied together—as they are more than three dozen times—the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.” Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice.

Claiming that we need only “biblical justice” and not “social justice” is a category error (i.e., a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category). Biblical justice includes all forms of God-ordained justice, including the rectifying justice that belongs to the government (what we’d call public or legal justice) as well as justice between individuals (what could be called inter-individual justice) and justice involving organizations and groups (what we’d call social justice).

How does social justice relate to the gospel?

In the early 20th century, various liberal Christian groups began to conflate the gospel with social justice. This so-called social gospel became particularly influential within Protestant mainline denominations and in progressive Catholic circles. Over time, as progressive social causes became more foundational to the social gospel movement, the good of justice overtook the greater good of evangelism.

A true understanding of the gospel, though, allows Christians to work for justice in the world in way that does not undermine the centrality of the gospel. As Don Carson explains,

The gospel is the good news of what God has done, especially in Christ Jesus, especially in his cross and resurrection; it is not what we do. Because it is news, it is to be proclaimed. But because it is powerful, it not only reconciles us to God, but transforms us, and that necessarily shapes our behavior, priorities, values, relationships with people, and much more. These are not optional extras for the extremely sanctified, but entailments of the gospel. To preach moral duty without the underlying power of the gospel is moralism that is both pathetic and powerless; to preach a watered-down gospel as that which tips us into the kingdom, to be followed by discipleship and deeds of mercy, is an anemic shadow of the robust gospel of the Bible; to preach the gospel and social justice as equivalent demands is to misunderstand how the Bible hangs together.

[ . . .]

Christians interested in alleviating only eternal suffering implicitly deny the place of love here and now; Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.

How should Christians engage in social justice?

Whether we use the term or not, Christians are engaged in social justice when we advocate for issues such as abortion, racial reconciliation, religious liberty, and sex trafficking. We engage in social justice whenever we seek moral reform of our society in a way that ensures every person is treated with dignity and given their due. As Mark Tooley says,

Christians and churches definitely should advocate social justice in the sense that ever sinful society needs constant moral reform. The church’s chief tool in this advocacy is the gospel itself. Redeemed humanity is likelier to care about justice than unregenerate humanity. But even the redeemed need an ethical framework for social renewal. And even the non-redeemed can be enlisted in good causes with appeals to conscience, natural law and self-interest.

[ . . .]

A valid Christian political witness for social justice starts with the premise that all persons are created in God’s image. It also understands that the state is not the church but has a very different vocation, having been divinely ordained primarily to uphold order and restrain the wicked. Social justice should not equate all societal improvement with legislation, regulation and other coercive state action.

Instead, Christian social justice understands that most of society is not the state and includes a wide assortment of important actors, including the family, the church, other religions, businesses, philanthropies and charities, trade associations, civic groups and other human groupings, each of which ideally contributes to human order and happiness.

Social justice seeks especially to protect the vulnerable, including the very young, the very old, the unborn, the terminally ill, the disabled, the poor and the unpopular. Social justice also seeks to energize the able and the powerful towards virtue, thrift and industry. It shouldn’t seek to deconstruct but to build. Social justice must also safeguard essential liberties rooted in human dignity and God’s character such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of property.

What is a “social justice warrior”?

Over the past five years, the term social justice warrior (commonly abbreviated SJW) has become a pejorative term for an individual who promotes social justice issues from a socially progressive perspective, especially one rooted in identity politics.

More recently, the term has been used in broader sense to refer to anyone—whether liberal, libertarian, or conservative—who advocates for social justice, especially on issues of racial reconciliation.

Shouldn’t conservative Christians abandon the term ‘social justice’?

In the early 1900s a conservative movement sprung up within Protestantism in reaction to liberal theology and the form of biblical interpretation known as higher criticism. A series of articles was written and collected into a four-volume work called The Fundamentals that was intended to outline the key doctrines—the fundamentals—of the Christian faith. These works gave rise to the term “fundamentalist.”

“’Fundamentalism’ is really akin to [C. S.] Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity’ . . . it means adherence to the fundamental facts—in this case, the fundamental facts of Christianity,” Charles Colson said. “Everyone who believes in the orthodox truths about Jesus Christ—in short, every Christian—is a fundamentalist. And we should not shrink from the term nor allow the secular world to distort its meaning.”

But because secularists such as H. L. Mencken began to use the term in a disparaging way, evangelicals began to avoid the label. That lesson taught secularists that it was possible to get evangelicals to stop associating with just about any term—even the word “evangelical”—if it could be given a negative connotation.

Social justice, as a biblical concept, is not a term we should abandon without a fight. To paraphrase Colson, we should not shrink from the term nor allow the secular world to distort its biblical meaning.

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