Most (if not all) major Christian denominations seem to support the idea of "social justice." Most sources I've read seem to agree that the term itself was originally a Christian term that's gotten traction in more secular circles. Nowadays, people tend to use it mostly as a catch-all for a wide variety of political movements they believe in. I've seen "social justice" tied to campaigns for organic food, both sides of the abortion debate, tax policy, you name it.

My question is: Is there a specific Christian definition of the term "social justice" In particular, is it something different from plain ol' justice, or is the extra word just redundant?

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    I imagine the answer would vary by denomination. I'm most familiar with the Catholic approach to social justice, which (as I believe) does have a specific definition; but it's entirely possible that other Christian denominations would have different definitions. You may need to specify a bit more. – Matt Gutting Aug 5 '14 at 16:57
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    There is clearly not a standard Christian definition, when you consider many Christian groups oppose each other on social justice issues. – Flimzy Aug 5 '14 at 17:11
  • Having a common definition of what social justice is wouldn't necessarily preclude differing in how to apply that definition to specific situations. – Matt Gutting Aug 5 '14 at 17:31
  • @MattGutting: For instance, the Westboro Baptist Church seems to think that social justice is best served by picketing funerals and waving hate posters. Most other Christian groups would think that is the antithesis of social justice. I don't think it's a simple matter of different applications of the same principle of justice. – Flimzy Aug 5 '14 at 17:38
  • Granted. Hence "wouldn't necessarily preclude", not "implies" or something similar. – Matt Gutting Aug 5 '14 at 18:01

No, there's not a specific Christian definition for this phrase. It means various things to different people based on their own values. The defiition, in general is the same as it is in the secular world - to champion social causes that are considered "Just". Beyond that, it gets into "What's 'Just'?".

Put simply, there's no "Specific Christian definition" because "Christianity" is not one single view, it's the sum total of all the views of the believers. See Is it valid to ask if “Christianity” teaches anything?

  • You answer the question so +1 but how about some examples of the various groups and their understanding, if any. – gideon marx Aug 6 '14 at 9:36
  • @gideonmarx - I didn't put competing examples on purpose, to avoid treating this like a straw poll question, If you're looking for a few examples to demonstrate that there are multiple views, the competing answers on this question do that adequately enough that for me to add examples would be redundant. I know this answer looks short and too easy, but there's a third reason - I'm often too verbose, and I'm attempting to work on conciseness where possible. That's ***hard**** for me. – David Stratton Aug 6 '14 at 11:28
  • I actually tried to add examples, but it went quickly off-topic. I think that showing that there are various views within Christianity isn't necessary, and it was subtracting from, not adding to this answer, so I made a more minor edit to clarify. – David Stratton Aug 6 '14 at 11:48
  • Sensible of you, I think. What a minefield! – gideon marx Aug 7 '14 at 16:56

For Evangelicals, Christianity Today can usually be counted on as a pretty good current "state of the church" type of statement. They define social justice as follows:

It’s a tired trope that evangelicals only recently began caring about “social justice,” a buzzword that carries connotations of political activism and “the social gospel.” In fact, orthodox Christians have long recognized in Scripture a call to defend and uphold the dignity and well being of all persons, especially the poor and powerless. Take, for example, John Wesley, who led prison reform and abolitionists movements in 18th-century England. More recently, evangelical leaders like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis have promoted Christian engagement in anti-war, environmental, and immigration causes, while facing suspicion of falling prey to partisan politics. At the local church level, sex trafficking, fair trade, and clean water campaigns are trendy ways today for lay Christians to fight social ills, even if that means simply clicking a “Like” button.

This fits well with Pope Francis' call to:

protect... people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. (3/19/13)

All of this is rooted in Jesus' statement inn Matthew 25 that Christians should show love "to the least of these my brethren" or to Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1.

The focus of the phrase "social justice" almost always implies:

  • a focus on those least able to speak up for themselves
  • a focus on action to alleviate direct needs

At its worst, it can to some carry a negative connotation that implies liberation theology or a focus on "doing good works" to the exclusion of teaching "the gospel" - but mature Christians typically understand that social justice is actually not something that can be divorced from the redemption message of the Gospel.

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    I like this answer, I might go with it. But as to the second part of my question, do Catholics and Evangelicals consider "social justice" to be basically equivalent to "justice?" – TenthJustice Aug 5 '14 at 20:51
  • Why do you regard liberation theology as negative - the worst kind of social justice? I know why I am negative towards it, I am just not sure it belongs in the answer. – gideon marx Aug 6 '14 at 9:35
  • At its worst to some... I was attempting to show why some ascribe a negative connotation to the term. Liberation Theologians often describe what they are doing as a radical emphasis on social justice. – Affable Geek Aug 6 '14 at 11:50
  • @TenthJustice Social justice implies justice for a particular segment of society that often doesn't get justice. – Affable Geek Aug 6 '14 at 13:20

The best definition of "social justice" is probably to be found in the parable of the Sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31 et seq.), wherein those who fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner were adjudged to be righteous, and those who did not do these things were adjudged as unrighteous. It is taking the teachings of Jesus to the pharisee on the meaning of the Great commandment, and applying it to non-religious circumstances.

  • However, this story seems to refer to personal charity--not political philosophy. – Narnian Aug 5 '14 at 19:43

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