What does "social justice" really mean?

Social justice is a catch-all term that has gone through many seasons of being en vogue and then going out of favor, often suffering from competing definitions and vastly different interpretations. It's like Silly Putty -- that popular substance we used to play with as kids that can be twisted and contorted into whatever shape your heart desires.

Don't be fooled or distracted by the word "social" in social justice. Many Christians are more comfortable with the word "justice," but if Christ is truly Lord over every aspect of our lives, then clearly this must also include the social realm.

The Biblical roots of social justice

As many people across the globe observe the World Day of Social Justice, I see an opportunity -- maybe even an imperative -- to redefine what social justice means from a scriptural point of view, and, in the process, inspire Christians to reclaim and recommit to serving a God who shows a particular concern for the least, the last, and the lost.

The Bible makes social justice a mandate of faith and a fundamental expression of Christian discipleship. Social justice has its biblical roots in a triune God who time and time again shows His love and compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the disinherited -- you get my point. “For Christians, the pursuit of social justice for the poor and oppressed is the decisive mark of being people who submit to the will and way of God,” writes Tim Dearborn in “Reflections on Advocacy and Justice.”

Biblical references to the word "justice" mean “to make right.” Justice is, first and foremost, a relational term -- people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation. From a scriptural point of view, "justice" means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves and is rooted in the character and nature of God. As God is just and loving, so we are called to do justice and live in love.

Not "what," but "who"

Social justice becomes less about “what” and more about “who” we are called to prioritize as followers of Christ. So often we get ensnared in disagreements around the “what” in relation to social justice, because it deals with often-contentious issues like budgets, taxation, labor laws, social protections, safety nets, and others.

Instead, we should start a space of common ground around “who” God calls us to be concerned about. In other words, “what” is predicated by "who." Starting with “what” often enables our ideologies to trump our theology and spirituality. As Christians, the building blocks of social justice lie in human dignity, human flourishing, and the sacredness of life. The source of social justice is God’s perfect righteousness, justice, and radical love.

Social justice is about creating kingdom space in the here and now, giving witness to the ultimate just society yet to come. So every time we use our voice and influence to get in the way of injustice -- whether it’s human trafficking, economic exploitation, human rights abuses, or infants dying needlessly from disease and malnutrition -- we provide a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.

On this World Day of Social Justice, I pray that, as fellow Christians, we can re-envision God’s call for social justice, which is rooted in Scripture and faith. Let us then recommit to advancing social justice, not as an extracurricular or optional part of our faith, but as an imperative.

Learn more and discover ways you can take action through World Vision’s Child Health Now campaign, our global movement to end preventable child deaths.


    I disagree on your vision of Biblical Justice, the scriptures clearly call for us to not seek justice, but to display mercy. Mercy being the ideal, Justice is the scary thing that people face when they die without Christ.

    But other than that I get your point...

    Yes Mr Steve Isaiah 58 says something about it. But also all the letter of Paul to the Romans must be read in order to bring new better hope and mentality for the nation. When it say Romans it means the nation. What you have to do as nation simply placed is to work less, demand less, eat and do not waste food, enjoy life with friendship: banks(no American must loose its house because he owns to banks- the FED made something about it as i read after the evcd), simplicity: media(the media is full of complicated ideas that do not help), reciprocation: land (mutual benefit, we do not go to court because he owns me money, or we spare accommodation and good meal to someone that lost his job) and democracy: politics (we vote to him that has his mind to peace globally). Mercy we need when Justice is not present. When we are satisfied of what we have, we do not ask for more, work diligently in our environment without hatred and bad manners, everything is nice. To Jeremy: Yes the bible says we are children and have Christ inside us, if we follow ten commandments and help as much as we can. Following ten comm/ments is very crucial and people usually do not read them or follow them. ALL THE ABOVE is for all EARTH, not only for the nation, You have plenty of good people there that do the above and more. Lets hope one day we have open our house-door without the fear of criminal things and the neighbor is free to come after a call no matter how stupid he is or how boring or without interest. We have something to learn from every human that lives next to us. Then we know we are in Paradise on Earth

    Thank you for the powerful challenge to put "others" first and "do right". carol

    I think the real disagreement on social justice comes up with the discussion of "THROUGH whom". I.e. authority and ability given to serve the poor originates from the life, ministry, and person of Jesus Christ. It's given to His Body, the Church. "Justice" exercised through any other means apart from Christ is eternally irrelevant. Only with Jesus, through Jesus, focused on Jesus, and pointing to Jesus can any sort of social justice be of any value to anyone. Feed a starving woman a loaf of bread without the truth of Jesus, and the woman eventually still goes to an horrific eternity.

    Adam -- Just found link to your post through a WVUSA tweet. Love your thoughts about putting a dialogue about "who" before the "what". Especially for a younger generation, we resonate with the logic of looking for the greatest need and diving in to help. Most important, that conversation takes our eyes of ourselves (a major problem in developed countries) and puts them on the needy..the same thing Jesus often modeled to his self-focused disciples

    On a personal note, I've seen you put this into action in India among the poorest of the poor and the historically disenfranchised, and I deeply appreciated it.

    Matthew 7:1-5 MSG

    “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

    For those of you who immediately jump to criticizing the words of others I would challenge you to keep the words of Christ in mind... He challenges us to accept others and to aproach the truth within our own heart. I applaud world vision for knowing that justice is not about results it is about love which comes through mercy.

    Leave a Comment

    The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.