Darrow Miller and Friends

What Exactly Do You Mean By “Social Justice?”

The phrase “social justice” has made a surprising comeback within Evangelical circles in the past few years. But what exactly do people mean when they use this phrase? For some, it  simply means helping the poor in general, but I’ve found that when you push a bit, it often involves a particular approach, namely by means of expanded government programs that offer services to the needy. But Christian compassion and government bureaucracy  are two entirely different things.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together with another” and is perfectly demonstrated by Christ who came to suffer together with us in His incarnation, and ultimately to go to the cross on our behalf. Compassion is also demonstrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan who didn’t just transfer money to help a dying man, but got his hands dirty and suffered together with him. By its very nature compassion cannot be done by people (for example, government bureaucrats in Washington) who are physically removed from needy people themselves.

Christians would do well to think carefully before using the phrase “social justice” as I was reminded recently by a speech by Catholic theologian and economist Michael Novak titled “Don’t Confuse the Common Good with Statism.”

[Some] seem to think that the way to achieve “social justice,” that is, to help the poor, is to give more money to the state to distribute (or whatever it does with the money, once it flows into Washington’s coffers). [They] equate social justice with turning over to the state the project of “fighting” poverty.

Where…is [the] evidence that this dependence on the state actually helps the poor?

The 2011 Census Report on Poverty and Income…displays contrary evidence. After pouring three trillion dollars (going on four trillion) during the last three years, in the name of helping the poor and creating jobs, the federal state’s failure is breathtaking. The ranks of American poor have swollen to the highest number (46.6 million) since poverty figures first began to be recorded, 52 years ago. The percentage of Americans who are poor (14.1 percent, or nearly one in seven) is the highest in seventeen years. Is giving so much of taxpayers’ money to the state helping the poor?

… Those who insist that the only (or the best) way to achieve the common good is to give more resources (and more control) to the federal state, had better go looking for some evidence somewhere that undergirds their self-righteousness. They insist that others of us, who do not support the expenditure of more state money, are immoral.

Yet the first moral obligation, Blaise Pascal wrote, is to think clearly. And with evidence.

What is true for the common good is also true for social justice. Those who insist that the test of social justice is giving more tax revenues to the state need to display their evidence.

For myself, a mountain of evidence convinces me that Thomas Sowell is right: Giving money to the state in order to help the poor is a little like trying to feed the swallows by feeding the horses. The swallows get very little of it.

– Scott Allen

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Scott Allen serves as president of the DNA secretariat office. After serving with Food for the Hungry for 19 years in both the United States and Japan, working in the areas of human resources, staff training and program management, he teamed up with Darrow Miller and Bob Moffitt to launch the DNA in 2008. Scott is the author of Beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide: A Call to Wholistic Life and Ministry and co-author of several books including, As the Family Goes, So Goes the Nation: Principles and Practices for Building Healthy Families. His most recent book is Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice. Scott lives with his wife, Kim, in Bend, OR. They have five children.


  1. Martin Josten (UK)

    January 5, 2012 - 7:24 am

    Thank you Scott. This is a useful cautionary remark. I look forward to seeing the sequel: what is a more useful (and Biblical) definition of social justice? Perhaps one could begin with Amos or Isaiah?

  2. Gary Zander (Canada)

    January 5, 2012 - 5:42 pm

    Although I’m completely in agreement that the state is not the most effective body at delivering services to the poor (or expressing compassion for that matter), I think of the alternative – a nation devoid of any expression of care for the least among them. Look at nations that have not devoted effort to the “common good” of its citizens. You will find they oppress the poor through their sins of omission or pad the coffers of the elite and powerful. Rather than release our governments from the responsibility of providing social justice, we should hold them accountable to the use of tax dollars. It’s true that personal action is ultimately the only true way to show compassion but that cannot preclude our collective responsibility as a nation. Our call should continue to be for reform in state-sponsored social programs, not the reduction or elimination of them.

    • Martin Josten (UK)

      January 12, 2012 - 7:38 am

      This is just to say that I completely agree.

  3. Colene Barrett

    January 7, 2012 - 6:56 pm

    What I am hearing Scott say is: We Christians, actually anyone who cares, need to get our hands dirty and actively work to help those we find in need. If churches, local charities and individuals would accept the challenge of getting involved directly, perhaps the states would not need our dollars so much. We justify our neglect because of our busyness, our own pursuits, just the “me, my, mine” thing. We need God’s help to stir us to action, within ourselves we’ll fail.

  4. Jon Davis Jr.

    February 16, 2012 - 9:28 am

    I often wonder why not just call justice “justice” and mercy “mercy.”

    Poverty could be made worse by injustice, but it is not itself necessarily injustice.

    Thanks for clarifying terms in this article though. Very helpful.