Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Has a long history in Western religious writings in relation to the concept of the distribution of a society's resources according to people's needs. It has roots in the Bible, particularly in the prophets and in Leviticus, and in the works of early Christian writers. Within the past hundred years, it has found renewed expression in the Protestant Social Gospel, in the encyclicals of Roman Catholic popes, and in documents on social action produced by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The essence of the contemporary religious view of justice is that a society should redistribute wealth not only because poor people need it, but because it is rightfully theirs. This contrasts with the notion of charity as almsgiving. Thus the poor are perceived not as requiring alms because they are lacking in basic necessities but as deserving their rightful share of the resources produced by their labor. Peasants have a right to land because they work it, and factory workers have a right to good wages and other benefits because their labor produces the wealth of industrial societies.

In the Christian denominations, there is a potential tension between social justice and pastoral care, although these need not be separate in principle. Christianity emphasizes eternal salvation, which results in a concern of the clergy for ministering to the spiritual needs of the laity. This individual pastoral outreach is not always easy to combine with a prophetic demand for justice. There are laypeople who complain, and even leave a congregation, when the priest or minister preaches about social problems. On the other hand, there are those who claim that one cannot address spiritual concerns without dealing with people's serious material deprivation.

The religious view of social justice has found its most radical expression in liberation theology, which articulates the belief that sin and salvation are not exclusively individual but are also social. In the context of this theology, people's eternal salvation is understood to be inseparable from their involvement in the struggle to build a just society.

See also Preferential Option for the Poor, Social Action

Madeleine R. Cousineau


G. Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1973)

R. T. Handy (ed.), The Social Gospel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966)

D. Hollenbach, Justice, Peace, and Human Rights (New York: Crossroad, 1990)

A. Vorspan and E. J. Lipman, Justice and Judaism (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1956).

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