Do those historical wrinkles mean that the term should not be used? No, but it should certainly be defined. We can study the 150 or so times that mishpat in Hebrew and kreesis in Greek—words commonly translated as "justice"—appear in the Bible. Biblically, justice—tied to righteousness—is what promotes faith in God, not faith in government. Prophets criticized not entrepreneurs but those who combined economic and political power to lord it over others, as today's bureaucrats and corporate/government partnerships tend to do.
I can understand Glenn Beck's frustration. As the Beck-Wallis tempest swirled on March 11, I spent 3½ hours in a long-arranged debate with Wallis at Cedarville University. He kept trying to position himself as a centrist rather than a big government proponent. Furthermore, modern usage by liberal preachers and journalists is thoroughly unbiblical: Many equate social justice with fighting a free enterprise system that purportedly keeps people poor but in reality is their best economic hope.
How to respond? I'd suggest four possible ways, one of which is a variant of Beck's: Challenge those who speak of "social justice" in a conventionally leftist way. If your local church is committed to what won't help the poor but will empower would-be dictators, pray and work for gospel-centered teaching. If necessary, find another church.
A second: Try to recapture the term by giving it a 19th- (and 21st?) century small-government twist. The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are trying to do this. I wish them success.
A third way: Accept the left's focus on systemic problems but not its faulty analysis. Learn about the biggest institutional hindrance to economic advance for the poor: the government's monopoly control of taxpayer funds committed to education and welfare. Work for school vouchers and tax credits that will help many poor children to grow both their talents and their knowledge of God.
Fourth and best: Tutor a child. Visit a prisoner. Help the sick. Follow Christ.
Note: To go deeper, please see my Aug. 29, 2009, WORLD column, "Is social justice just ice?" and a full seminary lecture I gave on the subject last October ("Prodigal Doctrines: Going beyond 'Social Justice' to 'Righteous Justice'"). You can hear my lecture at Cedarville University, which was held just prior to my debate with Jim Wallis, by clicking the following links: (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Audio from my debate with Jim Wallis will be posted beginning Thursday, April 1, here.