What Is Social Justice?


What is Social Justice?

By Tali Hairston, Director of the John Perkins Center at SPU


The debate has reached front page news and become viral on the Internet. What is social justice?


Social justice is neither a recently discovered idea, nor does it lack significant intellectual engagement or theological history. But “to walk justly as a social agenda” is being volleyed back and forth within mainstream media as if we have no historic figures to reference, and from whom we have gleaned some understanding of social justice as both theory and praxis.


Regardless of where you stand — or with whom you stand as it pertains in the current political application of this debate — theologian Miroslav Volf in his groundbreaking book Exclusion and Embrace, debates whether the emphasis on social justice should rest on social structures or social agency. Volf’s question is worth some serious reflection for those engaged in issues of social justice. It is a question we regularly ask at the Perkins Center.


Personally, I resonate with the emphatic voices of history who challenged Christians never to forget that our work is to transform the social structures of an unjust society. But, in working with Dr. John Perkins — and his family, friends, and many other significant leaders profoundly moved by his life and legacy — I continue to see the depth of Miroslav Volf’s reflection.


Honestly, my awareness of my own theological ambiguity called me to review the relationship between social structures and social agency. Buoyed by the Center’s widely anticipated development of Let Justice Roll On, a documentary of the life and legacy of Dr. John Perkins, I am convinced that social justice is often represented by a truly profound social agent calling a community to engage the transformation of social structures. For many since the civil rights era, that social agent has been John Perkins.


This new documentary will evoke feelings of his hope and determination. Similar to his autobiography Let Justice Roll Down, Dr. Perkins tells the story of God’s churning the waters of reconciliation from the days of his youth in Mississippi to his time in Pasadena and back again to Mississippi.


Perkins shares about the hurt and pain from which God redeemed for good, his passion for people, and the great gratitude he feels for his mother’s sacrifice when he was an infant. While some continue to wonder and debate social justice, we are blessed and honored to be able to tell the story of a truly great leader for justice. From his life and ministry many of us have seen the transformation of social structure.



Tali Hairston Tali Hairston has guided the Perkins Center at SPU since its founding in 2004. He is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins.




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