Nicholas Wolterstorff – Journey Toward Justice [Feature Review]

July 25, 2014


Page 2: Nicholas Wolterstorff – Journey Toward Justice

In Parts 2 and 3 of the book, Wolterstorff develops and defends this conception of rights and justice, and demonstrates its roots in Scripture.  The development of the philosophical ideas is more methodical in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, and he occasionally refers readers to that text for more explication.  The corresponding encapsulation here does not always make for smooth reading, but his defense of “rights talk” is compelling: in his view, the languages of benevolence, generosity, responsibility, or loyalties, all lack the moral force of “rights.”  “Benevolence is optional,” as he puts it; rights are obligatory.  Rights are “ways of being treated that are required by respect for worth.”
What we understand as “rights” do not have an obvious parallel in the bible, but the biblical imperative to seek and do justice is undeniable.  And while the word “justice” is never defined in Scripture, for Wolterstorff the definition is clear: doing justice is repeatedly exemplified in efforts to protect and care for widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor.  Justice in the Old Testament displays what Wolterstorff calls a “preferential option for the vulnerable.”  Why does this justice imperative seem – according to many commentators – to recede in the New Testament?  Here Wolterstorff provides an illuminating exegesis.  He argues that in the original Greek of the New Testament, there are many instances of dik-stem words.  As a student of classical Greek, he was taught to translate such words as “justice,” “just,” and “justly.”  But in most English translations of the NT, these dik-stem words are translated to mean “righteous” and “righteousness.”  Among contemporary Christians, “righteousness” has come to refer to an individual’s being right with God (and when the word is applied to God, it is understood to refer to God’s retributive justice).  Did the meaning of the dik-stem words change over time?  Wolterstorff proposes instead that the meaning of “righteous” has changed in the English language.  To do justice is to do the right thing; to do so habitually is to be “righteous” in a sense that the word no longer has today.  If that is the case, then the call for justice is not muted or supplanted in the New Testament; instead, it is expanded so that to love our neighbors and seek shalom in our communities is also to do justice.
In Parts 4 and 5, Wolterstorff addresses righting injustice, just punishment, and forgiveness.  He proposes that empathy can sometimes be a powerful motivation to work for social justice, and against injustice – but he also wonders how to nurture empathy where it is absent.  In his chapters on punishment, he describes a recent visit to the Honduras, where he learned that in the absence of effective criminal justice, the more primary justice of respect for human dignity cannot thrive.  But “we who are Christians,” as he notes, cannot discuss punishment without also discussing forgiveness, and Wolterstorff devotes one chapter to considering the circumstances under which forgiveness is appropriate – and how to balance forgiveness with punishment.  (Given his experiences in South Africa, the chapter leaves the reader a little hungry for some discussion of truth-and-reconciliation procedures.)
In the book’s final section, “Beauty, Hope, and Justice,” Wolterstorff reflects on connections between what he calls “aesthetic joy” and justice (and conversely, between “ugliness” and injustice), and on the subject of Christian hope – “for the just reign of God within this present creation, and hope for a new creation.”  He cautions against conflating Christian hope with “secular optimism” in the power of humankind to advance its own flourishing.  “(W)e must resist the arrogance of supposing that the signs of Christ’s redemptive action coincide with the goals of our own successful endeavors.”  At the same time – and perhaps paradoxically – we must never stop working against injustice; the work is itself an expression of our hope.  “We do our work and then we say, ‘Make of it what you will, O Lord.”
Journey Toward Justice is, for the most part, an engaging introduction to Wolterstorff’s theory of justice and the experiences that shaped it.  The text does not always flow easily, but this is partly the result of Wolterstorff’s attempts to convey some complex ideas in a small space, and partly a byproduct of his reluctant effort to weave in his personal story.  The book nonetheless displays the clarity and passion that characterize all of his writings.
(For a sense of the clarity with which Nicholas Wolterstorff develops his ideas, watch this quick summary of his thoughts on justice in scripture… )