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A review of
Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2013
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Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia
Some of the clearest contemporary thinking and writing about the theory and practice of justice has come from Nicholas Wolterstorff. A philosopher and Christian theologian, Wolterstorff’s standout previous books on the subject include Until Justice and Peace Embrace (1983), Justice: Rights and Wrongs (2010), and Justice in Love (2011). In each of these, Wolterstorff combines careful theory-building with real-world applications and examples, and always with an undertone conveying the urgency and imperativeness of working for justice.
Journey Toward Justice displays these same characteristics, but weaves in an autobiographical thread. The book was invited to launch a new series published by Baker Academic, “Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity,” in which North American Christian scholars reflect on how encounters in the global south have shaped or changed their thinking. Wolterstorff acknowledges in the preface that he is uncomfortable with this format; he considers himself a philosopher who “deals in abstractions,” not a story-teller who deals in narratives. But Nicholas Wolterstorff has always been very skilled at (and insistent about) connecting his so-called abstractions to concrete situations – that is, at uniting theory and praxis. Indeed, he urges that other scholars develop this capacity as well (see the final chapter of Until Justice and Peace Embrace).
For the most part, that ability is very much in evidence here. In the first few chapters, Wolterstorff describes his “awakening” in the 1970s to systemic injustices endured by South Africans and Palestinians. Repeatedly, he writes of feeling that he had received a “call” from God to speak for the oppressed. As a result, his own theorizing about justice took a radically different approach than that of the dominant framework at the time (and since), John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Where Rawls described the circumstances and principles of justice in an ideal society, Wolterstorff formulated his theory by “starting from the wronged.” His principles for the distribution of rights, duties, benefits and burdens are therefore “principles for this actual world of ours, not principles for an imagined ideal world.”
Identifying this standpoint was essential to Wolterstorff, because it clarified another important distinction in his approach to justice. He notes that there are two fundamentally different ways of conceptualizing justice in the West: a “right order” conception, and an “inherent rights” conception. Those who hold to a right order view of justice believe that society is just when its institutions and members conform to an “objective standard” of fairness or correctness. Those who hold an inherent rights view believe there is an essence intrinsic to each human being – for Wolterstorff, that essence is human “dignity” – that grounds inherent rights, and that society is just when “people are treated as they have a right to be treated.” Based on his experiences, Wolterstorff argues for the inherent rights view; in the stories he heard from South Africans and Palestinians during his awakening, “they did not talk about objective standards (of justice). They spoke of how they were treated.”