by Nicholas P. Wolterstorff
—Reviewed by Jenny Collins, associate professor of missions, Taylor University
MANY CHRISTIANS FOCUSED ON the noble work of fighting global injustice are often fueled by face-to-face encounters with the oppressed, yet some lack a complete picture of the foundational aspects of justice. Philosopher and esteemed scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff identifies crucial questions related to justice in this autobiographical tour through his thoughts and experiences. He biblically and deftly clarifies what biblical justice requires. In this first of the publisher’s series Turning South, in which Christian thought leaders reflect on how Global South engagement has changed them, the author builds on his theory of justice developed in earlier books. He adds personal narrative from travels in South Africa, the Middle East, and Honduras to bring fresh insight on the philosophical and Christian underpinnings of social justice activity.
Wolterstorff begins his rich reflections by describing the awakening encounters that stirred and formed his views. Next, he rehearses his theory of justice and the grounding of rights in human worth that are developed more thoroughly in his earlier works. He discusses how the potential abuse of rights-talk to support entitlement does not justify throwing out this fundamental moral vocabulary. He explores the sad reality that some in power use benevolence as an instrument of oppression, and unlike other philosophical traditions, he starts from the perspective of the wronged and addresses justice in a fallen, rather than ideal, society.
Next, Wolterstorff underscores how deeply justice is embedded in scripture and considers various dimensions of social justice movements and why they are fraught with difficulty. One key Old Testament theme is a priority not for those who experienced episodes of injustice, but for those whose daily or systemic condition was vulnerable to oppression—the widow, orphan, sojourner, and the poor, who are collectively described as the downtrodden. Contrary to the view that agape love supplants justice in the New Testament, Wolterstorff confirms that the significance of justice continues, though sometimes masked by English translation choices. Notable in this section are themes on Jesus’ teaching on righteousness, that shalom never falls short of justice, and that the grounding of rights in human worth finds its source in the value God bestows on humans.
Noting that a visit to Honduras brought clarity to the strategic importance of just punishment in achieving justice, Wolterstorff addresses the essential need for effective criminal justice systems. He also describes the biblical view of governmental responsibility and takes a thought-provoking look at forgiveness. He closes with an inspiring reflection on the profound connections between beauty, hope, and justice, while providing excellent support for the role of prayer and attentiveness to scripture’s redemption story in social justice movements.
This substantive book by a brilliant philosopher is attentive to scripture, philosophical foundations, and a life touched by those suffering injustice. While there may be room for minor challenges by biblical scholars, sociologists, and other philosophical traditions, that does not diminish this book’s contributions to building a grounded foundation for Christians working in justice outreach.
Check these titles:
Haugen, Gary. 2009. Good News about Injustice, Updated 10th Anniv. Edition: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books.
Keller, Timothy. 2010. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Penguin.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 118-119. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.