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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Journey Toward Justice" (Nicholas Wolterstorff)

TITLE: Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity)
AUTHOR: Nicholas Wolterstorff
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (272 pages).

Called a "biographical journey" rather than an academic treatise on justice, renowned author Nicholas Wolterstorff shares about what it means to begin justice from the "perspective of the wronged" instead of a distant concept about rights. Recalling his first time in South Africa in 1975, a country in the throes of apartheid, the author was stunned about how injustice can happen so blatantly. In the Middle East, he faced the problems of the Palestinians, in particular 150 Palestinians crying out for justice. "Self-perceived benevolence" can become an "instrument of oppression." What turned the nail on its head is how Wolterstorff saw the way the oppressed responded not directly to the small injustices inflicted on them, but how they yearn for a larger form of justice. Wolterstorff coins the former as "reactive justice" while the latter as "primary justice." Reactive justice is permission given for those who have been wrongfully bullied or abused. In other words, the one wronged automatically has the "permission rights" to seek amends. This is most evident in the author's trip to Honduras where despite the laws set in place, the enforcement is sorely lacking. Primary justice on the other hand goes much farther. It is about stopping the primary injustice and undoing the effects of the injustice. The two-pronged approach of stopping primary injustice and promoting primary justice are two sides of the same coin. Wolterstorff sees a strong emphasis on primary justice for the Afrikaners and the Palestinians.

In moving toward justice, one needs to understand the concept of rights in a "normative social relationship." It is based on a particular worth of a person. It is important not because of "possessive individualism" but as a "creature of worth." Wolterstorff supports this from Scripture, arguing that the nature of human rights originates from Christianity. From the three Church Fathers, Ambrose, Basil, and Chrysostom, that we help people not because they deserve it, but because they are needy in the first place.  Let the strong help the weak. The Old Testament is full of examples about helping the poor and needy. From the Egyptian deliverance to the Prophets, God's people are urged to bring about justice for the sake of doing God's will. In the New Testament, love is explicitly the goal, as God's people seek to bring about the shalom of God.

Wolterstorff then deals with the popular topic of "human rights" observing that institutions like the United Nations do not explain what HR is. They merely give a list. The trouble is, the Human Rights documents drawn up by the UN tend to focus on the plight of the young, the disabled, and a particular human condition. In contrast, Wolterstorff seeks to expand that to include all persons regardless of conditions. This is the stand of Scriptures too. On social justice, the author provides three observations:
  1. Remember the past wrongs, that they not be repeated
  2. Use songs and chants to propagate the message of justice and hope, like singing "We shall overcome"
  3. Worship as a way to channel hope
Thankfully, Wolterstorff concludes with the topic of beauty, hope, and justice. For justice is not simply about doing primary justice or undoing primary injustice, it is about respecting people because they are made in the image of God. It is about providing people equal opportunities to live well. It is about enriching life on this earth that we can all say, "God has made all things beautiful in his time."

So What?

This is a deeply personal book for Wolterstorff, one that is soaked in philosophy and awareness of the wide variances of human rights and social justices. The journey begins with a shock witnessing of how evil humans can treat one another. It progresses toward many reflective moments about justice in particular and justice in general. With the examples from the Palestinians, the Afrikaners, and Hondurans, Wolterstorff feels that there is a lot to learn from the Southern hemisphere with regards to rights and justices. The rest of the rich world has often taken for granted the human rights as if it is a sacred right of possessive individualism. Such thinking is flawed and very unrepresentative of God's model for creation. Let me offer three thoughts.

First, I agree with Wolterstorff that rights and justice need to be better nuanced. Justice is not simply what the West has defined. Justice includes all North, South, East, and West. Far too often, Westerners have interpreted justice from a Western perspective, to the detriment of the overall good of the people group they claimed to speak up for. In a movie, "The Whistleblower," a woman forced into slavery was given a chance to speak up so that she can secure freedom for herself. Caught between the particular benefit of freedom and the general sake of the rest of the girls, she refused to testify, and despite her silence, she was eventually executed by her captors.  However, her friends survived. In Wolterstorff's framework, the woman could have exercised her "reactive justice." By doing so, it would not have prevented both reactive injustice or enabled "primary justice" for the rest of her friends. It is a tough call.

Second, we need to speak up for the oppressed in more ways than one. Context is often key. Be humble. Learn about the society and the people group we are interested to save. Work within the culture and the expertise available. One organization I recommend is IJM, (International Justice Mission). They have the local knowledge of many parts of the world in which human rights are denied. Fight injustice or promote justice appropriately within the context of each culture.

Third, beginning from the wronged is vital. Before we can fight for the oppressed in a personal way, we must learn to see it, better still, experience it with "the wronged." In other words, by beginning with the wronged, we allow empathy to shape our administration of justice matters. Otherwise, our imposition of justice on a foreign situation will become like square pegs in round holes.

This is another powerful contribution from one of the most insightful writers in this world. Justice begins with empathy; leads with integrity; and aims toward a world of beauty.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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