Nicholas Wolterstorff on Justice, Art, Love & Human Flourishing

I am often asked who has had the greatest theological influence on me.  As far as my Theology of Justice, it’s pretty easy.  No modern thinker has had a greater impact on the foundations of my thinking in justice, shalom and the beauty of God than Nick Wolterstorff. He is one of America’s preeminent Christian thinkers and his distinctions and clarity of thought are unparalleled.   It has been a privilege to get to know and interact with him. I pray you’ll catch a glimpse of his unique and significant contribution to the conversation on justice in the interview below.

Background: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Retired in June 2002) was Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, and has taught at Yale since 1989. Previously, he taught at Calvin College, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Notre Dame and has been visiting professor at several institutions. He has received many fellowships, including ones from the NEH and the Danforth Endowment. He is past President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and serves on its publication and executive committees.

KW: What originally motivated you to begin writing on the subject of justice?

NW: It was two existential experiences that led me to begin thinking, writing, and speaking about justice. The first occurred in September, 1975. I had been sent by the college at which I was teaching, Calvin College, to a conference on Christian higher education in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Present at the conference were Afrikaners, along with some scholars of color from South Africa, quite a few Dutch scholars, and a few from North America, Asia, and other African countries. The Dutch were very well informed about apartheid and very angry; they seized every opportunity they could find to castigate the Afrikaners. After a few days of intense back and forth, the people of color from South Africa began to speak up. They told of how they were systematically demeaned by apartheid, and cried out for justice. It was that cry coming from those people that opened my eyes and ears, heart and mind, to the importance of justice.

The other experience took place a few months later, in May, 1976. I attended a conference on Palestinian rights held in one of the western suburbs of Chicago. There were about 150 Palestinians there, most of them Christian; and they too cried out for justice.

It was the cries coming from those two oppressed people, the people of color in South Africa and the Palestinians, that moved me to start thinking, speaking, and writing about justice. I tell the story of these two “awakenings” in more detail in my book, Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (Baker, 2013).

KW: What are the biggest misconceptions people seem to have about the words justice and love?

NW: One misconception that many people have about justice is that, when they hear the word “justice,” they automatically think of criminal justice. But criminal justice, important as it is, cannot be the whole of justice. Criminal justice becomes relevant when there has been a breakdown in justice, a violation of justice; it becomes relevant when someone has treated someone else unjustly. That implies that there has to be a form of justice in addition to criminal justice, a form of justice that, when it’s violated, criminal justice becomes relevant. I call that other form of justice, primary justice. Primary justice is basic. The point of criminal justice is to maintain and secure primary justice. The relation between justice and love is also commonly misconceived.

The most common misconception is that these are pitted against each other. If you act out of love, you won’t be doing what you are doing because justice requires it; if you act as you do because justice requires it, you are not acting out of love. No doubt part of what encourages this view is the identification of justice with criminal justice. But consider primary justice. I hold that Scripture clearly teaches that love is not in tension with primary justice but incorporates it. One way of expressing your love for someone is seeing to it that they are treated justly. The second of the two love commands that Jesus issued, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a quotation from Leviticus 19. If you read Leviticus 19 and take note of the context in which the command occurs, what you see is that the love command is preceded by a number of more specific commands, including commands to do justice.

The main point of my book, Justice in Love (Eerdmans, 2011), is that when justice and love are rightly understood, love is not in conflict with justice but love incorporates justice.

KW: How do you see the role of justice and proper function playing out in the development of happiness and human flourishing?

NW: What one also finds in Scripture is that justice is over and over connected with what the Old Testament writers called, in Hebrew, shalom. In most English translations of the OT, shalom is translated as “peace.” I have come to think that that is a very poor translation. Shalom is flourishing, flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to the natural world, in one’s relation to oneself. And over and over when the prophets speak of shalom, they make clear that shalom requires justice. Human flourishing requires that we treat each other justly.

KW: How do the concepts of art, beauty and goodness intersect with justice and education?

NW: Art and justice, beauty and justice, are often seen as different spheres of life having little or nothing to do with each other. That’s due, in part, to how we think of art. Most people, when they think of art, think of museum paintings and sculptures, concert hall music, and so forth. I have just finished the manuscript for a book that I call Art Rethought in which I argue for expanding our perspective on art; I talk about memorial art, about social protest art, about work songs, and so on. In all three of these, justice lies at the very heart of that form of art. That’s obviously true for social protest art. But it’s also true for memorial art. The point behind a memorial is to pay honor to someone who merits such honor; to pay honor to someone for their worth or dignity is to treat them justly. And as to work songs: what strikes one in the testimony of those who sang work songs while working, especially under oppressive conditions, is that it was an expression of their human dignity; they refused to be reduced to animals. In expressing their dignity, the singers were treating themselves justly.

These comments only touch the surface of the relation between justice on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other. In my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan there is a wonderful organization called the Inner City Christian Federation. ICCF builds and rehabs houses in the inner city. And it insists that every house it builds and rehabs be beautiful—not elaborate beauty, simple beauty. It sees that as part of doing justice to those who live in the inner city.

KW: How have you seen the conversation on justice change over the course of your teaching career?

NW: When I first began speaking and writing about justice in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I found very little interest; audiences for my lectures were invariably small. Things have changed drastically; witness 5,000 people showing up for the 2012 Justice Conference. The attitude has especially changed among young people; I had the impression that the average age of those who attended the 2011 Justice Conference was about 26. I don’t know what accounts for this change. But it has been wonderful for me to watch it happen and to be part of it. I hear some people expressing the worry that justice has become a fad among young people. I’m not sure that’s true. But if it is, I can think of worse fads!

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Categories: Justice & Culture

Theology and Culture