Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Politics and Prose
By Byron Borger
November 15, 2013
Justice Matters: Personal Encounters in the Global South Nicholas P. Wolterstorff (Baker Academic; 2013) $21.99
Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of today’s most esteemed philosophers. Raised in a conservative Dutch Reformed community in Minnesota, Wolterstorff studied and eventually taught at Calvin College in Grand Rapids and later moved to a significant chair at Yale University. Those who know the early history of the Center for Public Justice will know his name, along with those of other colleagues and public intellectuals who came of age in the heyday of what was sometimes called the reformational movement. Some of these public thinkers -- Richard Mouw, Alvin Plantinga, Mark Noll (along with Lewis Smedes, Bernard Zylstra, and Gerald Vandezande) -- are considered elder statesmen within Reformed evangelicalism today. CPJ would not be where it is without the intellectual work of these serious thinkers, and Wolterstorff is premier among them. More than any Christian philosopher of our time, he has given sustained scholarly attention to the nature of justice and has produced weighty books from prestigious publishers and many popular articles which have influenced us deeply. Wolterstorff has spoken widely at conferences and events worldwide and has served on boards and worked with organizations that advance the cause of public justice; in fact, he recently agreed to serve on CPJ’s Board of Trustees.
But why? What leads a scholar in a particular direction? What compels a young philosopher such as Wolterstorff in both his personal life and in his scholarly endeavors to engage the themes (as one of his recent books puts it) of “justice, rights and wrongs”? This is the subject of his new book Journey to Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South.
For Wolterstorff, encountering and forming friendships with those who have been seriously wronged in the global South so impacted him that he sensed God calling him to work more conscientiously in political philosophy, teasing out the meaning and nature of different theories of justice and human rights. In his book, Wolterstorff reports on his own inner journey, shaped as it has been by a few significant events. Although not a literary memoir, this book tells some stories and, in the cautious and restrained prose of a systematic philosopher, offers a glimpse into the shaping of his professional interests.
Yes, he tells us, he read Rawls’s Theory of Justice, as did many philosophers in the early 1970s. Wolterstorff’s neo-Calvinist worldview, shaped as it was by Abraham Kuyper, influenced him to care about public life for the common good. But it wasn’t until he experienced unexpected and passionate outpourings of anger and pain at a conference on higher education in South Africa in 1975 and again at a conference in Chicago in 1978 of Palestinians from the Occupied West Bank, that he actually met and listened to real people representing whole people groups who were being systematically demeaned. These emotional encounters and the subsequent friendships he developed with victims of such great injustice caused a shift in his research and writing. He bought “yards of books” and he traveled and he listened and he continued to maintain friendships with people from Africa and the Middle East, and later, peasant folk in Central America.
Journey to Justice is the first in a series of books called “Turning South,” a project from the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College which invites scholars to reflect upon the impact of the global South. With a lovely foreword written by the Institute’s director Joel Carpenter, Journey to Justice is a perfect inaugural title. Wolterstorff says that his first encounters with the oppressed awakened him from his “oblivion to justice -- my ‘slumber’ one might call it.” “Those encounters,” he continues, “have looming importance in the narrative that follows.”
The book is a great introduction to Wolterstorff’s work in political theory as he describes his various ideas in short chapters, with a touch of memoir. It is simply a must-read for CPJ friends. Wolterstorff occasionally rewrites excerpts of previous essays or sections of other more complex books, constructing brief chapters that are careful, systematic, thoughtful, and often moving. Richard Mouw says it is “not only a fine primer in the basics of Christian political thought, it is an inspiring testimony about what it means to seek the shalom that God intends for creation, narrated in firsthand accounts with the realities of human suffering.” Miroslav Volf urges, “If you have not read Wolterstorff’s great books on justice, you should. This book -- accessible and profound -- is the easiest place to start.”
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”