In September 1975, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff was sent by Calvin College, where he was teaching at the time, to participate in an academic conference at the University of Potchefstroom in South Africa. Unexpectedly, the conference, which had been convened for other purposes, became the occasion for a fierce conversation about South Africa’s apartheid—a political ideology and arrangement that allowed the country’s white minority to hijack its government to their own advantage in the provision of services and the administration of justice while oppressing and exploiting the majority of the country’s citizens. This was instituted under the guise of working toward a political order of racial and ethnic separation or apartness.
While the conversation was initiated by disagreements between the white Afrikaner academics hosting the conference and a number of their guests from the Netherlands, eventually the black South African academics present spoke up, “more in tones of hurt than of anger,” it seemed to Wolterstorff:
They described the daily indignities heaped upon them and the many ways in which they were demeaned; they spoke of being expelled from their homes and herded off into Bantustans. With great passion they cried out for justice.
In this encounter, for the first time Wolterstorff came faceto- face with those wronged by the injustices of apartheid. In and through their voices he heard a call from God to speak up for the wronged, to stand alongside them as they spoke up for themselves.
My own experience has some similarities to that of Wolterstorff. As a young South African of privilege, my theoretical interest in justice turned into active participation in the anti-apartheid movement as a result of making friends with black South Africans of my own age, in the context of a Youth for Christ club (one of the very few nonracial Christian institutions in my birth city at that time), and my face-to-face encounter with these young men and women resulted in years of both activism and scholarship, including all of my graduate work, and a life trajectory with a particular (albeit circuitous) bent toward justice.
In Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (Baker Academic, 2013), Wolterstorff tells the story of his face-to-face encounters with the wronged in South Africa, Palestine, and Honduras, testifying to how these encounters with the victims of injustice shaped his activism and scholarship. The call from God he sensed in these encounters convicted him that “fidelity to God required that I speak up for these victims of injustice in whatever way might prove appropriate.”
As one might expect of a scholar, in each case he responded to this sense of call by buying “yards of books about the situation” and its history, reading them with fervent care. He returned to the countries where he sensed God’s call numerous times to get to know people and make friends, and then began giving accounts of his experiences and observations in public talks and writings. After his formal retirement as an academic, he also turned his attention as a scholar to the questions raised by these encounters, resulting in a series of articles and books, of which the theologian Miroslav Volf is quoted on the dust jacket of Journey Toward Justice as saying, “If you have not read Wolterstorff’s great books on justice, you should. This book—accessible and profound—is the easiest place to start.”
By means of the story he tells in Journey Toward Justice, Wolterstorff demonstrates in particular how a scholar can contribute to social justice movements. As he writes:
Injustice doesn’t always leap out. Usually it leaps out to the victims, but sometimes it does not leap out to the oppressors and their defenders, nor to the public. Sometimes it does not leap out because the oppressors, their defenders, and the public have embraced an analysis of the situation that concludes that it is not a case of injustice. Sometimes it does not leap out because the situation is complex and it’s not obvious that injustice is involved; the social justice analysis and critique required to bring the injustice to light has not been done or is not widely available. Social justice analysis and critique is one of the principal contributions that scholars can make to the work of social justice movements and organizations.
For Wolterstorff, starting from the wronged means doing his analysis and critique concerning justice in the context of our all-toooften very unjust actual societies, rather than in terms of some intellectually constructed, supposedly ideal society and its institutions as has been the wont of philosophers like Plato and Rawls. It also means thinking about justice and injustice in the context of the relationships between persons and not only in terms of the distribution of rights and duties within societal institutions.
In time, starting from the wronged led Wolterstorff to come to believe that our rights are inherent in who we are, rather than bestowed on us by some external objective standard. He calls his approach an “inherent rights” approach, meaning “there is something about persons and human beings that, all by itself, gives them certain rights,” and identifies that “something” as “our worth, our dignity.”
Wolterstorff’s argument that human beings have rights because of our inherent worth, grounded in God’s love for us and God’s desire for our friendship, results in what he calls a “dignity-account” of human rights, which leads him to define a “right” as “a normative social relationship, grounded in one’s worth or dignity, and consisting of a legitimate claim to the life-good of being treated a certain way.” Our rights require of others both respect for our worth as persons and benevolent action toward the advancement of our well-being.
Interwoven with his account of encounters with the wronged and his passionate advocacy alongside them and on their behalf is Wolterstorff’s defense of rights in biblical, philosophical, and historical terms. (Wolterstorff the advocate for justice is always also Wolterstorff the analytical philosopher.) Philosophically, for example, he argues that what Joan Lockwood O’Donovan identifies as the “possessive individualism” of rights language is an abuse of the concept of rights, rather than intrinsic to that concept. Historically, he argues against Leo Strauss’s claim that rights are born of modern individualist political philosophy and against Michel Villey’s claim that they are born of Ockham’s nominalism, instead tracing the genealogy of rights concepts back through early Calvinist theologians and medieval canon lawyers to the church fathers and ultimately the Christian Scriptures.
A key consequence for Wolterstorff of starting from the wronged has been his acceptance of the Roman jurist Ulpian’s way of thinking about justice, in which “to act justly is to render to each what she has a right to, what is due her,” as opposed to Aristotle’s way, which limits justice to equality of treatment.
These ways of thinking about justice and rights—as a result of starting from the wronged—leads Wolterstorff to argue that “the God-assigned task of government is to exercise governance over the public for the purpose of curbing injustice and encouraging justice.” As a result, Wolterstorff argues that, during the apartheid years,
The government of South Africa was authorized by God to curb injustice and thereby to secure justice. It was flagrantly failing to do what God had authorized it to do. In that situation, believers pray to God that it do what it is authorized to do. If it adamantly refuses, they pray for its downfall.
And so, given that government’s flagrant failure and adamant refusal, many believers did pray. (All governments fail; not every failure calls for prayers that a government should fall. In discerning how to pray for those who govern lies perhaps the Christian citizen’s first political responsibility.) Wolterstorff quotes from a letter written by his friend, the South African theologian Allan Boesak, who writes,
“Our prayers are sometimes political. They must be, because all the world is the Lord’s, and there is no area of life, not a single inch, that is not subject to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So politics and politicians cannot consider themselves outside the demands of the gospel or outside the circle of prayer. We pray for politics, not because we feel much at home there, in that world of intrigue and compromise, of betrayal and awesome responsibility, but because even there we must assume our positions as believers. Even there we must dare to name God, to confess God within the womb of politics, and so challenge every idolatry that seeks to displace God in the lives of God’s people. And so we come together to pray for transformation, political and societal and economic; and we pray for personal transformation, for conversion, so that people might be driven by inner conviction rather than by political expediency.”
In a different context, I might have enumerated and explained the several ways in which I differ from Nicholas Wolterstorff theoretically. Instead I want to suggest that Wolterstorff offers us an example worthy of emulation as we pursue justice in this, our “world of intrigue and compromise, of betrayal and awesome responsibility.” As Wolterstorff did as a philosopher, we in our several vocations are to hear the call of God in the voices of the wronged, and stand up and speak out, alongside the wronged.
As I continue to discover, taking a stand for justice alongside the wronged does not mean that we will not find ourselves embroiled in intrigue or in need of finding compromises. It does not mean that we will not be betrayed, or even find ourselves guilty of betrayal. Faced with the awesome responsibility for seeking justice, Wolterstorff counsels hope:
Christian hope for the righting of injustice is both confident as to its ground in Christ and humble as to our ability to discern the ways in which our endeavors contribute to the coming of Christ’s rule of justice.
I write this brief response to Wolterstorff’s account of his journey toward justice from the comfort and security of my seminary office in Southern California—a state of affairs that in itself occasions humility with regard to my own ability to practice the discernment of which Wolterstorff writes. I write from where I sit; this has implications for how I take a stand. Wolterstorff’s work is a model of how even the work I undertake from this chair can be carried out in a way that starts from a face-to-face encounter with the wronged, standing together with them before the face of Christ enthroned, whose great work of bringing justice to this world and the world to come gives meaning to my own meager endeavours.