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I Understand
Volume 1.1 / Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South

Book Review

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Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South

Book Author: Wolterstorff, Nicholas
Publisher: Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. ii + 272 pp. $21.99.
Reviewed by Matthew W. Manry

In a Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff leads us on a journey through some of his personal encounters with injustice. Wolterstorff has written extensively on the topic of justice before, and there is no doubt that this book should be seen as a continuation of his thoughts on justice and injustice, and why Christians should specifically care about people being wronged in the world. Since this book is divided up into six parts, I will be evaluating each section with a concise paragraph that assesses the main ideas and points.

In part 1, Wolterstorff explicitly talks about his awakening to the needs of those in the global south. Two encounters, with the Afrikaners of South Africa and the Palestinians of the Middle East, led to Wolterstorff’s great awakening. What is really interesting about this section is Wolterstorff’s discussion of the difference between primary justice and reactive justice (22). By analyzing some of the work of the great moral philosopher John Rawls, Wolterstorff explains how many philosophers have talked about justice from the standpoint of what justice would be like in an ideal society (28). However, Wolterstorff makes it clear that he is not following this tradition because he is going to be starting from the viewpoint of those whom have been wronged. Wolterstorff goes on to discuss how he is going to operate from an inherent rights position because it is a theory that operates from the “bottom-up” (33). From the outset, it is clear that Wolterstorff is interested in conducting a dialogue about what justice and rights look like.

In part 2, Wolterstorff spends time discussing what rights are. He explains why there are lot of objections usually posed against talking about rights, and determines that the main reason for this is because of the mentality of possessive individualism (38). Rights-talk usually focuses on the individual and there is no doubt that this can lead to the promotion of the haughty self (39). However, according to Wolterstorff, “rights are grounded in the worth, the value, the dignity of humans beings” (47). Therefore, the language of rights enables human beings to call attention to the wrongs wreaked by paternalistic benevolence (50). This is why discussing rights is so important. Wolterstorff sees the importance of rights-talk and he definitely thinks that it is necessary to to have discussions about rights because of the importance that this type of speech brings.

This leads us to part 3. In this section, Wolterstorff discusses justice and Scripture. He spends a majority of the time interacting with what the Old and New Testament say in regards to justice in this section. Wolterstorff believes that the theological background of the Old Testament is that God loves justice and hates injustice (71). He goes on to explain that the Old Testament writers specifically focus on explaining why God’s people should seek justice for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens (76). It is clear that justice is a central topic in the Old Testament. Wolterstorff then discusses the idea that justice is supplanted in the New Testament. It is clear that Wolterstorff opposes this view and explains that “agapic love displayed and enjoined by Jesus does not incorporate or supplement justice; it supersedes it” (82). With these facts in mind, Wolterstorff begins to explain all of the texts in the New Testament that deal with justice. One of the most interesting chapters in the book is chapter fifteen where Wolterstorff explains why the English translation of the New Testament makes one think that justice is not a prominent theme. This is somewhat misleading though. It seems that most dik-stem words in the New Testament are translated as “righteous” rather than “just” (92). This obviously shows the importance of understanding Biblical Greek. Section 3 ends with a discussion on the fact that Scripture assumes that we have natural obligations toward our fellows (121). What this demonstrates is that Scripture and Wolterstorff’s inherent rights conception of justice can work together.

In section 4, Wolterstorff discusses the importance of righting injustice. Six days in South Africa helped to open the eyes of Wolterstorff even more to the importance of standing against injustice. One of the most interesting chapters in this section is chapter 22. This chapter specifically focuses on how art can play an important role in rights movements. Wolterstorff notes that: “Singing and chanting played a huge role in the ant-apartheid movement and in the U.S. civil rights movement” (155). After discussing the role that art can play in a justice movement, Wolterstorff focuses on discussing how actually seeing the faces and hearing the voices provoked him to want to get involved in social justice movements (157). These factors are what encouraged him to show empathy, instead of indifference.

In section 5, Wolterstorff discusses how justice in all its forms is impossible when fear and distrust are prevalent (185). Wolterstorff also spends some time discussing the apostle Paul’s rejection of retributive punishment. Wolterstorff says: “I see no way of interpreting what Jesus and Paul say other than as a rejection of retributive punishment. Retribution consists of repaying evil with evil, redressing harm with harm. Jesus and Paul reject retribution” (197). However, Wolterstorff points out that just because retribution is out of the picture does not mean that just punishment is out as well. This is important to note. A part of the task of a government is to assign punishment to those who are involved in wrongdoing. This is obviously done with the purpose of curbing injustice (199). Wolterstorff concludes this section by noting that if a government fails to provide security for their people, then the people have a right to pray for its downfall (207). Obviously, this is a very bold, but right statement to make.

In section 6, Wolterstorff concludes his book by discussing beauty, hope, and justice. These chapters focus on the importance of continually trying to seek justice even when situations might seem hopeless. Wolterstorff notes that a Christian must always hope for two things. They must hope for redemption and they must hope for consummation (232). In light of these two great hopes, Wolterstorff exhorts Christians to continue to seek justice in the places in which it is marginalized throughout the world.

There is no doubt that a Journey Toward Justice should open the eyes of many to the need of seeking justice. One of the most unique facts about this book is the fact that Wolterstorff seeks to derive a theory of justice that starts with those who have been wronged. Many readers will notice that Wolterstorff is offering us a rare take on the theory of justice, and for this we should be thankful. Overall, I believe that this book is a very needed book that will open the eyes of readers to the importance of thinking rightly about justice. We live in a world where Christians must not turn a blind eye, but rather seek out the places where injustice is taking place, and proclaim the message of liberation that is found in Christ Jesus. I would highly recommend this book to theologians, pastors, missionaries, and lay-leaders in the church.


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