I’ve learned a lot from the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. From him I was given new language to think and speak about the relationship between liturgy and justice. I was so floored by his classic When Justice and Peace Embrace that I reviewed it in not one, not two, but three installments. And I love that even as a long-time Ivy League professor now in his 70s, he continues to take an active interest in what his theories of justice actually mean in practice. This commitment become evident to me when he spent time in Honduras with the Association for a More Just Society two years ago.
His newest book is Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South, the first in the Turning South series being published by Baker Academic (I reviewed the second book in the series here). The series features a handful of top-notch Christian scholars from various fields whose academic and personal interests have shifted to the Global South.
Journey Toward Justice is a worthwhile book, but not in the way I expected. I had assumed, for one reason or another, that the book would have a lot to do with “personal encounters.” I expected to read about how Wolterstorff’s experiences in South Africa, Palestine, and Honduras—and the people he met there—had shaped his understanding of justice.
Instead, I found myself reading a book that would more accurately be considered a helpful introduction to the arguments he has made in more depth elsewhere—including his view that we must attempt to see justice from the vantage point of the wronged. But the “personal encounters” I was so looking forward to—encounters with those who could change how we see the world—unfortunately amounted to anecdotes and not much more. This was doubly ironic and disappointing, given what Wolterstorff writes near the end of the book:
To generalize from my own experience: one of the most effective ways for those involved in social justice movements to energize support for their cause is to present to the public the faces and the voices of the wronged.
It’s a great point, certainly, but one not implemented particularly well in this book. Dashed expectations aside, the book was still packed with profound insights, including some that certainly emerged outside the ivory tower. One chapter, for instance, begins with an account of a brief visit to a mission compound in rural Kenya, a place littered with buildings Wolterstorff describes as “some of the most shabby and squalid structures I have ever seen.” In his view, these buildings communicated loud and clear that “aesthetic decency doesn’t count when you’re in the business of saving souls; ugliness is okay.” Indeed, there is value in a certain kind of beauty: “not complicated elaborate beauty, but simple beauty, aesthetically decent surroundings.” On his return flight home, he became troubled:
I began to worry that my life was falling irreparably into fragments. I loved philosophy. I loved the arts. I had designed the house in which we lived; my wife and I had been collecting graphic art prints; I loved music. Through various experiences I had come to care deeply about liturgy. Now justice was on my agenda. These loves were pulling me in different directions, tearing me apart. Did they cohere in some way of which I was unaware? Or did I have to put up with living a fragmented existence?
Wolterstorff eventually realized the common denominator in these varied loves, commitments, and interests was shalom—that beautiful Hebrew word that is used in the Old Testament to signify flourishing in all aspects and all dimensions of life. “Beauty, liturgy, justice, the sort of understanding that philosophy can yield—these are fundamentally united in that each is a dimension of shalom,” he writes.
It’s insights like these that keep me coming back for more, and it’s why I consider Journey Toward Justice so worthwhile. If you’re looking for a global memoir of this philosopher’s experiences among the wronged, you’ll find yourself a bit disappointed. But if it’s an accessible introduction to Wolterstorff’s thinking on justice you’re after—with the occasional hat tip to the Global South—you’re in for a real treat.