It’s been repeated so many times it’s become a cliché: “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.” Yet as a humanitarian proverb illustrating the difference between relief and development, it remains instructive. At the same time, it does ignore some fundamental questions. Like, Who owns the pond? Why is there a fence around it? Why are so many fish suddenly turning up dead?
Depending on the circles in which we run, these latter questions can get us into trouble. That’s because they’re unavoidably political. And many do-gooders, despite their real generosity, prefer to keep politics separate from concern for the poor. Kurt Ver Beek and Nicholas Wolterstorff think that’s a problem. They’re right.
Call for Justice: From Practice to Theory and Back is cleverly structured as an exchange of letters between Wolterstorff, a philosopher and professor emeritus at Yale, and Ver Beek, an activist-practitioner who co-founded the Honduran organization Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), as well as its North American counterpart, the Association for a More Just Society.
While leading faith-based NGOs like World Vision and Food for the Hungry are known for focusing on “teaching people to fish” – and, in dire emergency situations, “giving people fish” – ASJ is a different kind of organization. Its staff are committed to keeping a close eye on one particular “pond” (Honduras) and advocating for its cleanup.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America working with community development organizations. Relief and development is the field I know. Not surprisingly, I believe in partnering with marginalized people at the community and family level to create opportunities for a better way of life. But as Wolterstorff and Ver Beek are quick to remind us, vulnerable families and communities don’t exist in a vacuum; neither does community development. These authors convincingly argue that a well-functioning government plays a crucial role in improving the lives of those at the margins.
It’s important to note that ASJ is staffed and led almost entirely by local Hondurans who know their country well and are committed to its welfare. These are “brave Christians” (to use ASJ’s term; more on that later) whose faith not only drives them to pursue justice but informs the ways they pursue it. Whereas secular human rights groups have a tendency to take a strident, condemnatory approach to government – and while development organizations sometimes avoid politics altogether – ASJ intentionally works with government agencies to strengthen them.
This is tricky work with high stakes. It requires seeking out and building relationships with government officials who demonstrate integrity and a commitment to upholding public justice. With so much bad news out of Central America, it’s encouraging to read about these dedicated public servants who may not always make the headlines, but who are actively improving the lives of the vulnerable, sometimes at great personal cost.
Reading Call for Justice, I was struck by the messy, nuanced, and potentially deadly nature of this work. Tragically, in 2006, a lawyer named Dionisio Díaz García was assassinated on his way to court. His colleagues who carry on this work must face similar threats. Weeding out corruption is a surefire way to make enemies in high places.
In one moving passage of the book, Ver Beek writes about the period of time immediately following the murder of his friend Dionisio. He and the ASJ team tried to work out what it would mean to forgive the killer – and, even more, those responsible for hiring the hitman. Was forgiveness even possible if those responsible were hardened criminals, determined to undermine the possibility of a more just society?
Conversations about such vexing questions are where the letter-writing structure of the book pays off, despite some inevitable nonsequiturs that pop up here and there. In this and other chapters, Wolterstorff draws meaningfully on the philosophical and theological work he has done on the themes of forgiveness and justice. His reflections aren’t mere theoretical abstractions, though; he has visited Honduras on multiple occasions to see ASJ’s work for himself and now serves as a kind of goodwill ambassador. (I’m reminded of UNICEF’s celebrity roster; Wolterstorff may have less impressive dance moves than Shakira and inferior dribbling skills to Leo Messi, but is almost certainly the better conversation partner.)
If there’s one part of Call for Justice that disappoints me, it’s the unfortunate tendency I detect in the second half of the book to pit ASJ-style “justice work” against community development work more generally. It may not be intentional, but suggesting that one is more important than the other sure seems uncharitable. And it’s certainly unhelpful.
When it comes to walking with the poor, courage is just one of the relevant attributes. I think of the Mexican community development practitioners I know, whose work planting community gardens and teaching vocational skills is, by definition, grindingly slow. Patience and kindness are just two of the virtues that characterize these heroes of mine.
It’s also true that courage can take different forms. I think of the Guatemalan women I know who risk their lives every day to give children in a large urban slum not only an education but also the opportunity to dream of a life outside the gangs. As teachers and psychologists, their calling isn’t to “speak truth to power” or to overthrow unjust systems, as important (and thrilling) as those undertakings may be. Nonetheless, these too are “brave Christians.”
To return to that earlier cliché, teaching someone to fish isn’t at odds with working to ensure that the pond sustains life and is accessible to those who are hungry. Community development practitioners who work at the family and community level should be grateful for those seeking to establish more just and inclusive systems of government. And vice versa.
All told, as a call for Christians to see the strengthening of justice systems as distinctly Christian work, this book is a gift. Ver Beek and Wolterstorff have stretched my thinking about what it means to love my vulnerable neighbors, not just personally but structurally and systemically as well. And the “brave Christians” in these pages inspire me to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
This review originally appeared at the Englewood Review of Books.