Wolterstorff on Love and Justice

Last week Wednesday and Thursday, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff came to Regent to give the Laing Lectures: 3 lectures, 2 days, 1 topic. The topic of his lectures was “Love and Justice.” He was basically answering the question: “Why is it that so many Protestant Christians are uncomfortable with the category of social justice, especially when ‘rights’ language is used?” Most are OK with the idea of retributive justice, and are also OK with talking about justice when it comes to family matters (e.g., abortion), but why the discomfort about social (which Wolterstorff also called “primary”) justice?

He gave some secondary answers to this question to start the lecture: this kind of justice is usually associated with liberalism, almost all social reform movements in the 20th century used “rights” language, and the popular understanding of “rights” language among these Christians is that it came from Enlightenment individualism, which is bad. But he traced the primary root of this discomfort back to the way that love (agape) has come to be understood by these Christians. The particular understanding of love known as “agapism” was exposited by Barth, Niebuhr, J.H. Yoder, Kierkegaard and others, but especially Anders Nygren. According to Wolterstorff, these men believed agape to be a love that is a form of benevolence. It wishes a person’s good, and is justice-blind and justice-indifferent. It is so strict a form of benevolence that it is not possible to love another person while at the same time seeking your own benefit. Loving someone because you have an attachment to them (they are in your family, or they live nearby) is also not agape. It has no attachments. Kierkegaard said that a recognition of duty is the only thing that can make you love agapically. Other kinds of love, like friendship love and erotic love, fail the test, because they are not done out of duty.

In the second lecture, Wolterstorff showed that “Nygrenist agape” is not an accurate interpretation of the New Testament use of the word. Nygren opposed the moral vision of the NT to the Old Testament vision of law and justice. Whereas justice has requirements, agape is spontaneous, and therefore they can’t coexist. Nygren believed this, Wolterstorff claimed, because he thought that forgiveness was paradigmatic of all of God’s actions. Since God is not required to forgive, Nygren reasoned, justice (with its ideas of requiredness) is taken completely out of the picture.

But justice still intrudes on this picture, and in the end the agapist scheme won’t work. Agape which is never motivated by justice will sometimes perpetrate injustice. An example that Wolterstorff gave was of a professor who, out of his love for a student and desire to make him less cocky, decided to give a “B” to an “A” paper. The professor was truly motivated by a desire for the student’s well being, but his agape perpetrated injustice. In an example that hits a bit closer to home, Wolterstorff said that, unlike someone who has a sense of justice, the pure agapist cannot object to torture if it is perpetrated in the name of some greater good.

Nygren interprets Jesus’ parables in defense of his thesis that we should not be disturbed if agape abets injustice: the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and the parable of the lost son. But the point of these parables, says Wolterstorff, is not that love trumps injustice, but that we need to re-think what our ideas of justice are.

In the final lecture, Wolterstorff claims, against Nygren and the agapists, that Jesus nowhere teaches that justice has been supplanted by a different idea of love in the NT. He refers to Jesus’ reading Isaiah 61, to Jesus’ response to John the Baptist asking about his identity, and Matthew’s claim that Jesus came in part to proclaim justice to the Gentiles (12:18). Wolterstorff also made a fascinating excursus into the uses of dikaios and dikaiosune in the NT. In most places they are translated “right” and “righteousness,” but Wolterstorff emphasized that they also have the meaning “just” and “justice.” So for example, in the fourth Beatitude, when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune,” it should be translated “justice.” Because who is ever persecuted for righteousness, which is after all only a personal trait? It is those who seek justice who are mocked and insulted by society.

Wolterstorff then proposes a way forward that emphasizes justice as the recognition of the worth of persons. Justice is nothing more nor less than a respect for worth, which Christians can recognize because of people being made in God’s image. Justice is not, as someone like Reinhold Niebuhr would say, merely a way of mediating conflict.

He also proposes that we re-think love: it is not only advancing the well-being of the neighbor, but honoring that neighbor’s worth (thus, love includes justice – and we need look no farther than Leviticus 19 to see the close relationship between the two).

All in all, I thought that Wolterstorff was right-on. And Iain Provan and Patti Towler, who responded to him, thought so as well. In their responses, they generally didn’t say that there was anything wrong with what he said; if anything, they said that he should take it farther (e.g., toward respecting the worth of creation because God made it). As I’ve mentioned briefly in a previous post, the idea of human rights is something that I fully endorse, but I’m skeptical of the Enlightenment individualistic reasons behind the current interest in human rights. The world needs a view of love, justice and human rights that is built on God’s relationship to human beings; if built on anything else it is built on sand.

Update (June 2, 2008): Wolterstorff’s lectures are available for purchase from Regent Audio here.


2 thoughts on “Wolterstorff on Love and Justice

  1. Love and justice is possible. i liked the idea of recognizing the self worth of people i live in inner city winnipeg and see a lot of injustice that could be changed by love. i have a Bachelors degree. im on disability due to ptsd. Even though this has nothing to do with ylourself or Nyugen i would like to be welcome to regent college. I would like to see justice that actually helps the victim. for example in cold weather people have to wait in line for an hour in -20 windchill weather to get into a shelter that opens at 9pm they have a first floor available to let them in frrom 8 to 9 they just wont. Thats an example of where love and justice are possible.

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