Justice and Love: An Examination of Why They Are (Unfairly) Dissociated
Why are justice and love always dissociated from one another? Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests they are consistent.
There are common misunderstandings about the ways in which love and justice might be in tension or opposed.
And you’ve done lots of work in recent years to uncover really not just an absence of tension, but really a very deep conceptual interconnection between justice and love.
And so where do you start when you try to explain what it is to understand justice as consistent and a very important part of love?
So in my own thinking, I started [chuckles] with the, well I mean I was aware of the common theme of tension.
And when I read around it became clear to me why there was thought to be tension. Justice was understood a certain way, we can talk about that. But more important probably is the love that Jesus commands, agape, has typically, not invariably, but typically been understood as sheer gratuitous benevolence. Paying no attention to what the other person needs or requires or what justice requires, but just spontaneous, free benevolence.
A bestowal, free bestowal.
Just a sort of abundant giving.
As opposed to a response.
And so, right.
And if that’s how you think of the love that Jesus commanded, it’s not all that hard to think of examples in which sheer benevolence produces injustice. Recent, about two weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about an example of the very point in his church. It’s an inner city church smallish inner city church. And for the preceding two Thanksgivings they had distributed food in this rather poor neighborhood. Thanksgiving food baskets.
And then after they’d done that a second year, the owner of a 7-Eleven store in the neighborhood came to them and said he was barely able to keep his business going. He depended heavily on large purchases the week before Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas. And now in these past two years, he’d had almost no customers before Thanksgiving because the church was giving out all these Thanksgiving food baskets. So that was a case of the church wasn’t aware of this, it was doing it unwittingly, and it was–
Out of benevolence.
Out of benevolence and charity and so forth. But it was in fact wronging this neighborhood 7-Eleven owner.
So the church immediately, once they heard about this, they wonderfully said we hadn’t known about this, but next year we’ll buy as much food as possible from your store.
And distribute it. So it struck me as almost a paradigmatic example of benevolence, in this case unwittingly perpetrating injustice.
And a creative solution.
Yeah, and they had a solution. [laughs]
Especially in light of the great good that they were doing to everyone else in that community.
Yeah. And also treat the store owner with. [laughs]
Evan: That’s right.
So anyway, I guess from the very beginning of my thinking about these issues, Evan, it felt to me not right to think of justice and agapic love as pitted against each other in this way. In spite of, I mean I was aware of the long tradition of thinking of them as in tension with each other. But something in my gut. [laughs]
Led me to think this can’t be right. I think part of it was maybe this. A lot of people who read their Bibles in English and that [laughs] includes you and me.
Discover that the word justice occurs seldom in the English translations of the New Testament.
And the word love occurs very often.
So it’s very easy to think that Christianity is all about love. And that the word justice occurs often in the English translations of the Old Testament.
So it’s very tempting to think that justice is Old Testament stuff and love is New Testament stuff.
Yeah, it’s a real common gloss just to say.
That the New Testament.
Yep. Is a testament of love and the Old Testament.
Is a testament of justice.
So part of what’s going on here is [laughs] there’s a Greek word, dikaios, which, D-I-K-A-I-O-S. When I was a college student, I studied classical Greek first, and we read Plato’s Republic. Plato’s Republic is all about dikaios.
And my memory is it’s we’ve just taught to translate it as justice. The Republic is about justice.
Then my third or fourth college year, I took New Testament Greek. I found the same Greek word dikaios occurring all over the place in the New Testament. And it was translated as righteousness. So at the time I wondered, well that dikaios in Plato is justice and dikaios in the New Testament is righteousness. So I asked my professor, and he didn’t give me much of an answer, just said, “Well, yeah, it means righteousness.” I’ve come to doubt that very much.
Sometimes in the New Testament, dikaios means righteousness, I do concede. But often it does not. Here’s one example. In the Beatitudes, the eighth Beatitude in Matthew is blessed are those who were persecuted for the sake of dikaiosune. Every English translation that I know of translates it as blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
Now righteousness is a character trait, right, justice is a social relationship. So I put my head to that, and asked myself how many upright people, upright people, do I know of who are persecuted? Upright people are typically either ignored or admired. But they’re not persecuted.
It’s the people who struggle for justice who get under other people’s skin. And stir up anger, murdered and so forth. I’m a supporter of, an admirer of an organization in Honduras, Association for a More Just Society, AJS. And works hard at justice, and three years ago, one of their lead lawyers was assassinated at point blank range on a street in Tegucigalpa.
Evan: Mm-hmm. They stir up anger.
They become a threat to the oppressor.
So I think the eighth Beatitude should be translated as blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.
Mm-hmm, it’s an evocative translation. [Nicholas laughs] That’s good.
I could give other examples.
Well, I mean one other example. Evangelicals, when they read the book of Romans, typically leap into the middle of the second chapter where Paul starts talking about justification. Sort of ignore what precedes that. But in 1:17, Paul states the theme of the book. And he says the theme of the book is the dikaiosune of God. Here we go again, every English translation that I know of translates that as the righteousness of God.
But then you read along and you find that what Paul says many times over in the book is that God treats Jews and Gentiles with no partiality. The phrase no partiality occurs six times in the book of Romans.
So that’s the theme.
Now that no partiality seems to me God treats Jews and Gentiles justly, equitably, it’s not the righteousness of God, it’s the justice of God.
That is a theme of Romans.
Continue the conversation with this discussion with Professor Wolterstorff.