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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Loving Justice with Nicholas Wolterstorff (Full Interview)

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
May 20, 2017

Evan Rosa interviews Nicholas Wolterstorff breaks down his views on love and justice, how they interact in the context of Jesus’ love commands and ethical teaching, and the meaning of shalom.


Nick, thank you so much for joining me today.

You’re welcome, Evan, happy to do it.

You’ve taught philosophy and theology for over half a century. You’ve witnessed massive social change. Times of upheaval, times of progress. I just wonder, from your perspective today, what is the current moral landscape look like to you?

Yeah, you’re right I have lived through big changes. I lived through the civil rights struggle, through the Vietnam War, through the chaos that accompanied the Vietnam War and to some extent accompanied the civil rights movement and so forth. As to the landscape now.

There was, I thought, an insightful column by David Brooks in the New York Times about three weeks ago. In which Brooks commented on what he called the decline of democratic culture. And what he meant by that was that a democracy depends, a democracy like ours depends on people of different parties, persuasions at some point in the process getting together, working out accommodations, compromises that neither party is entirely happy with but that neither party is entirely unhappy with either. So it’s not winner take all.

Brooks observed, and that seems to me correct, that’s been breaking down for the past 30 years and I fear that we’re becoming more like Iraq. I mean Iraq they have a democracy in the sense that they have votes but it’s been the Shiites take all, or the Sunnis take all. And they haven’t been willing to compromise. And I think that’s been going on in the US for the, increasingly so in the US for the past 30 years.

Yeah, some studies show a deepening, and entrenching of left versus right. That 30, 40 years ago we were overall as a whole more moderate and able to find more common ground.

Yeah, and it’d be okay, if one had a vigorous left and a vigorous right. If the two parties acknowledge that at some point in the process they’ve got to get together and workout, as I say, some accommodations, some compromise that both of them are fairly happy with and both of them are not entirely happy with.

So there’s this growing incivility and extremism around our public discourse.


How have you seen that worked out in specific moral issues that you think the church should be careful for?

Yeah, so a feature of this, well there are many signs of this. Not only inability or unwillingness I suppose the word is, to accommodate to compromise but also the incivility of language. The willingness to just demean the people in the other party.

And evangelicals who are, people who claim themselves to be evangelicals who are running for political office seem perfectly happy to cooperate in this. And Evan, I don’t understand it. When I read the New Testament, the first letter of Peter, honor everybody.

Evan: Honor everyone, yeah.

Paul in the Romans 13, honor the authorities. So this seems for a lot of Christians today to have no purchase anymore. So I think the church has become complicit in this breakdown of moral culture. I mean the church will often talk accusingly. It’s those atheists or those leftists or whatever but they’re complicit in it.

And once we lose the ability to communicate about things about which we disagree we begin to isolate ourselves. We begin to stop the effort for progress or moral progress. Finding ways to introduce policy that does honor human dignity.

Exactly, when you no longer listen to what the other party is saying, so you don’t learn anything from the other party. It’s entirely internal and you think purely in terms of force and winning. As I said, that’s like Iraq.

The gospel, you say, is meant to guide humanity in the pursuit of shalom.


But you think shalom is more than just what you might translate as peace, or the absence of violence or strife. Can you say a little bit about how you understand this gospel pursuit of shalom?

So there’s a strong streak in evangelicalism which sees the Christian gospel as a message for how to get to heaven. And you believe in Jesus and by in large you don’t break contracts and things like that.

Have the right view of the atonement.

Have the right view of the atonement, have the right theology on it. Few-Koo-Shalism, believe that the Bible is infallible and things like that. Getting to heaven. I find it inescapable to see the Christian message as about, well getting to heaven, but about life in this world. And a key concept in that has come to be for me the Hebrew concept, a concept in the Hebrew Bible the Hebrew word shalom.

Which carries over into the New Testament. Shalom is most biblical translations, English translations. Translated as peace. There was in the second century before Christ a Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek translators used the Greek word [speaking in foreign language] to translate shalom and [speaking in foreign language] then also goes into the New Testament where it’s translated as peace. So running throughout. Shalom, [speaking in foreign language] is peace. It’s come to seem to me, Evan, that peace is, the English word peace is a very weak translation of, not only weak but misleading.

Yes shalom involves no hostility. It involves peace in that sense. But it’s so much more than that. I think of it like this. It’s going right in all one’s relationships and taking joy in those relationships. So being rightly related to God and taking joy in that relationship. Be rightly related to one’s fellow human beings and taking joy in that relationship. Being rightly related to the natural world and finding joy in it.

And one’s got to include one’s self. Being rightly related to one’s self. Because one can be wrongly related to one’s self, of course. And finding joy in that. There are people who find themselves unpleasant or are depressed and so forth. And that’s an absence of shalom. So shalom, if I were translating, if I were a translator I think I would use the English word flourishing. I think that’s the closest we get in English to shalom. As flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence. It incorporates justice, but it goes beyond justice to finding delight.

One of the foremost features, if not the core driving feature of Christian ethics appears to come from Jesus’ commands to love. Love God, love your neighbor. How do you understand these greatest of commandments in the summing up of the law and the prophets as Jesus says, as connected to that kind of shalom as flourishing.

Yeah, right. So for all Christians say, well so a hostile interrogator comes to Jesus. We parted in all three of synoptic gospels and says master, what is the greatest commandment in the Torah? And no doubt they expect Jesus to give an unacceptable answer and then they can say, got you. That’s not the greatest commandment.

What Jesus does is he quotes two passages from the Torah. One from Leviticus, love your neighbor as yourself and one from Deuteronomy, love God above all. Quotes those two. And then the interrogators, well they don’t actually say yes but they concede, yeah okay. [laughing]

Give us a minute.

So the question is, okay so the Greek word, the word in the Greek New Testament is agape, that Jesus’ used, agape. So the question is, how we translate that. It’s customarily incorrectly translated as love. But love, the English word love has lots of different meanings. It can mean love your cat. You’re attached to it.

You love a certain novel. You are just drawn to it and so forth. So the question is what love means here. And I’ve come to think it means, I’ve come to think the closest English word is to care about your neighbor but, as you were suggesting, that the goal is shalom. That one will interact with one’s neighbors in such a way that the shalom of them and the community is enhanced. That’s the content of it.

But how do you define love?

So if we think of love as care, not attraction, not attachment, and not friendship, but caring about. And I think of such caring about is aimed at shalom and as having two fundamental dimensions. To care about your neighbor is to seek to enhance how your neighbor’s life is going. That they will flourish in their life. But also I’ve come to think that it includes the dimension of seeing to it that one honors the neighbor.

That one pays the neighbor respect for, the due respect for the neighbor’s worth. So both that their life goods be enhanced but also that they not be demeaned, not treated with disrespect. And let’s face it, it’s possible in paternalistic situations, for example. For the paternalist, the parent to the children or whatever, for the paternalist to say and say sincerely that they’re advancing, they’re really doing it for the other person’s good.

But they’re just demeaning the person. They’re just paying no attention to their worth. But it’s yeah, okay. They’re in some sense living better. That’s not caring about. That’s not what Jesus had in mind by love. That’s not seeking the shalom of the neighbor. The shalom includes being treated with appropriate dignity. Appropriate respect.

And do you make a distinction between divine love and human love?

So in Matthew Jesus says in answer to the question as to what’s the essence of the Torah. First gives the first command, love God above all. And then Jesus says, a second like onto it. And it seems to me the clear implication of that is that in some fundamental way these are, well, alike.

That loving your neighbor and loving God are in some fundamental way alike. Now there have been a lot of people who have interpreted the second command, neighbor love, in such a way that couldn’t possibly be the same thing as loving God. Benevolence. If you can treat your neighbor with benevolence. But can you treat God with benevolence?

So in my thinking about it one of the considerations that I’ve tried to achieve is that love and the two commands be understood in the same way. And it seems to me that we can care about God. Hallowed be your name. And what underlies that is that it’s possible that God’s name not be hallowed. That it can be used abusively and so forth. That God can be wronged. So I think that we, agape, takes the same fundamental form in both cases, it’s caring about. Now it may sound a little bit odd to say that one can care about God.

But once you think that God’s name may not be hallowed, may not be honored and so forth. Psalm 103 speaks of the glory of the praise that is due God. When we refrain from giving the praise that is due God, we wrong God. So in my view it’s two manifestations of the same phenomena, the same understanding of love.

When I hear you talk about love and the ethics of love, I often hear words like honor and respect.


As going hand in hand. I wonder if you’d speak to that connection. What does respect have to do with love?

So what has been formative for me here is one day, well so one day I was looking at a study Bible and looking at these three commands and then the study Bible referred me to Leviticus. I had not realized until 10 years ago, whatever, maybe 12 years ago that when Jesus gives the two love commandments he’s quoting.

I had just always assumed that he was just capturing the essence. But there in the footnote it says, Leviticus 19 verse 18. So I go to Leviticus 19 verse 18. And there I read, love your neighbor as yourself. But what I discover is that this comes at the conclusion of, you know I’ve never actually counted them, but a long list of you shalls and you shall nots. Let’s just say 59 of them, it covers about three chapters.

A great many.

You shall reprove your neighbor when your neighbor does wrong. You should treat your neighbor justly. You shall not render unjust judgements and so forth. And so I thought, well there’s this long tradition of conflict, of supposed tension between love and justice. And lo and behold when we look at Leviticus, at the passage that Jesus is actually quoting from we see that examples of doing justice are cited as examples of loving your neighbor. So that was for me a revelatory experience.

And I should have, I felt, what an idiot I’ve been all these years. I should have known this long ago. But, it turns out that very few Christian ethicists to my astonishment, take note of the fact that the second love command is a quotation from Leviticus 19. And why that should be, once you look there, and you see that justice is an example of doing love, then in the long tradition of pitting justice and love against each other has to go.

Yeah, so using Jesus’ interpretation of really the entire Old Testament law, you’re suggesting that those love commands, that the command to love God and love neighbor come first in priority and then all those other commands really are expressions of those two commands.

Right. So I think that Leviticus 19:18 where you read love your neighbor as yourself and then the three chapters of detailed you shall, you shall not. I think we have to read all of those. You know I haven’t actually counted them but let’s say 59 of them. And then in effect you have to read it like this. In short, you know these. In short, as in sum, love your neighbor as yourself. That’s how I.

I mean what’s going on here, Evan, is so I’ve read and everybody reads this command as it occurs in the New Testament, love your neighbor as yourself. It’s basically got no context there. Which will enable you to interpret as to what’s meant by love. So my principle has been, well in Leviticus and Deuteronomy it does have context. Context doesn’t always help you to interpret but it often does. And in this case it seems to me it clearly helps to interpret. And it seems to me that Jesus and his interlocutors would have had that context in their mind.

Yeah, and this is to now draw the connection back to shalom as well because insofar as those commands helped to secure shalom in a community and in a, you know.

That’s in effect how Moses introduces this long series of commands for the.

How to live together.

For the, yeah Israel, for the shalom of the community and all of Israel. Now be at those.

Yeah, misunderstandings about the ways in which love and justice might be intentioned 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 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 it 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.

Nick: A bestowal, free bestowal.

Just a sort of abundant giving as opposed to a response.

Yeah, and if that’s how you think of the love the 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 that struck me as almost a paradigmatic example of benevolence, in this case unwittingly perpetrating injustice.

And a creative solution.

Nick: Yeah, and they had a solution.

Especially in light of the great good that they were doing to everyone else in that community.

Yeah, then that also treats the store owner with.

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 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 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 the word justice occurs often in the English translations of the Old Testament.

That’s right.

So it’s very tempting to think that justice is Old Testament stuff and love is New Testament stuff.

It’s a real common gloss just to say that the New Testament is a testament of love and the Old Testament is a testament of justice or wrath, yeah.

So part of what’s going on here is. 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 were 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, you know, 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. He 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 are persecuted for the sake of dikaios. Every English translation that I know translates it as, blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

Now righteousness is a character trait, right. And justice is a social relationship. How many, 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 you know, stir up anger. Murdered and so forth.

I’m a supporter of and admirer of an organization in Honduras, Association for a More Just Society. AJS works hard at justice. And three years ago one of their lead lawyers was assassinated at point blank range on a street in Tegucigalpa. They stir up anger.

They become a threat to the oppressor.

Yeah. So I think the eighth Beatitude should be translated as blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.

That’s an evocative translation. 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 [speaking in foreign language] 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 the theme of Romans.

Yeah, when you get into a more personal interaction with justice, you’ve written about the importance of starting with an observation.


Of injustice, of oppression, of cruelty, of maybe of horrors. Where the appropriate Christian response is to stand as witness to that injustice. Can you describe that as a starting point for seeking justice and for just for living into Christian love in response to.

Yeah, so I’ve been generalizing from my own experience. An experience in South Africa which awakened me to the issue of justice. So called blacks and coloreds describing their oppressive situation and crying out for justice. That really awakened me. If you had asked me before that episode does the Bible speak about justice I would, of course, said yes.

Did I think justice was important? I would, of course, said yes. It was seeing those faces and hearing those voices cry out for justice. That awakened me and energized me. And so I think that’s true for most human beings. I can see that some human beings might pursue justice issues out of a sense of duty. Some might pursue it because they think that’s what virtuous people do. Fair enough, I don’t doubt that.

But I think usually people have to become emotionally engaged. They have to feel empathy for these oppressed, suffering people. Or alternatively, anger at those who are doing the oppressing. But either empathy with the victims or anger at the victimizers. I think that for most of us in the absence of such emotional engagement we don’t do much. So in my case it was actually meeting these people, hearing them, listening to them. Films can also do it. We’ve got testimony that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did it for a lot of people in mid 19th century.

Slavery was depicted, the horrors of slavery were depicted so vividly that we’ve got testimony of people crying, breaking down in tears and so forth. But, so there again what Harriet Beecher Stowe was doing was evoking, well evoking both empathy and anger. Anger is at Simon Legree and empathy with Uncle Tom. So that’s my view. That there has to be, for most people, emotional engagement.

Emotional engagement, and the start is just witnessing or becoming aware of what’s happening.

Nick: Yup.

We live in a curious time where we can be exposed to world injustices everyday in our social media feeds. It’s something like an information overload for people where.

Nick: That also happens.

Where the awareness. Some people simply stop that awareness and don’t reach an emotional point that brings them to do something about it. That allows them to then respond.


What do you think we can do to foster these kinds of healthy emotions? Empathy for the victim and anger at the oppressor.

So I think journalism doesn’t typically evoke the empathy or the anger, it informs you.

Evan: It’s factual.

But it doesn’t really evoke it. It’s got to be a lengthy, well fairly lengthy film or novel, or actually seeing the faces and voices. Furthermore even if you, even if it does evoke empathy and or anger there’s a factor of overload. People feel empathy with so many different, with the people in so many different situations that they just feel helpless. So a sense of helplessness.

Someone’s got to help those people and say, I say to them, wait you know you don’t have to do it all. Take one cause, just one. Whichever one touches you especially. It might be close to home, it might not be close to home. But you can’t do it all, so. Immobilized hand wringing is not uncommon response.

Well who is my neighbor? Who counts as my neighbor? Is it just the guy next door? Who’s a little loud sometimes. Or does it include people who are hopeless in countries far away from me? But about which I could change their situation. I could do something to improve their lives. Who is my neighbor?

So let me tell you a true story about, a true story. In 1956 my wife and I went to England. I had, at the end of grad school I had a paid fellowship which didn’t involve much in the way of work. So we went to England. We decided to go to Cambridge. I had graduated from Harvard. All the other young philosophers from the US who were going to England were going to Oxford. That was for me a reason for not going to Oxford.

I didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing in Cambridge. So we went to Cambridge. Looked for an apartment, found an apartment in an old Victorian house, Miss Ansel. We, our apartment was on the second floor. There was another apartment on the second floor in which a young Israeli couple lived.

This was at the time of the Hungarian invasion by the Russians. So Miss Ansel was, well I never knew whether she was a spinster or a widow. Anyway, she was single. I suppose she was 60, 55, 60. So she spent all day, everyday in a drawing room right off the front door. Writing letters to world figures to get them to do something to stop the Russians from invading Hungary. And she told me, she wrote to the British Prime Minister and offered to lay her own body across the tracks between Hungary and Russia. Provided the British government would pay for her way there and in case she was not run over, pay for her way back.


So I was standing at the door one day and the Israeli, oh in the back of her house was orchard, a sizable orchard. This was in the fall and the apples were dropping. The Israeli couple was there and the Israeli couple asked, may we pick the fallen apples? She sat straight upright and said tartly, the garden is off limit to renters. So this is my best example of cheap liberalism. Oozing empathy for the Hungarians and utterly oblivious. So who’s her neighbor? Her first neighbor, her prior neighbor is the Israeli couple.

She should pay attention to them first of all. If she’s got time and energy left over, okay write letters about the Hungarians and so forth. But this poor, well it was clear to us that this Israeli couple was very poor. No, the garden’s off limit to renters. So the apples are falling, rotting. But she’s bleeding about. There’s a character in Dickens, Bleak House, I guess, Mrs. Jellyby who was very much like Miss Ansel. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to a mission in Africa. The poor Africans. Neglects her own children. They’re running around hungry, half clothed and so forth. So I think of it like this. I met a real Mrs. Jellyby and her name was Miss Ansel. [chortle]

What would you say, and with all respect that Miss Ansel is due. What would you say is the short coming? If we were to expect that kind of character of a Christian? What can we do to avoid these kinds of things? How can we put ourselves in a position to develop a loving character that does attend to those around us and think rightly, think appropriately about how we spend our time, our resources, our energy?

So I think we have to give priority to the nearest neighbors, family. In this case the people who living in your own house.

Proximity matters.

Nick: What’s that?

You’re saying that proximity matters?

Yeah, so proximity matters, yeah. And then expand out from that. And there’s nothing wrong with supporting a mission in far South Africa. But first of all Mrs. Jellyby had a responsibility to her children. And Miss Ansel had a responsibility to her renters. So circles of responsibility, I think of it.

How do you think about enemy love? In light of your views on justice and it’s connection and consistency with love?

So Jesus is truly radical. And my interpretation of what’s going on in the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus is repudiating what I call the reciprocity code which was clearly common in ancient Israel but it was also common in ancient Greek society and so forth. And the reciprocity code says you return favors with favors and you return harms with harms.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth.

Yup. Jesus’ attitude towards the positive side of the reciprocity code, return favors with favors as I read it, is a sort of, yeah not bad. No big deal. He observes that Gentiles do that too. And then when we look further at some of his actions later, what he’s in effect saying.

Yeah, return favors with favors but by in large, but don’t confine your dinner parties to guests who can return it. He tells the story about the dinner party and so forth. Concerning the negative side of the reciprocity code, Jesus and then later Paul in Romans, flatly rejects it. Do not return harm with harm. Return harm with good.

Turn the other cheek.

Nick: What’s that?

Turn the other cheek.

Turn the other cheek. And that implies then that you extend love even to the neighbor who’s harming you. So that’s truly extraordinary. So one, even the person who’s got it in for you, we have to concern ourselves with the shalom of that person insofar as we can.

So you think that retribution, the idea of sort of seeking retributive justice where we just try to repay wrongs with wrongs, that’s deeply at odds with a Christian.

Yeah, so I’ve come to think that retribution, understood as payback, returning harms with harms. Of getting even and so forth. I think what Jesus says implies that retribution is out. And Paul in Romans 12 explicitly says, do not repay evil harm with harm. Now of course retribution, the idea of retribution and the practice of retribution are deep in human society. I’ve come to think by talking to friends and so forth, who are active in prisons, that the American prison system is just currently built on the idea of retribution. Getting even, they’ve got it coming to them and so forth. Jesus as I read him says, simply forbids. Do not payback.

So an obvious question is, wow does that mean that punishment is out? Hard treatment. And it seems to me clear that the answer to that is no. And here I once again go back to Leviticus 19. One of those detailed injunctions that comes before love your neighbor as yourself. If your neighbor does wrong, reprove your neighbor. Now that’s really interesting. What Leviticus is in effect saying is you are responsible, partly responsible, for the moral health of your neighbor. If you just let him do whatever he wants to do, don’t reprove him.

You’re responsible for his moral decrepitude or decline, or whatever. So if a parent. Oh, I’m thinking of the news story about the 17 year old who pleaded in Texas, affluenza? Who argued that, who, let’s see. Killed somebody because he was driving drunk and his plea was, his parents were very wealthy, had never given him any moral guidance. I’m astonished that the court would even give a hearing to this sort of plea.

But I also can hardly believe that he really had no sense of right and wrong. But there, let’s take it that he’s speaking truth. His parents never gave him any moral guidance whatsoever. That’s to profoundly wrong that young kid. So I think if punishment, when punishment is understood as reproof, not getting even, paying back and so forth, but reproof. That’s how punishment should be understood. And then when people look a little bit dazed as to, I say but look that’s how parents understand, unless there’s something terribly sick in the relationship between parents and children.

That’s how parents understand what they’re doing when they punish their children. They don’t think of themselves as paying back. But they’re, Johnny, you did something wrong and it’s important for me, for your moral character that I reprove you.

It’s to suggest that this kind of reproof is a form of discipline or formation.

Nick: Yes.

Yet without the punitive aspect.


Without the punishment, without getting back.

Nick: Without getting back.

Getting even.

You might want to call it punishment in some cases. But it’s not retribution. It’s not payback, yup. I think that’s what Jesus says and Paul says the same thing in Romans 12.

And you write in Justice in Love, if redressing injury has any place at all in the moral order, God will do it.

Nick: Yes.

Leave it to God.

Paul says, if there’s to be vengeance, leave it to God.

Can we go too easy on certain enemies? Can we go too easy on certain people who are doing such great injustice that all sorts of innocents?

So an organization that has really inspired me is, an organization in Honduras, Association for a More Just Society. Run almost entirely by local Hondurans. And it really is a justice organization rather than a relief or development organization.

And what ASJ does is, well two things. It stands beside victims of crime. And it does what it can to hold the government responsible. So there’s corruption. I learned that there are two pervasive reasons for injustice in Honduras. One is corruption, of course. But the other is the lack of trust. Ordinary people don’t trust the police. They fear that if they report a crime to the police the police who know the victimizers, the wrong doers, will tell the victimizers and they’ll get back at them and so forth.

The police don’t, the prosecutors don’t trust the police, the police don’t trust the prosecutors. And you know this is eye opening for me. It seems obvious, but where I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan there’s general trust. If I’ve discovered that my house was burglarized I’d call the cops. I’m well aware of the fact now there are probably areas in Chicago such that if I were a black person who lived in those areas I would not call the cops. But in my part of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, I’d call the cops.

So I should have known it anyway. But it became obvious to me that trust, trust, there cannot be justice in the absence of trust. Now in that situation, so ASJ stands behind the victims, tries to get the government to pursue the victimizers and so forth. Your question is, can it at the same time and how, show love for the victimizers?

Evan: Yeah.


For instance the right emotion. So the right emotion for the victimizer, the oppressor, is anger.

Nick: Yes.

Is anger a form of love?

Yeah, it can be. So hard treatment can be reproof. So that’s one way in which you can love the–

Tough love.

Tough love, yes. Would prefer that, the person would prefer that it not be tough. But sometimes love has to be tough. So it seems to me it’s possible and in such situations both to take care of the young girl who’s been raped or the fruit peddler who’s been shot in the head and so forth. But also, those who perpetrate it.

I want to close, asking what you make of this very beautiful New Testament phrase that perfect love casts out fear. One way to understand just the proliferation of injustice is that there is a deeply held fear in both the oppressors and the oppressed. But that were we to inject love, a love that understands justice and seeks justice then that fear might be cast out and we might come closer to one another.

So that’s very interesting. The motto, or a motto of ASJ in Honduras is perfect love casts out fear. And when they talk about it what they say is the work they do is dangerous, justice work is usually dangerous because almost always you get somebody angry. As I mentioned one of their, their main attorney was shot at point blank range about three years ago. So it takes courage. Perfect love casts out fear.

And so they’re very gutsy. They’re very loving and very gutsy people. But of course they’re human beings and there’s always a bit of fear. In fact, the leaders of the organization, the government gives them round the clock body guards. When I and my wife, and other people have gone down there, there’s always a body guard around. So it’s fear but also sort of watch out.

Yeah, but it points to the fact that to love is to put something at risk.

Yes, especially if the love takes the form of seeking justice. You know, relief and development projects seldom create hatred, and enmity. Well I mean, you know you’re relieving this group of people, not these so this other group might be upset and so forth. But there’s not, you’re not normally stirring up hostility. But usually a justice organization is trying to get somebody to stop doing what they’re doing. And they don’t want to stop doing what they’re doing.

Right, right. Well Nick, thanks so much for your time today.

You’re very welcome.

Evan: And your wisdom.