Love, Justice, And Suffering: An Interview with Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. He is the former President of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association and the author of numerous books and articles, including Justice in Love and Lament for a Son (books mentioned below). Professor Wolterstorff recently spoke on love at the 5th annual conference for the Center for Christian Thought at Biola University.

Hess: What is love?

Wolterstorff: The English word 'love' and counterpart words in other languages cover a number of different phenomena. There is, for example, the love of attraction, when you say, "I just love Beethoven's late string quartets" or something like that. It's what the classical Greeks called Eros.

There's the love of attachment. You're attached to this cat because it showed up one winter morning on your doorstep and you took it in. It's not the finest cat; your neighbors have a finer cat. So, it's not attraction - love of attraction is attracted to the worth of something, to the worth of the Beethoven string quartet. So, love of attachment is somehow mysterious.

There's the love of friendship. The ancient Greek word for that is phileo.

There's also love as benevolence, which consists of seeking to advance the good of the other person. So, there isn't any one thing called love. I have come to think that, for any clarity on the matter, it's really important to understand what kind of love you're talking about.

H: How is agape love distinct from the other types of love?

W: Jesus spoke Aramaic. The New Testament is in Greek. So when the Gospel writers report what Jesus said, they take it from the Aramaic to the Greek. When Jesus gives the two love commands (Love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself), the Greek word is agape. So, it's a question of what sort of love Jesus has in mind there. There isn't really any relevant context. Jesus' interlocutors come to him in order to catch him. They say, "Master, Rabbi, what is the greatest commandment in the Torah?" Obviously, they're expecting him to say something so they can say, "Gotcha, that's not the greatest!" But, in fact, they can see that he got it right. So, the question is, what did he mean? I think that most commentators interpret Jesus as meaning benevolence. Seeking the good of the other person.

H: This fits in with your ethical system, agapism. Would you briefly explain the view and compare it to another ethical system?

W: What I call agapism, and what other people call agapism, is an ethical orientation both in practice and theory. It takes its bearings from agape in the New Testament. And it's to be contrasted then with utilitarianism, which does not take its bearings from what is said about love in the New Testament, with egoism, with eudaimonism, and so forth. It's somewhat less sharply defined, I suppose, than utilitarianism and eudaimonism, since those come out of philosophical literature, whereas agapism stems from biblical literature which is not philosophically crafted, obviously.

H: Would you give a specific contrast between agapism and another ethical system, say, ethical egoism?

W: Agapism says seek the good of the other person in some sense and we can talk about what the good of the other person consists of. Egoism says to seek your own good and only your own good. Well, that's not quite right - seek the other good insofar as it advances your good. There's a very sharp contrast between those two.

H: Regarding the love commands, I'm particularly interested in love for one's neighbor. What does Jesus mean when he says to love your neighbor as yourself? What does that look like?

W: I think Jesus is assuming that we do love ourselves and that that's okay. There can be perverted forms of self-love, of course. There have been some writers in the Christian tradition (for example, the Swedish-Lutheran bishop Nygren) who think that self-love is just out, forbidden. I have no idea how they proposes to interpret "Love your neighbor as yourself." I interpret Jesus, who is quoting Leviticus, as saying, "You love yourself, right? Ok, now love your neighbor too." Just as Jesus and the Torah are saying it: just as you seek your own good, also seek the good of your neighbor.

H: But who is our neighbor? In your book Justice in Love, you talk about the view that everyone is our neighbor, all seven billion of us human beings. Isn't it physically impossible to love seven billion people as you love yourself?

W: There's a wonderful book, Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson. Brian has been working on death sentence cases, and he uses the word 'proximity.' I think the neighbor is the proximate one. Whatever in-group or out-group the neighbor belongs to is the one who is near you. Sometimes we ought to seek out proximity. It's the one you find yourself engaged with, like sometimes you should reach out your engagements. So it's not the seven billion. It's someone you are in some way engaged with.

H: Wouldn't that tend to be people of like mind or like group?

W: No, because the explanation of the command starts with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Presumably the man in the ditch is a Jew. The Samaritans and the Jews dislike each other intensely. So it means neighbor, ignoring whether he's an in-group with respect to you or an out-group with respect to you. Forget about all that. You've been taught to hate Germans or whatever. Ignore that. If he's a person who's proximate, love him.

H: But what about globalism? I can give money to an organization that's going to help someone in China or Africa. Doesn't that make everyone our proximate neighbor?

W: I have two things to say about that. For one thing, I would say that those who are immediately around you - your family, your friends, the people literally in your neighborhood - have a certain sort of priority. Then beyond that it seems to me we have no choice but to set certain priorities.

H: Because of physical limitations?

W: Yeah. But the people in our immediate vicinity have priority. I'm reminded of a Dickens character: Mrs. Jollybee in Bleackhouse. She is devoted to a missions cause in Africa. Her own children are starving, malnourished, they're fighting with each other, she's paying no attention to them, but she's got her eyes fixed on the poor Africans. Now that's a profoundly disordered kind of neighbor love. It's okay for her to care about the mission in Africa, but first she should take care of her own family.

H: This leads directly to my next question. In the command to love your neighbor as yourself, how can you give preferential treatment to your kin, for example, when your kin is your neighbor just as much as the person living next to you is your neighbor? Is it permissible for you to give extra weight to the needs of your own children over the needs of the stranger?

W: I think so. Jesus doesn't say that we shouldn't set any priorities. He never says to treat everybody absolutely equally. I don't know that I have a terribly good argument for it. But there seems to be something profoundly disordered about Mrs. Jollybee. You don't have unlimited resources. You are responsible for your family in a way that other people are not. So you start with them and move out. To listen to all the causes pleading for help in the world would be immobilizing. It would just be overwhelming. So your family and so forth have a priority. But beyond that it's okay to pick the one or two that touch your heart. However it happens, if it somehow touches your heart, if someone invites you to Honduras and the people in Honduras have really touched you, it's okay if you're not doing the same thing for Argentinians.

H: That seems satisfying enough. How about Jesus' command to love our enemies? Do we view them as a neighbor? How should we treat them?

W: So the person in your proximity might be someone who's got it in for you. And Jesus' response is to love even the person who does not reciprocate your love. To love even the person who's got it in for you. Seek their good also. Seek the good of those in your proximity, of anybody who bears the image of God, of anyone who's got that kind of worth, even if he or she is your enemy.

H: Do you see many Christians in our culture, specifically in the United States, carrying out these commands, or do you think this is something the Church is missing?

W: I think quite a few do. So, I distinguish charity programs from justice programs. In general, Christians and other people feel far more comfortable with relief and development programs than with justice programs because they usually don't get you into conflict. When you offer to relieve the plight of the Haitians after the earthquake, no one is going to say that that's bad. Christians and other people shy away from justice organizations because they always get you into conflict with oppressors and so forth. Nevertheless, there are some superb justice organizations. I'm closely related with one of them in Honduras, the Association for a More Just Society. They aim to get the government to do what the government is supposed to do. And they produce a lot of conflict. They had one of their main attorneys shot at point blank range, so it's dangerous work. International Justice Mission focuses on people who have been trapped into slave labor, especially women and little kids, so it's another justice organization. I would say that there are a number of really admirable Christian justice and relief organizations.

H: You've spoken about love and justice as though there is some sort of tension between them. Is there a tension here?

W: Traditionally, it's been thought so. If you think of agapic love as sheer gratuitous benevolence, then you'd better expect tension. If it's sheer gratuitous benevolence, then you're not going to treat the person as you do because justice requires it. So I've come to think that that's a misconception of what Jesus had in mind by agape. And the reason for thinking so is this: the question that's put to Jesus is, "Rabbi, master, what's the greatest commandment in the Torah?" It's easy to think that Jesus is sort of capturing the essence of the Old Testament law. In fact, what he's doing is quoting Leviticus 19:18, where it says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." It's also the essence of the Torah, but it's a quotation. And then when you look at the context, what you see is that Moses is giving God's law for Israel. A whole bunch of highly specific shoulds and should nots and then it concludes with "Love your neighbor as yourself." Now among these detailed shoulds and should nots are injunctions to treat your neighbor justly. So there in Leviticus, what you learn is that treating your neighbor justly is an example of love. Justice is not pitted against love. So agapic love has to be understood in such a way that it incorporates justice rather than being pitted against justice.

H: You mention in Justice in Love that there is a perceived conflict between forgiveness and justice. Is there a conflict?

W: My view is this: Christian Scripture teaches that in response to being wronged, it is at least sometimes appropriate to forgive, especially if the wrongdoer repents. Now an implication of that has to be that punishment is not in general required as a response to wrongdoing. If it's okay to forgive, then it cannot be unjust to forgive. So I think the view is that punishment is permitted. Maybe in some cases it's even required. But there are a lot of cases in which forgiveness is permissible, appropriate, and better. It's a mistake to suppose that punishment is always required as a response to injustice. Sometimes forgiveness is eminently appropriate and highly desirable.

H: Now I want to look at the relationship between God's love and the suffering of human beings. In your book Lament for a Son, you grieve over your son who died in a climbing accident at 25. Did you question God's love for you during that time?

W: No, I didn't, but I certainly didn't understand it. So it seems to me that the biblical picture, which I accept, is that something has gone profoundly awry in God's world. There's some sort of malignant force about. Paul often speaks not so much of sin, but of the power of sin. There's some sort of force that has us in its grip, not just personal beings, but somehow nature also. So why that should be and why God doesn't just get rid of it right away, I don't know. But the biblical picture is of a sort of struggle. God will conquer, but there is a struggle. And I don't profess to understand the nature of that struggle.

H: So you would even say that a death which results from natural consequences is within that struggle?

W: Yeah, because it seems to me that the picture that emerges from Scripture is that God desires for each and every human being to flourish until full of years. Not just that the species flourish, but each and every human being. There's a particularity about it. But lots of people don't flourish until full of years. They flourish briefly or they live in misery until they're full of years. I can only read Scripture as saying that that's God's longing for human beings. So something went awry in the early death of my son. And I don't know how to explain that. Many people in the tradition would say, "Well, it made you a better person." I rebel against that. God doesn't use the death of my son to make Nick Wolterstorff a better person. Each and every one of us should flourish until full of years. Not just some to make others flourish.

H: In your book, you discuss the role that suffering plays in loving relationships. Would you speak to that?

W: To love someone in the sense of attachment is to put yourself at risk because human beings are fragile and vulnerable. So you put yourself at risk of the other person dying and of grief following. Love has grief as its constant potential.

H: Is this what you mean when you say that in commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer?

W: Yeah. The Stoics took the opposite tack. They saw that love and attachment have the potential for grief, so they said, "Don't love." I think the Christian message says, "Love and live with the grief." If and when it comes.

H: So that's a better way?

W: Yes, it's a better way.