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Call for Justice: From Practice to Theory and Back

Kurt Ver Beek and Nicholas P. Wolterstorff
Published by Cascade Books in 2019

Call For Justice is an exchange of letters between Nicholas Wolterstorff and Kurt Ver Beek, one of the co-founders of the Association for a More Just Society, an NGO in Honduras. Their letters explore the theory and practice of the justice work that ASJ is doing alongside the marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed in that country. I’m a white guy serving a Reformed congregation with historical ties to the Dutch Reformation. The congregation I serve is predominantly white and is located on a Caribbean island that is not. So, when I was asked to review a book by two white guys, connected to the same Dutch tradition, who were discussing justice in a context that was not predominantly white, I reacted with both hesitation and anticipation. 

Hesitation because I have seen the way that white people flood the islands with a sense of entitlement. I see the spectrum of whiteness from supremacy to saviorism on laid out in personal and systemic ways. I see that same spectrum at work in myself and I know the ongoing damage that it does. More white voices speaking about Black and brown bodies risked the same and I was hesitant about what Ver Beek and Wolterstorff might be saying. Would justice be a stand-in for charity? Which voices would be setting the terms for justice? What’s the goal?

But, I opened the book with a sense of anticipation as well. Like Honduras, my context is one of severe inequality, extreme poverty, and high rates of homicide. There are inefficient systems, suspicions about government nepotism and corruption, and a gap where people working for systemic change should exist. I was hopeful that what I found in the pages of Call For Justice would introduce me to some theory and practice that would be effective here as well. I was not disappointed.

It becomes clear quickly that the call for justice is one extended by those who are impacted by injustice. Wolterstorff writes of his time at a conference in South Africa during apartheid. After hearing white Afrikaners and Dutch scholars bicker back and forth the South Africans of color began to share their stories. Wolterstorff reflects, “the conviction washed over me that, by way of their call for justice, God was calling me to speak up with and for these suffering people” (Letter #3). Ver Beek responds in the very next letter: what happened is that you heard directly the victims of injustice. That same thing happened to Jo Ann and me; we heard directly from our Honduran neighbors who were suffering (Letter #4). Reflecting the lessons of liberation theology, both Wolterstorff and Ver Beek recognized that the call for justice comes from those most impacted by the injustice. In the words of Ver Beek, “Almost always I have found, that leadership should be local…it is important for Hondurans to lead change in Honduras” (Letter #4). This recognition is not a full-proof defense against supremacy or saviorism, but it is a necessary part of the strategy.

Equally necessary is the recognition that justice is to be distinguished from relief and development. These were lessons learned early on as Ver Beek worked and lived along with people in poverty. Over time, they understood that “the longer we worked on these health, agriculture, and microfinance projects, the more we felt something was missing. We wanted our work to help the most vulnerable people in Honduras, but increasingly we understood that their problems were deeper than training and loans could fix” (Letter #2). “Deeper” is one of the characteristics of justice for Ver Beek. As is its danger. The reader will learn of more than one assassination attempt against the employees of ASJ who “believe that long-term, systems-strengthening work is the best way to work for justice” (Letter #20). For Ver Beek, relief and development projects don’t register as justice work because “they don’t make people mad” (Letter #20).

“A full description of the work of ASJ would be that it not only tries to get government to do what government is supposed to do, namely secure justice, but it also sometimes stands alongside particular victims of injustice to obtain their rights” (Letter #7). Ver Beek, being the practitioner in this exchange, offers a number of practical tips that will benefit the reader: methods for critiquing and supporting the government (Letter #8), how to move beyond marches and rallies (Letter #10), the value of coalition-building (Letter #16), necessary strategies for maintaining hope (Letter #22), and principles of the ASJ model that might be applied to other contexts (Letter #30). All of them push the reader to be dissatisfied with “the Christian tendency to let good intentions excuse weak implementation” (Letter #28). Ver Beek conveys how crucial are the steps of gathering good evidence, compiling good data, and doing solid statistical analysis (Letter #30). All of this helps the reader understand the practical difference between relief and development on the one hand and justice on the other.

Wolterstorff, as the theoretician in the conversation, does his part to lay out, for example, the difference between first and second-order justice (Letter #9), the role of punishment (Letter #11), evoking emotion for action (Letter #13), and the place of forgiveness in justice (Letter #15). Wolterstorff also gives us a Scriptural view of government (Letter #5), explores the meaning of shalom (Letter #21), and offers an overview of Biblical justice (Letter #25 and #27). All of this theory is very thoughtful, even if it is occasionally thin. On more than one occasion, Wolterstorff will write something like, “but, I won’t go into that here” and point you to one of his other books. It’s easy to guess that the distinction between a letter and a chapter is at play in this regard. The reader can easily follow the trail to something more substantial.

As a collection of letters, I found myself moving through the book quickly. While some of the transitional paragraphs felt forced or awkward, I knew what was coming. Each letter also reminded me where I had been. The format left me feeling like I was part of the conversation, learning along with the authors. The exchange I most appreciated was around the resistance that future practitioners and theoreticians might expect, particularly from Christians. Force-field Analysis theory would remind us that we need not only be aware of the forces that contribute to justice, but also those that will resist it. Letters #26, #28, #29, and #31 were my favorite.

I recommend this book for anyone who is beginning to explore the work of justice in their respective communities, particularly for white Christians. In as much as the white, evangelical voice remains a powerful one in shaping systems, I recommend the book for long-time justice activists as well. I do think the book would benefit from the voices of activists of color, Honduran or otherwise. It would have been an act of justice in and of itself. Still, one can tell that the letters included in Call For Justice are not simply an intellectual exercise, but reflect significant emotion, recognition of their role as white men, and a willingness to put their bodies on the line. The only question left for the reader after finishing the book is one that Ver Beek asks himself, “how deep are you willing to go?”

Peter TeWinkle

Rev Peter TeWinkle is the pastor of St. Croix Reformed Church on the beautiful island of St. Croix. He is also a partner, parent, and potential placemaker pursuing God's peace and stopping occasionally to play golf.