Thursday, August 25, 2005

Wolterstorff, Ellul & the command to liberate

In the article "Seeking Justice in Hope"[1], Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff asks after justice. The redemptive deliverance of God, he says, is primarily a deliverance from injustice. It is not a retributive justice, in which one turns the suffering back upon the wrongdoer, but, rather, a liberating justice, which frees the victim from the injustice being perpetrated upon him. The Old Testament writers, Wolterstorff writes, understood that a good king does not as much do justice as seek it. The rightful king struggles to undo injustice.

Now, this struggle is commanded of the church. Under the aegis of the reigning Christ, the church obeys by striving for liberating justice in the world. I skip a lot of excellent detail here, but I am trying to set up the "punch line" of the whole thing.

The result of Wolterstorff's meditation is discovered in a two-part conclusion. First, the effort of the church toward liberation should not be undermined by the certainty that, really, only Christ's coming will perfect the job. Instead, the church should work for liberation simply because it is commanded to. Wolterstorff lifts the following quote from Jaques Ellul:

There is a divine law, which is a commandment, and which is addressed to us. Hence we have to fulfill it to the letter. We have to do all that is commanded. The sense or conviction of the utter futility of the work we do must not prevent us from doing it. The judgment of uselessness is no excuse for inaction. . . . Pronounced in advance, futility becomes justification of scorn of God and his word and work. It is after doing what is commanded, when everything has been done in the sphere of human decisions and means, when in terms of the relation to God every effort has been made to know the will of God and to obey it, when in the arena of life there has been full acceptance of all responsibilities and interpretations and commitments and conflicts, it is then and only then that the judgment takes on meaning: all this (that we had to do) is useless; all this we cast from us to put it in they hands, O Lord; all this belongs no more to the human order but to the order of thy kingdom. Thou mayest use this or that work to build up the kingdom thou are preparing. In thy liberty thou mayest make as barren as the fig tree any of the works which we have undertaken to thy glory. This is no longer our concern. It is no longer in our hands. What belonged to our sphere we have done. Now, O Lord, we may set it aside, having done all that was commanded.[2]

The second part of his conclusion is a tightening up of Ellul's quotation. Wolterstorff agrees that obedience is primary, but he disagrees with the open-endedness of Ellul's proscription. Work, yes, is an offering: "Make of it what you will, O Lord." But it cannot be a general work or a general offering. Both prayer and work are specific in action and in offering. We must particularly name the injustice, and pray particularly for its removal. Wolterstorff calls this "identifying the signs of Christ's redemptive rule in history" and says, "We cannot struggle for the undoing of the injustice whose alleviation one has prayed for without naming it." He concludes:

Christian hope for liberating justice is confident as to its ground in Christ, while at the same time it is humble as to our ability to discern the ways in which our endeavors contribute to the coming of Christ's rule of justice.

[1] "Seeking Justice in Hope" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's 2004), 77-100.

[2] Jaques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 190

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