Nicholas Wolterstorff on the Tension Between Love and Justice

Every Christian will need to reconcile the tension between love and justice. The Old Testament prophets over and over again encourage Israel to nobly "seek justice." The New Testament writers wax eloquently about the need for love in and amongst a community. Though they share a profound connection, they are concepts in which the biblical narrative seems to separate specifically and intentionally.

There is love.
There is justice.
But, what do they mean? How do they coalesce? Is there a tension?

Nicholas Wolterstorff is an 83-year old philosopher who has taught at Yale and Harvard. If you have 18 minutes, you should dedicate some time to him, for your betterment. Dr. Wolterstorff briefly discusses the tension between love and justice but also seeks to define them in a helpful but important way. In short, he says that the good of us human beings has two dimensions:

  1. concern about the well-being of someone (food, friends, books to read, proper education, etc.)
  2. honoring the dignity of your neighbor (treating your neighbor justly, paternalistic benevolence, etc.)

We talk often at State Street about Jesus' quoting of the shema as the foundational practice of those connecting to the divine [to love God with your whole being] but we also talk about the addition that Christ inserts [to love your neighbor as yourself.] Wolterstorff looks briefly at Jesus' source material in Leviticus 19: 

15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

We must understand a love that incorporates justice. Not a justice defined by a sense of modernity [read: retributive justice] but a justice that though is separated from love as a concept, has a significant and profound bond. Without understanding the connection between love and justice in the scriptures, we can never adequately understand those other concepts that are birthed from that connection like mercy, forgiveness, and generosity. He summarizes his point by saying, "Justice is always to be done out of love. But true love is never unjust."

I haven't done his 18-minute talk justice [a pun, fella]. Watch it yourself: