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We live in a connected world, a time where cities are growing, socio-ecological matters are pressing, and the reality of living alongside people who are different in belief and outlook. What path do we follow for urban life, for our common well-being as a planet? What is the role of religion? Of Christian faith?
In 1983, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff published Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Here he set out a vision of Christian faith for the life of the world, a pathway to shalom. Around the time it was published, I was starting out in pastoral ministry and urban community development in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, and I found Until Justice and Peace Embrace to be a life giving guide. In Sandtown we worked to rebuild our community, not tear down. To lift up shalom and justice as an end for our shared labors.
Now forty years after its publication, does Until Justice and Peace Embrace still speak to our times?
Originally the Kuyper Lectures for 1981 delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam, this work helps locate Wolterstorff in the Dutch Reformed, neo-Calvinist tradition. He finds in this tradition a way of understanding conflicts and dynamics in the social world, a piety rooted in grace, and a project of hope marked by struggle to continually hear and live the Word in and for changing times.
The opening chapter introduces a way of thinking about and being in the world that Wolterstorff calls “world formative Christianity.” Because a holistic view of sin recognizes that “the structures of our social world as fallen,” a holistic view of Christ’s salvation recognizes that redemption touches all of life, including our social structures.
Where there is brokenness, the Christian is to work for justice, healing and shalom. “Gratitude, obedience, and vocation—these are at the center of Calvinist social piety: obedience motivated by gratitude and expressed in vocation.”
Through the eyes of faith, Wolterstorff considers the “modern world-system,” the West and our interconnected and global society. Yes, there are “striking triumphs,” but too often, he observes, the structures and dynamics of our global world do not provide for human fulfillment. Instead, they produce the “sorrows of injustice.” Through the lens of Christian faith, and in particular the Old Testament prophets, Wolterstorff proposes a view of our social relationships that accounts for the well-being and good of all.
With this framework, the next chapters address development, liberation, the modern state and nationalism, the cry of the poor, the meaning of the city, theory and practice. In a chapter on liturgy, Wolterstorff attends to the relationship between gathering, listening to the Word, and working for justice.
Much of what Wolterstorff addresses is perhaps at least as relevant today. To cite just a few examples, he addresses the relationships of tyrants, security, and nationalism. In the chapter on cities, Wolterstorff provides insightful theological reflection, emphasizing a more human environment. Ahead of his times in North America but not Amsterdam, he notes a vision of urban life that rejects the centrality of the automobile.
Along the way, Wolterstorff offers “interludes,” including one on the idea of justice in shalom. Through the eyes of faith, through life, he argues that we are to hear a call to be responsible for one another, to build a community of shalom, to seek the good of humanity and creation.
Until Justice and Peace Embrace is also an early preview of much that Wolterstorff would go on to further wrestle with, write about, revise, expand, and deepen. There would be prestigious lectures and major works on justice, the arts, liturgy, education, the nature of belief, and political philosophy, but here I think we find the threads that carry much of them through, the long argument he makes about shalom, justice, Reformed faith, and following Christ.
As a reader, I can feel Wolterstorff’s argument; it is real and driving. It is also rooted in his story, his community, his vocational journey, and his theological tradition. It is of a whole cloth, not bits and pieces like a list of topics to be covered. Everything is connected and the arguments run deep.
On rereading, Until Justice and Peace Embrace is also a risky work; it is not defensive, but an effort to understand and engage a complex and messy world. We need that. But world formative Christianity, rooted in the resurrection of Christ and a sure hope for the world, also faces the temptation to control what we cannot. This is why we need the mercy of Christ, as Bonhoeffer reminds us.
And it is also why we need other voices and traditions, such as the Black church, Pentecostalism, and the Catholic Worker movement. They too can open up ways of being, seeing and living before God in an uncertain and broken world. But as a reflection of a life in learning, as Wolterstorff might say, Until Justice and Peace Embrace is an exemplar of what one tradition can be.
In his beautiful memoir In This World of Wonders published in 2019, we see how Wolterstorff’s life and faith were formed by a Dutch immigrant community in southwest Minnesota. How he was formed by encounters in South Africa and elsewhere to develop a large sense of the world, and came to find God’s care for justice. As a philosopher steeped in the Dutch Reformed tradition, how Wolterstorff came to think about how we know God. How Wolterstorff found he was hearing the global cries of injustice. A life in philosophy in Grand Rapids and at Yale. About family, tradition, church, and grace. I can only urge its reading.
The convictions, connections, and attitudes that Wolterstorff evokes in Until Justice and Peace Embrace are a witness, a challenge, an invitation to roll up our sleeves, to think hard about our moment, to follow the Prince of shalom wherever we are and in whatever challenges we face.
So three cheers for Until Justice and Peace Embrace on its 40th anniversary of publication. Thank you, Nicholas Wolterstorff, for this gift in service of God’s reign of justice, peace, and embrace. May Until Justice and Peace Embrace, a work of vision close to the ground, spark new and renewed energies, communities, and hopes.