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Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He wrote the following foreword for Allan Aubrey Boesak’s new book Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics.
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Many Christians, when they hear the word “hope,” think of being delivered from this present evil world when they die and entering heaven. Hope for them is hope for the Age to Come, as they understand that. Allan Boesak affirms the hope of Christians for the Age to Come; but the hope of which he writes in this book is different. The hope here is the hope for justice in this present age. This is the hope that the prophet Isaiah expressed when he said of the Messiah to come:
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Just as many Christians think of hope for the Age to Come and not of hope for justice in this present age when they hear the word, so too do many Christians, when they hear the word “justice,” think of criminal justice. They identify justice with passing judgment on wrongdoers.
Boesak has been the victim of unjust punishment; he could write eloquently and incisively about justice and injustice in the criminal justice system. But his subject here is not criminal justice. Criminal justice presupposes a more basic form of justice: it becomes relevant when someone has wronged someone, treated someone unjustly. Criminal justice becomes relevant when there has been a violation of justice. But this implies that criminal justice cannot be the only form of justice; there has to be another, more basic, form of justice, a form whose violation makes criminal justice relevant. Call this other form primary justice. Boesak’s topic in this book is primary justice. More precisely, his subject is the struggle for the righting of primary in-justice and the role of hope in that unavoidably conflictual struggle. In that struggle the question of hope is always on everybody’s mind, and in that struggle it’s all too easy to lose hope.
Boesak is not writing about this struggle from some perch on high, up above the fray. The location from which he writes is down in the trenches. Boesak was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and that experience shapes his discussion, giving it an unusual poignancy, vividness, and concreteness. It is because Boesak writes from the perspective of someone who has been part of the struggle to right injustice that his discussion takes the fresh and innovative form that it does: we can speak of hope, he says, only if we also speak of woundedness, only if we also speak of anger and courage, only if we also speak of struggle, only if we also speak of seeking peace, only if we also speak of fragile faith, only if we also speak of dreaming. One and all, these are essential components of the struggle to right injustice.
This is not, however, the narrative of a resister. Though there is a good deal of narrative in it, this is a theological essay, the theology made tangibly concrete by the fact that a good deal of it consists of Boesak’s reflecting theologically on his own experiences as a member and leader of a resistance movement. This is theology in concreto. I should add, however, that Boesak is not myopically fixated on the South African experience; he regularly brings into the picture other struggles to right injustice.
What also lends concreteness to the theology is the wealth of biblical exegesis. Boesak is a theologian whose thinking is shaped at least as much, if not more, by careful reading of Scripture as it is by the writings of his fellow theologians. Boesak reads Scripture through the eyes of the downtrodden. Given his experience, how could he not? As a result, I had the sense over and over, while reading the manuscript, of scales falling from my eyes. Above I quoted the passage in which Isaiah says, of the promised Messiah, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” I have never known what to make of these words. Dare We Speak of Hope? has opened my eyes to what Isaiah surely meant; it has opened my eyes to the meaning of a good many other passages as well. Though Boesak is, by profession, a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, he is, nonetheless, an extraordinarily insightful exegete. His exegesis is informed by wide acquaintance with biblical scholarship, but he is not afraid to challenge the scholars when he thinks they have missed the point.
The pursuit of social justice — and the struggle to right social injustice — almost always involves politics; and politics almost always involves, or should involve, the pursuit of social justice and the struggle for the righting of social injustice. Thus it is that a good deal of this book is about politics. Indeed, it is all about politics — though not only about politics. Boesak does not pull his punches when it comes to the present-day politics of South Africa and the United States; he is a bracing and undaunted prophetic critic of current politics in these two countries. But the seaminess, the cowardice, the obeisance to power and money that characterize politics today do not lead Boesak to urge Christians to avoid politics. Politics, he says, “is a vortex of expectations, disillusionments, and bewilderments, but we cannot step away from it or from our commitment to make it work for justice.”
Then he adds these words:
Hope holds us captive; we cannot give her up, let go of her hand, lest we become utterly lost. Yet we now know that where she is to be found is not in the places of comfort and safety. . . . Time and time again, it seems, we have to learn the lesson that while our hope has to shape our politics, the center of our hope never lies in politics or politicians. Christians have to look elsewhere if we are to find a hope that is durable, life-affirming, and life-giving. If we are to challenge and change the world, [we must] keep “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (p. 176).
To those who engage in the struggle to right injustice, every day often looks like Good Friday. In this eloquent, challenging, and deeply spiritual book, Boesak forcefully reminds us that after Good Friday comes Easter. So we dare speak of hope.
Click to order Allan Aubrey Boesak’s Dare We Speak of Hope?
Addison Hodges Hart’s new book Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount is still a few months away from publication (June, 2012; available to preorder now). After reading his chapter on “The Practice of Fasting,” though, we couldn’t resist sharing a sneak preview of the book on Ash Wednesday.
(Please note that since the following excerpt has not yet been published, it may still be subject to changes before its release.)
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Matthew 6:16“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
In Jewish practice, fasting and prayer went very much together. Jews fasted twice weekly, a custom picked up by early Christians. The traditional days for fasting, from the apostolic age onward, were Wednesday (the day on which Jesus was said to have been betrayed) and Friday (the day of his crucifixion). Jesus here gives no specific weekdays for fasting, but he assumes that his disciples will continue the practice. Fasting was thought to give greater intensity to prayer. In the spirit of the influential passage in the book of Isaiah, fasting was related as well to the needs of the poor and to almsgiving:
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself ? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isa. 58:4-10)
With this passage, composed some six centuries before, we can glimpse the mind of Jesus as well. Just as Jesus condemned mere liturgy and religious posturing among the religious leaders of his day, Isaiah condemns those same things here. It was expected practice on special days of fasting to look drawn and haggard, to pull out the sackcloth and ashes, and to make a display out of the whole thing. The prophet points out the incongruity between the outward religious show on such holy days and the sort of quarreling and violence engaged in by the same persons the other days of the year. Instead, says the prophet, what God desires is righteous action in caring for the needy, the homeless, the hungry, and the oppressed. Real fasting is not just giving up food, and it certainly isn’t about showing off one’s best sackcloth wardrobe and fashionably ashen face; true fasting involves correcting injustice and acting compassionately. If you deal with those latter things, God will come to you.
There isn’t much difference here between that age and its religiosity and, say, the sight of a wealthy cutthroat of a Catholic or Episcopalian businessman who attends church on Ash Wednesday, gets his forehead marked with the traditional cross of ashes, noticeably fasts from meat and dessert, and goes about the rest of the day sporting the ashes on his face as a sign of his devotion. His business practices may be vicious most of the year, just barely honest, utterly dishonest, savagely capitalistic, and/or injurious to the less advantaged near and far, but his devotion on Ash Wednesday is heartfelt and even a touch sentimental. It makes him feel good; he gets to demonstrate his faith. Perhaps he’s a member of Opus Dei and attends St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or perhaps he’s a member of the Vestry of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he gave a fat check for the new pipe organ recently, and the organ has a big brass plaque with his name engraved on it. He’s renowned as a benefactor. The message of Isaiah to this man, and Jesus’ message as well, would be that none of this can be called true religion at all. True religion would be the transformation of the man himself, and that would be visible in how he conducted his business in the future. The story of Scrooge rests entirely on Jesus’ teachings, and those of Isaiah as well. The sign of the reality of this man’s religion would not be his religious activities but the practical details of his workday living. The other things — church attendance, the Ash Wednesday service, the brass plaque on the organ — may all have their place, and perhaps they might even suggest something worthy about the man. But how he lives and works, and not his expressions of piety, are what really and lastingly matter for the disciple of Jesus.
Jesus tells us that fasting — like almsgiving and prayer — is not something to be paraded. We are to keep our faces washed, and especially of those ashes after an Ash Wednesday service, and to put away the sackcloth. No one is supposed to know how “religious” we are. Real fasting means we give from what we have and learn to curb our appetites. Real fasting may mean eating less expensive food, not going to the swankest restaurants, and not being a practical narcissist. It may mean not buying the most elaborate cell phone on the market, the biggest car, the best entertainment system — maybe going without some of these altogether. Real fasting, especially in our consumerist culture, means to stand apart from the unthinking point of view that we are what we buy. We may need to reduce our time given over to entertainment and self-gratification in order to have time for others’ needs.
Fasting is not strictly a matter of food and drink. It has to do with how we eat, certainly; but also with how we travel, dress, furnish our homes, shop, are entertained, and otherwise pamper ourselves. What we save from cutting corners — from the practice of mindful fasting — may amaze us. From those saved resources we might find we can give more generously than we ever could before for the sake of those whose poverty would also amaze us, if we were to notice it.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, Nicholas Wolterstorff is a respected Christian philosopher who has spent a great deal of time thinking about justice and love. His most recent work offers thoughts on how love and justice can relate harmoniously, even though they often seem to be at odds with each other. This is especially important for us to consider as we deal with such high-level moral dilemmas as those surrounding the war on terror and the bringing of terrorists like Osama bin Laden to justice.
In light of these thorny issues, we need to ask ourselves a number of questions: How do we show love even as we carry out justice? How do we deal with memories of the injustices we have suffered? Does forgiveness violate justice? Should we use injustice to bring about a great good; i.e., should we use torture in order to find terrorists? In Justice in Love Wolterstorff wrestles with difficult and complex questions like these and explains how we can carry out justice in love without compromising either one.
We recommend his book as a timely resource for thinking critically about current events and our personal and national response to them. Visit our website to order Justice in Love, and click here to read the introduction.
We also recommend these books about responding to terrorism and violence:
Finally, we recommend these books in light of the need for Muslims and Christians to pursue love and justice jointly in a world so often divided along the lines of faith: