Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. A noted philosopher, he is also a passionate advocate for justice. In his book, Justice. Rights and Wrongs, he tells how two experiences awakened this passion.  The first occured in 1976, when he attended a conference in South Africa. Apartheid was in full force, yet at this conference were Afrikaner, black and “coloured” theologians from South Africa, along with scholars from Europe and the US. The conference was filled with tension. The Dutch theologians were furious with the Dutch Reformed Afrikaners for supporting apartheid. The Afrikaneers were furious that they were being attacked. Then, some way into the conference, the black and “coloured” South Africans started to speak of their lives under apartheid. They described the daily humiliations, of their suffering and pain. The response of the Afrikaners was to be indignant. They spoke of acts of benevolence and charity they had shown their brothers and sisters and argued that they should be satisfied with this. Nicholas Wolterstorff was shocked. For the first time he was seeing benevolence used as an instrument of oppression. He was determined he must speak for justice.

Two years later he was invited to a conference in Palestine. There he heard Palestinians speak with great intensity of their pain, of being driven out of their homes, their right to return and the indignities heaped upon them. They couldn’t understand why no-one spoke up for them.

Nicholas Wolterstorff was changed by these two experiences. In the voices of the black and “coloured” South Africans and the dispossessed Palestinians, he recognised for the first time that what they needed was not benevolence but justice.


Source: Reported in Wolterstorff (2008), Justice. Rights and Wrongs, Princeton University Press