In circles I run, I have been hearing about this book coming and so I was excited to read it. I have spent many years involved in the work of which Ken Wytsma is also involved and we have some common friends (though he doesn’t know me or this truth yet). In many respects, Pursuing Justice is another book in a growing list of books aimed at curing social ills and mobilizing people for works of service. And it’s a clarifying book about a serious Biblical theme. Whether you have been impacted by Bono or films like ‘Hotel Rwanda’ or have had your eyes opened to suffering in our cities, justice is a common topic and theme. I will refrain from discussing the phrase ‘social justice’ at this point, but briefly make this point: all justice has social implications. While some political groups will push back on the phrase ‘social justice’ they simply have no better term to replace it because all justice happens in the context of relationships.
Wytsma understands this and even touches on the importance of relationships in the discussion on justice. In fact, Wytsma seems to cover as many angles as he can and in this vein let me address what I believe are three strengths and two challenges and one glaring weakness. So, let the countdown begin.
The three great strengths of the book lie in Wytsma’s serious reflection on the Bible which undergirds the points he makes along the way. He doesn’t skip by the Biblical passages in passing, but truly pauses to reflect and he hit the right major notes. A second great strength is the personal illustrations. In fact, I found two anecdotes far more powerful in their impact than any C.S. Lewis or William Wilberforce allusion. Wytsma gives an account of a Congolese friend trying to answer questions about a playstation 2 at a local elementary school and this is a very moving section of the book. Equally powerful is the account of his wife, Tamara, moving to nowheresville Arizona to care for her ailing grandfather. I find it always compelling if you’re going to talk about social justice to have personal illustrations of actually being involved in the issues. Thirdly, the interludes (some poetic, some prose) provide a compelling relief and renewal point for the reader to pause and not only hear different authorial voices, but time to reflect on the hard hitting prose.
Now, on to two challenges. First, the book is divided up in to nearly 20 chapters and 300 pages. What this means is that some people will not pick it up, which is unfortunate. This also means that Wytsma intended to and valiantly tried to cover a lot of ground. I found this challenging and I am a reading addict who is interested in the subject matter. I wanted Wytsma to either make this a volume 1 or to now go back and decide which chapters deserve their own book. Honestly, it acts a bit like a robust and lengthy theology text in many respects where the author tries to tackle a variety of subjects, but around a single theme. The second challenge is that from recent works like Radical by David Platt, books by Gary Haugen and Mark Labberton, and classics from John Perkins, I wonder what’s new and what needs to be said or what needs to be deeper. I truly believe that Wytsma attempts to fill a gap in the literature with the breadth of the book, but I am not sure the depth aspect is nailed. Perhaps, as I mentioned, more volumes could follow.
Finally, the one glaring weakness. Not until pg. 243 do I get a satisfying definition or discussion about the role that grace plays in the pursuit of justice. So, hear me in my impassioned plea not only to Wytsma, but also to my brothers and sisters in this field of study. On page 9, Wytsma states that “to do justice means to render to each what is due.” On that same page, Wytsma writes these words: “Justice describes both our rights–what we are owed–and our responsibilities that we owe others and God.” Now, here’s my simple plea: do we all really want what we all deserve?
I don’t think we do. I think we all want mercy for the ways we have perpetuated injustice and we want to experience and extend grace, creating environments of grace around the world where relationships can be restored forming the foundation for justice. If Fikkert, Corbett (see also When Helping Hurts from Moody Press) and Bryant Myers and others are correct, namely that poverty is a result of broken relationships (systemic, individual and otherwise), then our pursuit of justice must be grounded in the grace and mercy of an amazingly generous Redeemer and God. If our acts of service do not flow out of a grace focus, then we will risk seeking to do more, work more, be better, be more radical, fly to more countries, work harder, shout louder, until we flame out, blame others, complain about the apathetic non-committed ones, and slowly and subtly miss the point that God and God’s redeeming, preserving, and unfailing love compels and keeps us.Does Wytsma believe this? Yes, I think so, but grace doesn’t get the attention it deserves until later than this reviewer would deem desirable.
So, I give this 4 stars out of 5 and hope that Wytsma will follow this volume up with either volume 2 or a deeper version of some chapters that serve as introductions or overviews. Is this book worth reading? Yes and I hope that some small groups will take this up and wrestle with some of the issues. Is this book a satisfying offering to the discussion? For this reviewer, no, because while justice is a great word and a consistent theme within the Bible, only grace changes lives from the inside out with any permanence. (in other words i wanted pgs. 243-258 in the book earlier and pervasive). I applaud Wytsma for referencing the endurance of Wilberforce moreso than Wilberforce’s accomplishments and I agree that Justice should be part of our happiness (one of the more compelling chapters by the way in the book), I just believe that the foundation of our pursuit of making all things new must continually bring people to repentance, to the redeemer, and to a renewed sense of their union with Christ. Why? Because without Christ, we have no chance of making this world a better place. Among the fruit of experiencing and expressing grace will be the pursuit of justice.
note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, in response for my honest review. The ideas and opinions expressed in this review are strictly my own.