Augustine and Social Justice

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Teresa Delgado, John Doody, Kim Paffenroth
Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , January
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I will never forget discovering Augustine’s thought-provoking words about justice as a graduate student. As for so many others, my initial discovery took place through The City of God. The connections Augustine draws there between justice, order, and love, and between the justice of the individual and the justice that marks a collection of individuals into a political people, were unlike any explorations of justice I’d encountered before. And then there were his clever turns of phrase on justice and power in passages like this one from The Trinity:

The essential flaw of the devil's perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that men imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the possession of it or inflamed with the desire for it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil's authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that men too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game. Not that power is to be shunned as something bad, but that the right order might be preserved which puts justice first.

How I would have loved a volume like Augustine and Social Justice to help me explore the implications of such reflections on justice. Despite the many works written on Augustine, including those that address Augustine’s understanding of justice, very few helped me probe what Augustine’s thought means for how we conceptualize and seek social justice. This volume does just that.

The essays in this volume represent an impressive diversity of perspectives and cover a remarkable array of topics. The volume is dedicated to Mary T. Clark and fittingly opens with a reprint of her classic essay, “Augustine on Justice,” which offers Clark’s sense of “the Augustinian contribution to our understanding of Justice” through an exploration of his key ideas related to justice (6). From there, essays explore the implications of Augustine’s thought for topics ranging from the U.S. presidential election of 2012 to care for the poor, almsgiving, contemporary consumer society, today’s global political economy, historic and current-day slavery, U.S. involvement in Syria and the just war tradition, 9/11, theistic anarchism, transitional justice in conflict zones, restorative justice within Western criminal justice systems, and family life today. These essays do their best to honor and faithfully represent Augustine’s thought, while also creatively exploring what Augustine’s insights have to offer to the social realities of our time.

Along the way, the essays engage a range of interesting figures as well, including John Howard Yoder, Ambrose, Boniface Ramsey, Latino/a theologians such as María Pilar Aquino, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Virgilio Elizondo, and Ismael García, H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Lincoln, Tim O’Brien, Carl Schmitt, James Cone, Noam Chomsky, and John Calvin. This is in addition to regular engagement with the usual cadre of contemporary Augustine scholars (e.g., Charles T. Mathewes, Eric Gregory, Oliver O’Donovan, John Cavadini, James Wetzel, Robert Dodaro).

Central to the volume is a lengthy written exchange between Edmund Santurri and William Werpehowski. It takes a bit of adjustment to get into the piece, as its tone and format are so different than the other chapters, but the reader quickly realizes that this chapter is the heartbeat of the entire volume. On one level, it is fitting to include this back-and-forth correspondence in a volume on Augustine, whose own correspondence is essential to gaining a full picture of his understanding of and commitment to justice. Although a couple of essays in this volume would have been enhanced by engagement with Augustine’s letters, most of the contributors turned to this important source to nuance their explorations of Augustine on justice.

On another level, the implicit message conveyed by this chapter is as important as its explicit content. Through it, the reader receives a first-hand look at two seasoned ethicists who’ve spent decades grappling with the ethics of war and peace. Wrestling with his initial response to the events of 9/11, Werpehowski initiates the written exchange with Santurri a decade later to help him think through just war theory, Christian political realism, issues of guilt and innocence, and differences between the Niebuhrs and Augustine. From there, they go back and forth, wrestling with these ideas and thinkers and many others along the way, asking for each other’s wisdom and insight, raising questions about the other’s interpretations and convictions. Throughout their exchange, they are implicitly reminding us that the thought of Augustine defies neat and tidy interpretations. They are likewise reminding us that responding to political and ethical realities with love and justice is neither easy nor straightforward. In all of these areas, we, like Werpehowski and Santurri, need to continue to grapple as we engage in extended conversation with others. This volume, with its many different perspectives and topics, is a welcome invitation into that kind of conversation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristen Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Formation at Western Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Teresa Delgado is associate professor of religious studies and director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Iona College.

John Doody is professor of philosophy and Robert M. Birmingham chair in humanities at Villanova University. He is also director of the Villanova Center for Liberal Education. 

Kim Paffenroth is professor of religious studies at Iona College and the interim director of the Iona College Honors Program.


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