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Yale professor praises Whitworth's service learning

Pain in faces and voices of South Africans and Palestinians whom Nick Wolterstroff encountered in those countries during the 1970s convinced this professor of theology at Yale of the power of personal experience in educating people to live shalom.

Speaking in October at Whitworth College, he lauded the Christian college for offering service learning and January term opportunities to introduce students to poor people in the United States and other countries.

In 1952, as a student at Calvin College, another Christian liberal arts school, he realized that Christian education is neither about protecting students from contact with people from other traditions nor about memorizing doctrine.

In the 1960s, most such liberal arts colleges added education, business and recreation.

When Nick started teaching about 45 years ago, he found an emphasis in liberal arts on imparting the “vast deposit of cultural bias from millennia back”—ancient Greece, Chinese ceramics and fourth-century theology.

“The question is:  What do we need to know to keep in touch with the past?” he said.

In September 1976, he went to a conference in South Africa, knowing about apartheid only from reading.  One day, a South African, speaking quietly with pain, challenged the “charity” of Afrikaaners, giving used clothes and worn-out toys.

Charity used to escape demands for justice furthers oppression.  I saw the cold, hard face of injustice in faces of people who suffered,” he said.

In May 1978, Nick went to a conference to meet with Christian Palestinians.  They poured out their pain, detailing injustices and lamenting that western nations did not hear them.  Again, he saw the face of injustice.

“What does a liberal arts education have to do with the injustices of the world?” he asked.

“I received an excellent liberal arts education and I was teaching a liberal art—philosophy—but I had done next to nothing to open the eyes of students to injustices,” he said. 

Believing Christian education should help people live and speak as Christians, Nick felt disconnection between Christian education and liberal arts education.

So he explored his Christian life and faith, beginning with the call to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  To him, loving a neighbor requires doing something.  The Good Samaritan fed, clothed and gave medical care to the man in the ditch.  

“To love one’s neighbor is to seek shalom (in the Hebrew Scriptures) or eirene (in New Testament Greek).  That is translated as ‘peace,’” he said, preferring to translate it as “flourish.”

“To love your neighbor as yourself is to seek to advance your neighbors so they flourish,” he said.  “The ground floor of shalom is justice, but more.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, shalom and justice are integrally related in care for victims of injustice—widows, orphans, alienated, vulnerable and impoverished people.

“Shalom is ‘embodied’ in food, clothes and things that meet needs of our bodies.  Shalom is social, too—‘embodied’ in friends, family, community and all creation,” he said.

Shalom includes delight,” he continued, challenging the view of Aristotle and ancient philosophers that assumed the question was:  “How can I live my life well?” 

“Some think the only way to live life well is to save souls.  Jesus confronts that ancient scheme, telling people to love your neighbor as yourself,” Nick said, challenging Christian colleges to equip students to advance shalom through the curriculum and structure of the program.

“Most think the Old Testament is about justice and the New Testament, about love.  It’s because the New Testament Greek word for justice, dikaiosune, is translated in English as righteousness, which is more personal than justice.

“The New Testament is also about justice,” Nick said, “but it’s not so easy for Christian liberal arts colleges to teach it, because of “deep hostility among American Christians and in American society about justice—except retributive justice to enforce order.”

He challenges faculty to both talk about justice and to live it, or “we model hypocrisy.  Modeling shapes how people act.  It happens in service learning, which engages us in action and critical thinking about what justice requires.”

To have students meet people, see faces and hear voices of those who suffer from injustice has more impact than books and films, he believes.  Because Americans tend to be self-oriented, they are more likely to be persuaded by encounters than logic.

“Students going to places of injustice break beyond the wall of the academy,” Nick said.

Copyright © November 2004 - The Fig Tree