Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Love and Justice -- working with definitions

Are justice and love competing values or are they partners?   I think the answer to this question is rooted in definitions.  If we start with the definitions offered by the American legal system, then perhaps that's not possible.  But when we work with biblical terms, it might be different.  Scripture offers a variety of definitions of justice, some of which are suggestive of vindication and punishment, but there are other definitions that suggest something very different.  Of course, how we define love is involved as well.

Although proof-texting isn't fair sport, I do want to start this portion of the conversation with a text from Jeremiah that brings love together with justice and righteousness:

23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.  (Jer. 9:23-24).
There are, of course many more texts that affirm that God desires justice -- most often in regard to the lives of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.  God makes it clear that God is interested in how we treat those on the margins -- a view that is clearly stated in Matthew 25.

It would probably be helpful to have in front of us a useful definition of love, and as I've noted in earlier posts, I find the definitions of love offered by Tom Oord to be most helpful.  I think that we can start our conversation by using Tom's definition of agape love, which has many links to the biblical concept of justice.  So, we begin with a definition of love:

Agape is intentional sympathetic response to promote overall well-being when confronted by that which generates ill-being.  (Defining Love,  Brazos, p. 43).
If we can define injustice as that which generates ill-being, then love responds to that reality.  Justice requires of us that we resist and change that which is evil so that good may prevail. 

But what is justice?  I'm not saying that the biblical definitions don't involve vindication and restitution, but I would say that the ultimate point of justice has to do with matters of reconciliation and restoration.  Paul Tillich suggests that creative justice is the form of reuniting love (Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, p. 66).    I can't do justice to Tillich's definitions, but it is clear that he believes that love and justice can't be separated from each other.  Consider this:

Love does not do more than justice demands, but love is the ultimate principle of justice.  Love reunites; justice preserves what is to be united.  It is the form in which and through which love performes its work.  Justice in its ultimate meaning is creative justice, and creative justice is the form of reuniting love.  (Tillich, p. 71).
Paul calls this reconciliation, which God is seeking to accomplish in our midst (2 Corinthians 5). 

Since I started this portion of the conversation with a text from Jeremiah, I'll offer a passage from Micah 6, a passage many of us are quite familiar with:

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?   (Mic. 6:6-8).
Of course this doesn't end the conversation -- it just gives us more to chew on!
 

7 comments:

John said...

Bob,

I would define love differently. Instead, I would define “love” as a positive regard and concern for another, without regard to the needs and wants of the self, and even in derogation of the needs and wants of the self.

I find it interesting that you define injustice before you define justice - an interesting device that allows you to define justice in terms of overcoming injustice. In this way you necessarily direct the flow of the discussion. If alternatively, you define injustice as simply the denial of justice, you are then compelled to define justice in its own context and thus open up the discussion to broader concerns.

By conjoining “justice” with the biblically suggestive “creative” an altogether new concept has been brought into being. Creativity is thee essence and often the very source of the most profound love. When we feel creative love we desire only the best and most generous portion for the object of our affection. Justice and fairness and proportion are thrown out the window for the sake of the ones we love. Such love is truly sacrificial, and sacrifice is at its root disproportionate, unfair, unjust, unnecessary, more than ought to be called for in the circumstance. And sacrifice is not rooted in the claims of justice, but in the claims of love.

I don’t have a problem joining the two terms, and using the conjoined terminology as an ethical and moral Northstar, I am just proposing that we not confuse them or lose sight of their original referents.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, on the definition of love, I've found Tom Oord's definitions most helpful. He's really worked through these categories and has produced something of value.

As for definitions of justice/injustice. I think we need to step back from American legal terminology/usage and try to wrestle with the biblical understanding.

For me, justice is restoring that which is broken or alienated to its proper place. Thus, we have to understand what brokenness looks like.

Tillich's use of creative justice is thought provoking and needs more thought on my part.

Oh, and Bruce Epperly provides tomorrow a look at justice from a Process perspective.

John said...

The concepts of retribution, restitution and vindication are neither American nor particularly modern. They are at least as old as the Hebrew Scriptures, and their values as components of traditional ideas of justice have been acknowledged since humans first began to record their philosophizing about justice. "An eye for an eye" is perhaps the single most well known and accepted phrase, in any language, ever designed to communicate these concepts. My point is that I am not being overly American, nor overly legalistic, nor overly contemporary to suggest that these concepts deserve significant weight in this discussion.

While they are components of "justice" they do not constitute the whole of what justice is, or of what justice can become.

Brian said...

God's ultimate aim is Shalom. Justice, love, and all other words need to see how they line up with Shalom.

John said...

Maybe I should reformulate my position thus: God is not very interested in vindication, retribution or restitution. Instead, God is concerned that all have life, and that all should have it abundantly. To that end, God calls on those who have, to share, and those who have a great deal, to share a great deal more. In this context "fairness" is meaningless, because what counts is neighborliness, if not loving kindness.

Justice in these terms is the fulfillment of God's will for each person and for humanity, and creation as a whole.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

I think we're moving closer to common ground. Would you say that whether we use the words justice or love, God wants us, as God's people to resist and where possible overturn unjust situations?

If fairness means that God deals with everyone the same, I think you're right -- it's a meaningless view, for Scripture is pretty clear that God stands on the side of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized. See the Magnificat in Luke!

John said...

I don't think we disagree in our understanding of God's priorities, it's just that we disagreed over how to employ the term "justice". I perceive the term as incorporating a broader range of social-civil-legal objectives (not just social justice issues) and I think the whole of Scripture can be read in support of that broader definition of justice. I also agree that the prophets and the New Testament clearly claim a more narrow, "social justice", oriented understanding.

The point I was making was twofold: more conservative people of faith, who tend to hang onto the more encompassing understanding of justice, are not without Scriptural justification; and, justified or not, the truth of the matter is God is not interested in vindication, restitution or retribution, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we will be able to fully engage God's genuine priorities for humanity. We need to let go of our desires for vindication - let the dead bury the dead, God is the God of the living.