Justice and Love

“Few realities have determined the course of history more than the choices by which individuals, social groups, and nations have responded to aggression and hatred.”(John Rempel)

“Love waits upon justice, and to do justice requires a willingness to use power and even to dirty one’s moral hands.” This is Lisa Sowle Cahill’s summary of Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethics in her book Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism and Just War Theory. She observed that for Reinhold Niebuhr, like Augustine, human sinfulness precludes the possibility of love being enough to transform society. Social changes, those that correct injustices, are what the Gospel requires of the Christian disciple and the church. Yet, according to Niebuhr, because humans are fallen, they must sometimes use force to bring our social and historical realities into alignment with God’s will.

His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, on the other hand, understood that “an attitude of conformity to Christ” requires the Christian disciple to yield the control of history to God. In the case of the former, Reinhold, love of humankind and a desire for their well-being is the motivator for a Christian ethic of justice, but justice is the means, to perform this love. Thus, love waits upon justice. For the latter, H. Richard, love of humankind and a desire for their well-being is the motivator of a Christian ethic of justice, but the means to accomplish this love, is love, and requires the Christian to live in obedient fidelity to the nonviolent Christ. Thus, justice waits upon love, because if we start with love it will qualify how we understand the content and form of justice.

Jesus’ “Love commands,” coupled with his other teachings and life’s witness, define the content of Christian Love (Matthew 5:43-46; 22:37-40). A disciple’s character and actions are oriented in love towards God, neighbor, self, and enemy. This is not love as affect so much as it is love as a verb.

Upon receiving the news of the sadistic beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were working in Libya at the time, the Egyptian Coptic church’s response was to note the double martyrdom of her people: the dead were first martyrs of their country and secondly martyrs of the faith.  The Patriarch Tawadrous stated that the church will respond with forgiveness while the Egyptian government will seek their justice. In Arabic, Patriarch Tawadrous was quoted saying that the military defense and police are the first defense for Egypt, that is all its citizens, Coptic Christians included. Egyptian president Sisi responded swiftly to the beheadings by bombing the perpetrators, to avenge the Coptic deaths.

Bishop Angaelos, from the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, suggested that the  response of the Christian disciple to this tragedy must be one that is based in Love, by means of offering true forgiveness. He stated:

“It’s horrific that people can be dealt with in this way and that the sanctity of life can be overstepped in this way…my words to these people [the killers] is forgiveness…true forgiveness, but please also don’t subject anyone else to this because there is a sacredness and sanctity to life. These are people you cannot just brand and kill this way. These are people created in the image and likeness of God. They have families and they have people who mourn for them, and when you look into their eyes, look for humanity and look for God’s creation.”

Not unlike the Anabaptists, and despite centuries of persecution, the Coptic church has a “long-held position of the Church concerning the separation between State and Religion.” Their position reflects a dual kingdom theology; that is, the expectation that the Government will take responsibility for protecting its citizens, and that coercion/use of force is acceptable for the government, but not for the church.

Will this understanding of the work of justice, that requires the use of force and belongs in the political sphere, and the work of love that belongs to the sphere of the worshiping community, transform violence? Cahill states that in the New Testament social change does not come about through “intentional adherence to a superior moral system, but by conversion to more compassionate and inclusive attitudes…the sine qua non of moral discipleship is inclusive forgiveness and compassionate service, and these are grounded in converted community life.  Nonviolence flowers from this life…for an unwillingness to harm seems virtually required by the essential Christian virtues.”

In contrast, she states that a “just war theory” approach to “recognizing the natural dignity and value of all human persons” is rooted in justice first, and compassion [Love] is sublimated to the duty to “preserve public order and common good.” Public order and the common good are typically a government’s responsibility. Can these priorities – public order, social responsibility and securing the common good – produce the same virtues as Christian discipleship? Can securing public order be compatible with an ethic that essentially requires one to not try to make history come out “right;” nonviolence, as one’s modus operandi?

The Coptic church’s response demonstrated that love of enemy is performed through forgiveness and mercy toward enemies and these were called for as something with a quality apart from justice. Their love did not wait upon justice, nor did justice wait upon their love. If the latter, justice would have to “love” the dignity of all persons (even the enemies) and a just response would have honored the human dignity of both victims and perpetrators.

Perhaps the justice that issues from love needs to be expressed in forms that challenge injustice in such a way that makes possible a transformation of the “enemy”, be it a system or individual persons. Perhaps the loving justice of Christians is to be characterized by wholeness making, transforming relationships, within and between all parties involved, whereas the justice work of governments is about retribution or righting wrongs?

What might justice look like when twenty or more members of your community have been murdered in a heinous manner?  When we consider that the Coptic Christians were in Libya for employment, we might ask whether a justice response could be to offer employment within Egypt, so citizens are not put into a position of going to Libya for work?  [The Egyptian government responded to this trauma by giving a monetary gift to the victims’ families.]  Justice might look like programs and laws in the land that build correct information about religious communities, communal infrastructure that fosters and sustains understanding and cooperative relations between the religious communities within her borders.

It is difficult enough for the individual to untangle all the possibilities for living into this love ethic, but part of the perennial question has been whether these love commands oblige the Christian disciples collectively as well?  If the question of collective appropriation of these is understood as binding on Christians in their worship communities and more broadly,  the political nature of these demands is borderless. Which leads us to finally ask: what does it mean to Love, as a communal ethic, especially if the content of love has been defined as seeking justice on behalf of the most vulnerable members of a community? What forms can Christian just-love take in the face of  heinous aggression?

Image courtesy of DeviantArt.

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