“Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” – Cornel West
I scratched my head at the idea. There’s a certain appeal in the thought but, is that all there is to it? Is the expression of love justice?! An article I came across in the New Yorker reprinted in a book by Malcolm Gladwell highlighted my discomfort with this very idea. The thesis behind the article on homelessness was that to adequately solve the problem rather than simply manage it, it would require shifting resources to address the needs of the few rather than equally distribute social services to the wider mass of homeless. In many ways this offends and disturbs people’s sense of fairness, or you might say justice.
In another view, I suppose this is a policy of leaving the 99 behind to find the 1 that went astray. What I find unsatisfactory about West’s description of justice is that it limits love. When you think of the word justice, you think of a prison sentence suitable to the crime. It’s a cold, clinical mathematical equation. If that’s how God operates then of course from Adam and Eve on down, our sins deserve the death penalty.
The philosopher Peter Kreeft puts justice in its proper context. Yes God is just, and our own sense of justice proceeds from this. But to limit Him in this way ignores the fact that God is Love. If love in public was simply justice, how can we break the equation that condemns us? God’s Love is manifest in the giving of His only begotten Son to a violent death so that all of us could have eternal life. Was the just price for sin paid? Yes, but undeservedly so. Here’s where Kreeft solves my quandary: God’s mercy transcends His justice. Mercy breaks free the confines of justice. Love in public action, therefore, is more than simply just, it is merciful. This is the mercy that lets us off the hook when mom catches us stealing a bite before dinner. This is the mercy shown in the confessional after we confess our sins. This is the mercy that allows the Church to reduce by way of indulgences what justice dictates to be our temporal punishment in purgatory.
West concludes his interview with Colbert by talking about tenderness of touch, which needs not be confined to private interaction, but cannot possibly be enacted by governmental fiat. Jesus didn’t command Caesar or even Pilate to enact justice, but waded through the crowds to touch and heal and have personal encounters throughout the millennia not only to right the wrongs of the past, but to heal us eternally with God’s mercy and grace. We continue to encounter these moments of God encountering us physically through the touch of the sacraments, and we bring them to others less fortunate than we through the corporal works of mercy. Mercy, compassion and tenderness is what love looks like in public, when our faith is put into action.