“Justice is what love looks like in public.” So says Cornel West in the movie Call + Response. It reminds me of the kind of thing one of my philosophy professors would say during my university years: that the central divine call to humanity—that is, the call to love—is refracted in the rich diversity of human relationships into a prism of distinct callings: to practice frugality in business, to practice imagination in the arts, to practice justice in politics.
Justice is not something less than love or something other than love; it is the very expression of love when faced with the question of what is due God’s creatures in a particular situation.
Love unites the citizens of a distinct political community, binding them together with a care for both the individual and the common good. It imbues them with a devotion to the constitutional order to which they subject themselves. It burdens them with fealty to those who bear political authority. It grants them the gift of affection for the symbols, traditions and institutions of their particular political community and for the territory that harbors them.
Love calls both those who govern and the governed to consider themselves subject to the rule of law. Love also calls those who govern to exercise their authority with a primary concern for the well-being of those they govern rather than for their own self-interest. Love calls all citizens to submit to and respect the proper authorities.
Love of country at its best is a love for the common good and its expression in a just legal order in a particular place. Such a love is beautiful not only when it commands a willingness to serve the preservation of that good, but also when it provokes a commitment to reform that order wherever injustice persists.
Love happens in politics when justice is done “symphonically.” My understanding of justice has been brought to imaginative life by Jim Skillen’s suggestion that justice is symphonic. That is, doing justice is like writing or conducting a musical symphony, giving each of the various instruments of the orchestra room to contribute their distinctive sounds in such a way that these sounds come together in rich, lively rhythm and harmony rather than a dismal cacophony or a dull monotone.
Love, then, finds expression in public justice when governments and citizens recognize their own proper political responsibilities as well as the appropriate limits to those responsibilities, including the responsibilities and limits of the state.
Love also finds expression in public justice when governments and citizens recognize, and seek to protect and nurture, the proper responsibilities and limits of other kinds of human relationships—relationships distinct from the relationship between a citizen and his government and not dependent on the state for their meaning and purpose.
So, for example, when the state recognizes, protects and nurtures the freedom of communities of faith to practice their beliefs freely and authentically, love is being expressed as public justice. When the state recognizes, protects and nurtures the wonderful gift that marriages and families bring to a society, love is being expressed as public justice. When entrepreneurs, investors, managers and workers are each free to manufacture goods, provide services, and perform their trades with dignity, love is being expressed as public justice.The Beatles were probably right when they sang that all we need is love. But love is nothing simply. It is a complex and fragile thing—finding one of its richest and most precious expressions in the communal practice of public justice that we call “politics.”