On a front page of his recent book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” attorney Bryan Stevenson quotes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
“Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”
In his book of writings – “Love and Justice,” Niebuhr developed his so-called theology of “Christian realism” grounded in divine love, as the motive for compassion and justice.
For Niebuhr, justice or fairness motivated by love is doing the right thing in any context including government and the military. His ‘realism’ recognized that we practice love and justice in a very unloving and unjust world often requiring less than ideal public policy compromises.
Though Niebuhr is still renown and respected I wonder how many leaders, like Stevenson, claim love as their motivation for doing the right thing.
As director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson is an advocate for fixing our broken criminal justice system defending the most desperate and needy.
When following the news of problems facing the nation, indeed the world, we may wonder – “What’s love got to do with it?”
The question of course is from Tina Turner’s star-crossed song and story of rejection and abuse. Love, she sang is nothing more than a ‘second-hand emotion,’ leading to heartbreak.
Niebuhr’s was another kind of love, tough love, inspired by his faith, prepared to take on the most intractable injustices of our time.
I grew up in a faith community in the legacy of the 18th century English evangelist John Wesley whose preaching of ‘perfect love’ led him and his followers to engage in prison reform (his father was once jailed for a bad debt), challenge inequality and extreme poverty, teach illiterate adults to read, provide health care for the poor, and at the end of his life to oppose slavery which he had seen first hand during his brief time as missionary to the Georgia colony.
People followed and implemented Wesley’s teaching because he was doing what he talked and preached about. They could see his love, his core value demonstrated in projects of compassion and justice.
In this tradition what matters most in the end is not how carefully we have articulated our beliefs but how generously we have responded with love to human suffering and how intentionally we have worked to right social as well as personal wrongs.
Last week columnist David Brooks wrote that Ohio’s governor John Kasich got it right in his recent inaugural address.
Kasich, a working-class kid, spoke as a small government conservative who sometimes uses government to advance Judeo-Christian values. His mantra is, “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”
It doesn’t help much to just tell people to do the right thing, whatever it is. People get weary of that.
But when we reflect on ultimate concerns and the core values by which we live, our perspective changes.
If love is our motivation for righting wrongs then the question is ‘What am I going to do about it?’