Why love lies at the heart of justice

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

I would like to ask you to do something this summer. When you have a quiet moment, when you are free to sit with nothing in particular to do, ask yourself this question: How do I feel while God is looking at me with love?

This simple invitation asks you to recognise God's presence in your life and insists that God looks at you with love. God is not condemning you. God is loving you. In fact, why not stop reading this for a moment and let yourself enjoy God's love now ...

Thank you for trying that, and if you have kept on reading, here are some thoughts about why we know that God loves us, rather than judges or condemns us.

Our God is a God of love and a God of justice. Our spirituality is about bringing that insight into our lives and our work. For some people, spirituality seems to be only about which rules we follow. 

We all know, because our experience confirms it for us, that God is present in a special way when we act justly, when our relationships are right. The simplest and best explanation I know of Justice & Peace, and associated gratuitous acts of kindness, is Right Relationship – that is to say, a right relationship with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the earth.

Relationship with God: total dependence for our being; awe and reverence; but also, and amazingly, intimacy and love
Right Relationship with ourselves: respect for who we are, a sense of our own worth without becoming overwhelmed with self-importance
Right Relationship with each other: to see others as manifestations of God, with the same dignity that we have
Right Relationship with the earth: the earth is part of God's self-revelation; dominion does not mean the right to destroy and misuse; dominion properly means 'to care for' as the Lord cares for us

A few years ago, I elaborated a long list that grew ever longer of different types of justice: legal justice, commutative justice, social justice, racial justice, gender justice, etc. Then I wondered which came first, love or justice? The answer is that God's love for us came first: our love is important but it is only possible because of God's love for us. 

Then I struggled for years with the question: What is God’s justice? Now I am increasingly certain that the gospel of Jesus is about care for the needy and the marginalised. Catholic social teaching calls it 'the option for the poor'. Why am I so certain? Luke tells us that Jesus's first sermon in the synagogue in Capernaum began with reading from the prophet Isaiah:

"He took down the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read 'I have come ... to bring the good news to the afflicted ... to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free ... To proclaim a year of favour from the Lord."

That is a pretty clear agenda!
And his final sermon, as recounted in Matthew 25, tells us:

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me."

Which is a pretty clear summing up!
Last year's Year of Mercy was a graced time of increased understanding. The Hebrew word for God's mercy is 'hesed', which is the word used for the love that a mother feels for the infant she suckles. That is how God loves us! That is why we can be certain that God's eyes are full of love when they look at us. It is time for another quiet moment ...