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Justice: Revealing Humanity through Love of Neighbor

Despite the common distinction between the two words, justice is fundamentally love for our neighbor—and therefore is central to our humanity. Simone Weil gives us this definition of justice in her essay The Love of Our Neighbor, explaining that Christ called his benefactors, those who took him in when he was starving and naked, just. Raimond Gaita, in A Common Humanity, shows us the powerful love of a nun towards the poor and afflicted, exemplifying true justice. Far from being blind and unbiased, justice is a revelatory love of neighbor—a love that is manifested in an active love for those around us. The beautiful act of the Incarnation epitomizes and makes clear to us this idea of justice as love of neighbor.

Simone Weil explains that justice is the active loving of our neighbors, especially those who are in affliction and may not be our equals. She says,

Christ did not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity.[1]

She goes on to demonstrate that love for our neighbor, a love with creative attention, is genius. Loving with creative attention means loving with an attention to others that reveals their humanity, no matter how poor and broken they are. Weil explains that the revelation is in fact a kind of creation, a kind of genius, for the act of revealing creates a dignity that is not apparent in the poor and suffering. For example, there is no apparent dignity in a beggar lying by the roadside. Only Christ, loving through us, can reveal this beggar’s humanity. It is love that reveals humanity.

There is a beautiful illustration of this love as creative attention in Gaita’s A Common Humanity. He tells of a nun who came to the psychiatric hospital where he worked. In this hospital, the patients were treated like animals instead of people. When they soiled themselves they were stripped and mopped down like elephants in a zoo. They were not abused, but they were not treated humanely, for the doctors and caretakers did not see them as people. They were condescending – attempting to hide their disdain behind a mask of kindness. Then the nun arrived, and through her love for and actions towards the patients revealed their humanity to the doctors and caretakers.[2] Her love was unconditional and “everything in her demeanor towards them – the way she spoke to them, her facial expressions, the inflections of her body” revealed the humanity of those patients to the doctors who before had been so condescending. Gaita does not say this, but the nun would undoubtedly say that the reason she was able to see the patients as equals was because of Christ.[3] His love, working through her, was revelatory. This is true love of neighbor, a love with active and creative attention that reveals the humanity not readily seen in the afflicted.

Christ’s Incarnation is the supreme example of this creative love of other. He, because of His absolute love of us in our poor and broken state, assumed our humanity. Our dignity was not apparent – truly it was non-existent. His Incarnation, through revelatory love, created our dignity and restored in us His Image. Without Christ’s love, manifested in the Incarnation, we have no humanity.

The idea that those who are experiencing the worst of afflictions have no apparent humanity is startling and uncomfortable. But it is not that they do not have humanity, it is that their humanity is not apparent to those who do not look at them with love and compassion. For if we do not, through love, see and through our actions reveal the humanity of the homeless beggar, we tend to act with either condescension or disdain. We see a difference in equality because of the nature of things, and this realization is manifested in condescension, when we act as though we are better than the beggar.  Only with love can we see the true humanity, and therefore equality, of the other and act without condescension. And it is only Christ’s love, through us, that can see and reveal the humanity of the afflicted, as He, through the act of the Incarnation, saw our humanity and revealed it.

It seems that in our world today, we have a very different understanding of justice. It is foreign to think of justice as love of neighbor, because we think that in order for someone in authority to be truly just in court, for example, they must be unbiased towards either side of a case. Lady Justice is portrayed as being blindfolded, blind to everything except evidence and the truth. In our daily lives, we usually think of justice as giving to everyone what they are due, what they are owed, and also receiving what we deserve and have earned. When we see a homeless person on the side of the road, we pass them by, because it is not our job to help them. We have no obligation to them, for we do not have a relationship with them. However, we do not need to personally know people to show them love. The nun did not have personal relationships with the psychiatric patients before loving them. We need to have compassion for the afflicted and love for our neighbors, a love that sees the humanity in everyone, even the homeless beggar on the side of the road, and reveals this humanity to others. Justice apart from love becomes a mere fulfillment of obligations. It becomes doing good to others just because we have to, checking things off a checklist. This cannot be true justice, and it easily deteriorates, for people often will not fulfill their obligations. Only when love is central to justice will it be true justice.

Love of neighbor leads us to seek truth, and truth is a necessary component of justice. In a court of law, in order to make a judgement about someone the truth needs to be sought. Weil, in A Need for Roots, says that we can only desire to know the truth about what we love.

A truth is always the truth with reference to something. Truth is the radiant manifestation of reality. Truth is not the object of reality. To desire truth is to desire direct contact with a piece of reality. To desire contact with a piece of reality is to love. We desire truth only in order to love in truth. We desire to know the truth about what we love. [4]

In order to desire truth, and therefore find it, we need to love those whom we want to know the truth about. Because unless we truly love and have compassion for others, why would we be motivated to seek the truth about them? This does not mean that all judges need to form close personal relationships with the people they are judging but it does mean that compassion and love of neighbor is necessary for justice. Justice that is not love of neighbor, that does not see the humanity of everyone, even criminals, the poor, and the afflicted, will not make decisions based on the truth.

Love of neighbor and truth are vital to the human soul. Truth is the most important need of the soul, according to Weil.[5] We want to know the reality of things, and we only desire to know the truth about what we love. Therefore love is the basis of our desire for truth. Love also reveals humanity, as it sees beyond brokenness to true humanity. Love is what makes us human, as animals are not able to love in the same way we are. Animals cannot, through love, see past suffering to the humanity beneath. And they cannot reveal this humanity to others through their active love. This importance of both truth and love to us as humans makes apparent the need for love-centered justice. If truth is vital to the human soul and justice is a love for our neighbors that desires and seeks the truth, then justice must be central to our humanity.

Furthermore, a recognition of the necessity of love of neighbor for justice is important to our understanding of and participation in our communities and governments. Without love of our neighbors, communities, and therefore states, would not exist. Love is what brings us together. It is what creates families and friendships, and as Aristotle explains in his Politics, from the family grows the larger community.[6] The community exists because of the love of its members for each other. True, someone could say that some communities only exist because of necessity. Hobbes would say that the only reason people form a community is to remove themselves from the state of war for their own safety.[7] But this is denying or overlooking a fundamental need of the human – the need for relationship and love. The community fulfills this human need. Out of the community comes the state, which is a larger community with a government and laws. These laws are put in place to ensure the safety and harmony of citizens – to uphold love of neighbor. Laws like “Do not steal” or “Do not murder” are there to keep people from harming their neighbors, and to, in a way, teach them to be just by loving their neighbor. These laws also affirm the humanity of all – it is wrong to murder anyone, not just those who seem to be your equals.

We can now see that justice is fundamentally love of neighbor. It is not just a basic fulfillment of obligations, a clinical blindness to the real humanity of the afflicted in front of us. Justice cannot be separated from love, a love that sees beyond suffering to humanity and reveals this humanity for those who cannot see it. Our families, communities, and states are founded upon this love and should be governed with an intention of upholding love for our neighbors, for this love is what makes us human. We are called to justice, called to love with creative attention with a desire for truth, for this is what Christ did – ultimately manifested in the Incarnation. However, it is impossible for us to do this on our own. It is Christ’s love, working through us toward our neighbors, that is justice.

[1] Simone Weil, “The Love of Our Neighbor,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951) 139.
[2]Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2000).
[3] Ibid., 20.
[4]Simone Weil, A Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind (London: Routledge, 2002), 250-251.
[5] Ibid., 36.
[6] Aristotle, Politics, 1252b10.
[7] Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, ed. Steven Cahn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 232.
Aristotle. “Politics,” The Basic Works of Aristotle, Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.
Gaita, Raimond. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. London: Routledge, 2000.
Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” In Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Edited by Steven Cahn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Weil, Simone. A Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind. London: Routledge 2002.
Weil, Simone. The Love of Our Neighbor,” in Waiting for God, translated by Emma Craufurd. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951.