11/11/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Just Love

Love without justice is sentimentality
Justice without love is brutality
Where love and justice meet there is vitality of life.

The more I think about justice, the more my thoughts turn toward love. And the more I think about love, the more my thoughts turn toward justice. It feels like a pendulum in perpetuity; love and justice - justice and love - see-sawing back and forth. Will love and justice ever meet? Does love precede justice? Or is justice a pre-requisite for love? At one end of the pendulum is the kind of generous and unconditional love that covers a "multitude of sins" (I Peter 4:8). On the other end of the pendulum is the kind of justice that isn't satisfied until the victim's desire for revenge has been satisfied.

There are no easy answers. What can one say to the parents of a son who has repeatedly disgraced them by his outrageous, scandalous behaviors? He's made it impossible for them to face their friends without embarrassment. Again and again they tried to help but now they reached the final straw and have decided to disown him. In the context of their Indian culture they no longer consider him their son, he is beyond 'untouchable' and there is no good will or love that can cover or undo his vile and shameless behavior.

And what can one say to the cynics and the critics who cannot understand how the parents of a young girl can possibly forgive the man who brutally raped and killed their daughter. It's a mockery of justice they say, and not only irresponsible but disrespectful of the daughter's life and love.

For some, the answer is philosophical and like Plato, who set the framework for early philosophers, essentially define justice as the over-arching virtue of societies and also of individuals. This idea of justice continues to have significant influence on how many people see justice as being the highest virtue. For them justice is grounded in reason that governs selfish ambition and human passion for the common good or wellbeing of society as well as personal relationships. Rationality defines and determines what justice looks like in any given circumstance and so justice is ultimately a matter of being reasonable.

Others find the answer, as Thomas Aquinas did, in love (also called charity) being the highest of the virtues. Justice, for them, is therefore not the highest virtue in itself but an expression of "agape" love and grounded in love that is expressed unconditionally to the end that it supports and advances the common good. Love binds all of the virtues including courage, justice, temperance, and prudence together. This is not a matter of reason but of faith in the Creator of reason who exemplified and expressed that love through forgiveness.

As I have been thinking about justice and love a refrain from the popular song written by Hal Davies came to mind
What the world needs now,
is love, sweet love,
It's the only thing that there's just too little of.
What the world needs now,
Is love, sweet love,
No, not just for some but for everyone.

As I have travelled the world of criminal justice and prisons over the past 40 years, it seems to me that "just love" is the answer - for if there was love in the heart of the offender she would not offend; and if there was love in the heart of the victim he would not seek revenge; and if there was love at the heart of our communities we would seek justice through peace-making instead of only punishment. If we leave justice to human reason we will, as we have always done, find all kinds of compelling reasons to condemn and castigate; but if love trumps reason then justice becomes a means of expressing and seeking the good of the victims, the offenders, the community and all who are affected by crime and evil.

Love is always just.

So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do,
I'm bankrupt without love. Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back, but keeps going to the end.
Love never dies...
[But] we don't yet see things clearly.
We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.
But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright!
We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us,
knowing him directly just as he knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness,
we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation:
Trust steadily in God,
hope unswervingly,
love extravagantly.
And the best of the three is love.

(Excerpts from 1 Corinthians 13 "The Message")