Love As the Law, Love As Justice

In our current age, seemingly no different from so many other ages, love is in constant danger of easy reduction. Love is all things to all people. It is the Grand Unifying Principle. Love is romance, friendship, camaraderie. Love is another expression for “relation;” to relate is to love, and therefore all things, even inanimate objects and events love after a fashion. The universe is an ordered and disordered cosmos of love. Love is described as often difficult, even the most impossible thing, yet also the best thing, and the thing that will make you whole or undo you completely. Love is the proper relation to family members and enemies alike. But because of its supremacy, love is also slippery, too easily filling up the cracks and fissures of whatever situation calls for it, a universal, all-purpose fixative applied whenever an answer is needed, a quest or mission required.

Love has reigned in Christianity from the beginning, from Jesus’ emphasis on Jewish scriptures to love God and the neighbor as the greatest commandments, to love one’s enemies, and to love one another–to Paul’s elevation of love as the chief Christian virtue, without which we are nothing. 

Paul concludes, of course, that Jesus has in essence become a higher law, a law of love, the true fulfillment of a Law which bound us all yet we could never fully submit to ourselves. And it is to this higher law that Christians ostensibly aim in their religious and spiritual lives. My question here is: to what extent, if any, does this higher law continue to function as the law it supplanted and fulfilled? Has the law of love become (or perhaps always been) both a blessing and a curse to those who live under its regime, much like the Law (at least, as Paul interpreted it) was for the Jews, God’s chosen people? We point to the law of love as the superior human standard, both religiously and ethically, as that which potentially puts us into genuine relation with our fellow beings, God, and even ourselves. Is it possible for something to become the supreme law without also bearing the unyielding, universalizing, and relentlessly demanding properties of laws in general? Even more pressing and all-encompassing than God’s Law to the Jews, the Law of Love has virtually become the unwritten law of every land, and our regular recognition of its constant violation is some evidence of this. Who is it among the religious and non-religious alike, practically anywhere, that does not assent to love as a supreme value, at least in theory? True, this is not always strictly the radical love informed by the grace and rarefied love-your-enemies approach that Jesus taught, but even here specifically Christian love has embedded itself deeply into the societal and cultural subconscious, causing Nietzsche, in one famous instance, to insist that culture itself–nearly indistinguishable from the Judeo-Christianity of his time–was steeped in the life-destroying pity and weakness that is the final product of a Christian worldview.

Is it possible that this elevation of love has served to shape love into something like Paul’s description of the Law in his letter to the Romans, under which we either feel helpless to truly love, have misconstrued what love is, or have learned to love in incomplete, insufficient ways? In other words, are we helpless before the law of love in a similar fashion as Paul describes our helplessness before the Law?

It seems that love, for all its universality, has become the impossible law by appearing to be too easily performed and understood–the most essential aspect of our humanity–while at the same time being too difficult to fully enact or understand, something just out of our flawed and all-too-human reach, that always requisite component of mystery that attaches itself romantically and religiously (think of the “mystery of the Atonement”) to modern concepts of love. “It’s all love and love,” Kierkegaard wrote, and Jean-Luc Marion loudly agreed 150 years later, calling “charity, or love, the most prostituted word there is.” Such a paradoxical conception of the infinite easiness yet concrete impossibility of love constituted possibly the purest strain of philosopher-bait, and thus appeared the most recent iteration of the “erotic turn” in philosophy, this time including philosophers who are, to wildly varying degrees, faithful to Paul’s understanding of law and love. 

These politico-philosophical expositions demonstrate creative and sophisticated thinking about love, yet they generally lack practical frameworks in which to actually enact these distinctive visions of love as a work (most of them follow Kierkegaard in this respect). I have found Joseph Spencer’s recent work on faith, hope, and love to be more productive in this regard. In fact, in many ways, Spencer, particularly in his most recent work, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope, has covered much of what I am concerned with here, and far more rigorously, particularly in the ways he explicates love in terms of hope (and vice versa) and clears a quite specific space for the work of love to commence through the vehicles of consecration and stewardship. Indeed, as usually is the case, philosophy is in constant danger of undoing itself (and becoming irrelevant) precisely through the complex abstractions that are demanded in order to think it, and Spencer does a wonderful job of grounding it within a socio-religious substructure that adds flesh to bones.

All of that being said–concerns with love as a law of infinite demand, the works of love of various philosophers, and Spencer’s idea of love anchored in hope and enacted through consecrated stewardship–I want to drill down into a concept that all of these variously refer to, but from a slightly different angle (though one which all these sources have also referred to), and that’s the impossibility of love without justice, and more accurately love as justice. The justice I am speaking of is not the mere ideological opposite of mercy–justice as retribution–nor the justice of simple redistribution of resources, devoid of systemic critique, and without the necessity of direct and immediate contact among persons with various needs. Philosophically robust, religiously faithful, and general individual and collective enactments of enduring love cannot exist without equally robust notions of socioeconomic justice. The works of love and justice are incomplete without one another. It is a popular idea to separate them, perhaps because such a move has a long history in religion and theology, and so much of public and civic morality has its basis here. But true charity (caritas is rendered in English as both love and charity), in the theological and political sense, cannot be divorced from justice, and the idea of love as justice might be one particularly fruitful way into the problem of love as law (if, of course, such a problem really exists). 

Part of the social logic of our time–which logic is Capital–is that differences can be subsumed within what the market demands, and the market can, in theory, demand anything. Anything can be priced and exchanged, but only a few have the power to engage in the process that commodifies and categorizes the world in this manner. In this way, Capital appears deceptively universal: if you can plug into it, your access to it and benefits derived from it need not be any different from anyone else’s. But in practice we know that the ports to plug into it are not widely available, nor will they ever be. Indeed, this is what charity–and often love on a wider scale beyond those we prefer to love–has been reduced to in our time, a system of relating in which vast differences are preserved through vast distances, and intermediaries are instruments of a love that is vacuous and cold, if it can even be referred to as love at all.

Modern notions of giving and the alleviation of poverty are just examples of what it might mean to live under a “regime” of love, where love is so pervasive, so cheap for some, so expensive for others, and so universally asserted across the board, that we find ourselves adrift in a sea of love without knowing how to love those not within our own boats. I am suggesting here that this attention to justice, love as justice, justice as love, to the re-formation and re-appropriation of the structures and instruments that keep us away from one another, or, worse, lull us into a false sense of loving so that we think we are relating to one another when in fact our alienation from one another has never been more dire, is one way we learn to love again. Paul gives us Christ as an escape from and reconciliation with the Jewish Law. But we cannot separate Christ from Jesus, the man Jesus, who sought to bring the poor and the marginalized and the sick and the weary and the haunted back to life again while they yet lived.

The works of love detailed above are meant, I think to draw this out, to try and do justice to the meaning of a life who who took a sledgehammer to the scaffolding of a system that was killing his people, and literally loved them to death. If Jesus, the rescuer, the fulfiller of the law, is the higher law of love, then this is how that love is enacted, this is what love looks for–not merely to heal the wound, but to heal the wound precisely through throwing light on the unjust conditions that cause these kinds of wounds in the first place. What Spencer shows us in his careful work, is that love is not just a mutual fidelity to an external goal, it’s more specific than that. Love is the hopeful enactment of justice, and the work of destroying the structures that insist that what is actually injustice–that which ultimately preserves the system because it contributes to its reinforcement–is love. Love in this sense is an awareness (or at least an understanding of the possibility of) love itself as a law, a regime, one in which we are amenable to deceptive subjugation without the performance of justice in the lives of those to whom we are commanded to relate as neighbors.


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