Justice is love in public

November 11th, 2020

Our daughter Meredith was seven years old when a psychologist told us that she is autistic. Assuming that Meredith might have some garden-variety learning challenge, my wife Joy and I had sought testing for her. The word autism fell on us like a hammer blow.

Knowing little about the disorder, I imagined a bleak future for my little girl. And that particular clinician’s report gave us little reason to think otherwise.

My initial despair gradually gave way to a generalized resentment at the injustice of it all. As the sun set and the dinner plates were cleared away, my anger focused increasingly on God. So once the kids were down for bed, I took a walk.

The neighborhood streets were empty. The night was clear and moonless. It was just me and God under a starlit sky. And God got an earful.

“Isn’t it enough that this kid had open-heart surgery as a toddler! And as a clergy family, you know that we don’t have the financial resources to guarantee a secure future for her, especially when Joy and I are gone. You’ve really let us down.”

I had never felt so powerless. As I let off steam, I began to realize that my rage was covering a more basic terror that I didn’t want to face. The future was not in my control. And that is when I heard God speak to me.

Okay. I know. For some of you, that’s implausible. But that’s how I experienced it. And this is what I heard in my soul that night: “Make sure that your daughter knows that you love her each day.”

Upon reflection, this became a lesson for me about how love is a boundless, unstoppable power. Love, you see, is not how I happen to feel about somebody or how they feel about me.

It’s the good that I can do in the moment for the people who are right in front of me or even around the world from me, no matter how insignificant that good may seem.

Nothing can stop me from giving that love away as a gift once I realize that its meaning and importance are not bound up with getting a result.

Someone else’s hate for me or indifference toward me cannot prevent me from doing good toward them. From turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, or giving the shirt off my back after they’ve stolen my jacket.

Jesus, of course, lived the way of love. He taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To care as much about your life as I care about my own. And you know, when we all do this together — when it’s how we organize ourselves as a society — the Bible calls that justice.

The prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters.” (Amos 5:24) And by justice he meant — like all the prophets and like Jesus himself meant — that in a just society each of us would strive to make sure that everybody has enough.

My friend Christie told me about a T-shirt that boiled down that habitual posture of love pretty well. It read: There is no Us with U. We are all in this together. Or, as Cornel West put it, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Before telling this story about Meredith, I asked her if that would be OK. It turns out that she hadn’t actually heard the story herself. She’s 28 now, a college graduate, and most people are surprised to hear that she’s on the spectrum.

I briefly recounted to her the tale of that night, and she said it was fine to share it with others. As she got up to head out for the day, I asked her, “Do you feel like I love you each day?” She smiled and said, “Yes. I do.”

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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