Justice and Love, Part Deux


In a previous posting, I suggested that love and justice are far from being mutually contradictory attributes of the religious life. On the contrary, I argued that they are complementary, that in fact justice flows naturally from love.

As I thought further about this, I remembered something that Abbie Hoffman once said. In a television documentary made some twenty years ago, he was asked if he agreed with the sentiment expressed by the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love". His response was a definite no; he said he disagreed with what he called "Beatle politics", asserting that what we needed was not love, but justice.

Abbie Hoffman was a political activist who often fought for justice, sometimes in creative ways. As much as we can applaud many of his efforts in this area, I also think that he was wrong in this case, when he argued that love and justice were not the same thing. As Matthew Fox wrote in On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear,

We must develop our capacity for outrage and adult anger, it appears, from purifying our own love. For the relation of love and anger is inextricable. Anger is as sure a signal of love as smoke is of fire. Where one's capacity to become outraged at injustices is smothered and barely smolders, so does one's capacity for loving justice. It follows then that the development of the prophet in each of us waits for the development of the mystic in each of us. With growth in our powers to love life will advance our urge to share it and to wrestle with its enemies. Adult anger is not buckshot anger, exploding in every direction at slight provocations. It is finely aimed and honed anger arising from a care for the beloved, not from an overly sensitive or hot-headed reaction to inconveniences. One's care for life fully lived can surely hone one's capacity for anger so that it finds a productive and creative channel in which to accomplish its work, which is a great work: facing down life's demonic and powerful evil spirits and principalities. To develop in love of life, to enjoy it more fully, to allow our mysticism its rightful preeminence is to develop as a prophet too.
Outrage at injustice, as Fox points out, can thus be a natural expression of love. A universal and embracing love naturally seeks justice for those who are oppressed by a social, political, and economic system that is operated for the benefit of the few. This is the prophetic vision.

Love is a life-affirming vision, as are creativity and humor. Thinking further about Abbie Hoffman, one cannot help but appreciate the sense of humor that he brought to his own vision of justice. Hoffman was Jewish, although I am not aware of him having been religious. He was a complicated and flawed human being, as we all are. But as a social activist he often could express his opposition to injustice in ways that were creative and life affirming--one might even say prophetic. His use of humor as a tool of resisting a system of oppression and war was often brilliantly refreshing. In 1967, for example, he organized a protest in which he and others threw money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; also in that year he organized a levitation of the Pentagon during a mass antiwar protest in Washington. This was at a time when the Pentagon was operating an immoral war of aggression in a foreign country--much as it is doing today. During the Chicago Seven trial, Hoffman, who was facing what were essentially trumped up charges lodged against him and other dissidents in the aftermath of the 1968 demonstrations outside the Democratic Party convention, responded with his trademark humor that exposed the ridiculousness of the system. He blew kisses to the jury, he entered the court in judicial robes, and so forth. When charged with contempt for these actions, he responded to the court by saying:
But when the decorum is oppression, the only dignity that free men have is the right to speak out. Furthermore, you said we do not honor your authority, but we recognize that authority as illegitimate in the same way that the authority that decided the political decisions in that heavy week in August in 1968 was illegitimate and did not represent the will and the desire of the people.

So we cannot respect an authority that we regard as illegitimate. We can only offer resistance to such illegitimate authority.
Resistance to illegitimate authority has always been a prophetic message--a message carried out by Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, and other prophets throughout history. In responding creatively and artistically to a system of war and oppression, Hoffman was, in his own way, acting as a kind of prophet of life, as all of us can and should do. That is because each of us, as Matthew Fox pointed out, can be a prophet. Was Hoffman a radical? Yes, he most certainly was. Matthew Fox writes, "The word 'radical' receives rather bad press these days, but whatever be its emotional connotations, it is perfectly apt for our purposes. In fact, it is as innocuous as 'radishes' (which derives from the same word) or 'roots' (coming from the Latin word radix meaning root). " Fox also quotes William Sloan Coffin, who once said, "A liberal is a person who thinks other people need help, and a radical is one who knows we're all in trouble."

Fox suggests that a radical response is necessary in the face of the mysteries of life:
The understanding of prayer as a radical response to life suggests the following lesson. That a new commandment has been given to us: thou shalt love your life with all your strength and energy, growing daily in appreciation of the joys of life; and you shall allow and aid where possible your neighbor to love his and do the same, using common norms of justice to determine life's priorities. Live to make life livable; fighting when necessary, learning by whatever means possible, having a good time when you feel like it, respecting life's mysteries in an active, not a passive manner. In short--love life--and do whatever you want.
Abbie Hoffman died a premature death. It was thought to be suicide, although there are those who dispute this. If Hoffman indeed had killed himself, this would have represented succumbing to a kind of despair that was the opposite of love and life-affirming prophecy. I do recall seeing him quoted, before his death, complaining about the way universities had become "hotbeds of campus rest". But whether this was cynicism or despair, I don't know, and perhaps those who deny that he killed himself are correct. Either way, we can still remind ourselves that the fight for justice is a necessary component of the prophetic lifestyle. At his funeral, according to the New York Times,
Rabbi Norman Mendell said in his eulogy that Mr. Hoffman's long history of protest, antic though much of it had been, was "in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
Where Hoffman was mistaken was in separating this from "Beatle politics". All you need is, indeed, love--because love impels us to seek justice.


John Shuck said...

Thanks for the reminder about Abbie Hoffman. He certainly was prophetic in the way of the Hebrew prophets. I am also thinking of Paul Tillich's book, "Love, Power, and Justice" or something like that, that linked all three concepts very well.

Love encompasses all three, I suppose Abbie wanted to emphasize justice that can be overlooked if we think of love in a romantic or weak sense.

You did a nice job of describing the justice element as inherent in love.