There is a way of thinking that pits economic prudence or political strategy against morality and compassion, framing the battle as muscular intellect against limp naïveté. Wisdom, in other words, versus love. Sure, you can be liberal (in the dictionary sense of the word—free, or generous), but only insofar as you forfeit the prize of sustainable results. Love is the province of the sacred—the habitat of poet, pastor, priest. It has no place at the table of strategists.
Wisdom versus love is a false dichotomy, the old Catholic dualism of sacred versus secular. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. Love without wisdom isn’t really loving, and wisdom without love is, after all, unwise. Paul hints at it: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Cor. 13:2)
Isaiah, predicting the future shoot of Jesse, said that the Messiah would unite compassion (“with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” Is. 11:4) with, emphatically, wisdom (“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might” Is. 11:2).
Legislation without love presumes some to be deserving while others are not. It varies from case to case, but that much of the equation is fairly consistent. In notorious cases such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the underlying logic went that Africans were not fully human (legally, according to the U.S. Constitution, only 3/5 a person) and so did not enjoy equal protection under the law. In Nazi systems, it was the Jews who were unworthy of justice.
It turns out that there are a lot of undeserving people in our society—criminals, the homeless, high school drop-outs, and immigrants, to name a few. Actually, the list is accurate, but incomplete. According to Christ, I am undeserving. The hardworking, degree achieving, award winning, beautiful—they are unworthy, too.
That subconscious ranking of worthy citizens results in a flawed conclusion: because the undeserving have forfeited justice, the only business of government is to secure justice for those who have earned it. Those who have dutifully contributed taxes, obedience, and Girl Scout cookies must be shielded from the mistakes of those who have been slackers. Nice churchgoing folk should be protected from potential terrorists.
Of course, we might want to help the down and out, but any real attempt to help the “huddled masses” is predestined to fail. Eradicating poverty (war/famine/oppression) is impossible—all we can do is make the best of a bad situation. With one hand we support sacred institutions (Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision) that offer love to the least of these, with the other we support political institutions that squelch compassion like an irritating fly.
A pragmatist may argue that wisdom must be practical, not emotional. Leave violins to the movies and bring a calculator. Yet as anyone who’s ever faced a traffic ticket can vouch, sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. No one wants to face a robotic judge. It remains easier to apply a loveless logic to other people, though, particularly if those others fit into a tidy box labeled “less than.”
A whole lot of boxes have been filled with a whole lot of less-thans over the centuries, enough to fill cemeteries from the Trail of Tears to the Killing Fields. Do we really want to be on the side of the legalist?
Sadly, many of the great atrocities throughout history were allowed to happen because of a widespread belief by common people that the injustice du jour was deserved, inevitable, or someone else’s problem. It was not, perhaps, a lack of love that led ordinary folks to look the other way, but the reluctant decision to mute their own compassion for the greater good of political savvy.
How good is that logic? Well, pretty tight, all things considered. When, for example, eighty percent of the famine relief sent to Somaliland by the United Nations were stolen by bandits in 1992, it lent authority to the voices saying that compassionate work is futile.
Maybe the sheet is big enough to cover the bed, but it’s a pretty poor cover. Cold logic confirms what the love-lacking proclaim: there will always be foolish, lazy, violent, and unlucky people, and there is no magic formula for erasing oppression. But there is an answer warmer than logic provides, and it comes to us from an easily dismissed source: a story.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Out of dust and breath he formed a man, a woman, the first ancestors of all the brown, peach, and almond-skinned people who walk this earth today. But since Eve and Adam traded bites of forbidden fruit, we have all—all—been tragically broken. Some are born in a castle and some in a stable, some of us dine with royalty and others share the catch of the day right there on the beach. All of us stand before God desperately needy of grace.
It was not Christ’s political savvy that led him to the cross, but foolish, beautiful love. It was not my wisdom that allowed me to receive that gift, but his mercy. In Christ we are not ranked by giftedness, wealth, character, or personality, but all stand before the cross blood-spattered and astonished. The One who is Love died for me.
In Christ we are not called to protect anyone’s rights, but to lay down our own. In Christ we are not called to erect walls but to tear them down. In Christ we have no fear of evil because Jesus defeated sin, Satan, death, and hell. What can terrorists take from me? My life? I am heaven-bound. On the other hand, what can we give? The gospel.
In Christ we love extravagantly, knowing that in the end, love will prevail. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.” Ironically, it was also Gandhi who said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
May we be as willing to mute our own inner skeptic as we are to mute our love, that we may be more like Christ. A “bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” (Is. 42:3-4)
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