john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

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    Balancing love and justice

    I produced this essay for the Ethics course at Ridley Hall in January 2000.

    Original title: "Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else." (Fletcher). Is this an adequate understanding of love and justice?

    1. Introduction

    Adequately defining love and justice, and the relationship between them, has been the work of centuries, and still moralists, theologians and philosophers widely differ in their conclusions. In this essay all I can hope to offer is a brief and selective survey of what has been written on the subject. I shall do so using as a reference-point a particular contemporary moral dilemma: the question, should Robert Thompson and Jon Venables be released from prison soon?

    On Friday 12 February 1983, two ten-year old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, took two-year-old James Bulger from Bootle Strand shopping centre, walked him two and a half miles through north Liverpool, and on a railway line near their homes they stoned and beat him to death, leaving him lying across a track where his body was later cut in half by a goods train. They were tried at Preston Crown Court in November 1993, by full adult jury trial, both then aged 11. Convicting them of murder, the trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, set a tariff of eight years, upped by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, to 10 years. Michael Howard, Home Secretary at the time, increased that to 15 years. This was quashed by the English courts as unlawful, but nothing has been put in its place. In December 1999 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that they had been denied a fair trial.

    Thompson and Venables will turn 18 this year, and in theory be moving from the hands of the social services into the Prison Service. The Home Secretary Jack Straw has come under pressure to clarify the process for deciding when the boys should be released. The Chief Inspector of Prisons General Sir David Ramsbotham has advocated an early release: "Once they have reached the age of adulthood [18], I would hope they would get as early as possible a release in order to give them some chance of making a life. The longer you leave it...the less easy it will be for them."[1] Other voices, perhaps more representative of the prevailing feeling in the country, argue that the severity of their crime merits a sentence as severe as possible, and that an early release is unacceptable.

    Where are love and justice in all this? What role could each play in the decision which has to be made? By considering these questions I hope to produce a reasonable discussion of these terms, what they mean in Christian ethics and in society as a whole.

    2. Love and Justice in opposition

    Love and justice conflict when love is regarded as being concerned with individual virtue and well-being, justice as being concerned with the relationship between groups within society. In this line of thought, biblically, love is about the individual's behaviour to their individual 'neighbour', justice about God's dispensation of rewards and punishments to people and peoples who sit under his judgment. An established concept of justice is that it is when a person receives what is due to them that they are treated justly. Justice can be either retributive (when punishment for wrongdoing is what is due) or distributive (when a person receives what is theirs by right to have).[2]

    What emerges most clearly from the Thompson-Venables case is that society, when so inclined, will enforce retributive justice very strongly. The response of the people, stirred up by saturation media reporting, ensured this:
      The horrific murder, and the fact that the brutality was inflicted by such young children, shocked the nation and the world. When the boys were tried at Preston crown court, aged 11, they ran a daily gauntlet of enraged crowds shouting abuse and hurling stones at the prison vans.[3]
    Concepts of distributive justice applied to this case are treated very much as secondary in the mainstream media,and are consistently challenged by populist government ministers, and, in this quotation, by the Bulger family's solicitor:
      Mr Sexton said: "People forget what happened to James and concentrate on the offenders." Robin Makin, who represents James's father, Ralph, said he was "horrified" by the interview [with David Ramsbotham, quoted above]. [4]
    Here, the rights of Thompson and Venables are being questioned, their receipt of distributive justice is regarded as subordinate to their receipt of retributive justice. In this extremely emotive case, there seems no place for love. If a brave person were to suggest love as a valid consideration at all in this dialogue, it would surely be dismissed as a personal not societal attitude. And a personal attitude to keep to one's self. All of this supports the concept of love and justice being two very different things.

    The writer Blake Morrison, who produced a book-length meditation on this case, makes a point which carries this discussion into other interpretations of love and justice. He understands why Denise and Ralph Bulger find no place for love, no forgiveness, in themselves for this crime, but finds the wider society's retributive response 'inhuman and despairing', a sign of 'a culture without hope':
      For Ralph and Denise not to forgive is human. But for a whole nation not to, inhuman.[5]
    This suggests that a human(e) society could be able to offer a sign of love, could be able to forgive, even where the individuals within it would find that (justly?) impossible. This in turn suggests that love and justice may not be in irreconcilable conflict, but may rather interact in a complex way within societies.

    3. Love and Justice in unequal relation

    In Justice and the Social Order, Emile Brunner asserts that while love and justice are two different things, they are not entirely different. Love supplements justice. More specifically, love does the same as justice but then goes beyond it:
      Love always presupposes justice and fulfils the claims of justice before setting about its own business, which consists in transcending those claims.[6]
    This view is held also by Paul Tillich, who compares love without justice to 'a body without backbone', but asserts that while justice is immanent in love, love transcends it because it is always possible to achieve justice without achieving a loving relationship.[7] It is within such arguments that it is possible to see how a society can forgive a terrible crime, having dealt justly with the perpetrators, if it is minded to do so. It is possible to see how writers can now respond in supportive terms to the idea of an early release for the child child-killers:
      James Bulger's killers have lost their childhoods, their entire formative years. So what do we do now? Do we let them rot, these innocents of life, like many serial killers? Or do we try to correct their disastrous upbringing and reintroduce them to the real world, a place where they have never really lived?[8]
    In the view of Reinhold Niebuhr, justice is love's best possible expression in a 'sin-soaked world'.[9] In other words, in complex and imperfect situations, love will help to inform the distribution of justice. This helps to validate the above conciliatory reaction to the proposal that Thompson and Venables could have an early release, justifying the role of the Prison Service to rehabilitate as well as punish offenders.

    The application of this approach is nevertheless, still fraught with difficulty. Love and justice retain different meanings to all parties in such complex situations. Garth Hallett discusses the dilemma of decision-making in Priorities and Christian Ethics. How does loving concern for others express itself in deeds? There are various preference-rules which 'vie for recognition or jostle for precedence'. He considers the thorny question, who gets preference, the nearest or the neediest?[10]

    In our study, decisions over preference focus on the criminal and the victim. In this public situation, the roles of nearest and neediest alter according to who is making the decision. Even in their grief and desire for retribution, supporters of James Bulger's family may see that there is good, humane, reason in calls for the release of Thompson and Venables, that these boys are now (arguably) the neediest. But for them the preference remains with the victim, because the victim is the nearest. The victim may still appear the nearest to the majority of the general public, familiar with him through saturation media coverage, while Thompson and Venables remain unknown, the requirements of juvenile law continuing to obscure them from public view. This will weight the public's priorities towards the nearest, also.

    And because public opinion is so important to ministers in a populist government, the public's views will be the priority of those in power. If human instinct is to attend to the needs of the nearest before the neediest, if this is love's best possible expression in a sin-soaked world, then Thompson and Venables may spend many more years yet in prison.

    4. Love and Justice in correspondence

    Christians may not believe that love and justice are so disconnected or are so imperfectly connected. There are other views which affirm rather that love and justice are the same.

    Joseph Fletcher challenged the view that love's operations must be limited to personal relationships. 'To say that love is for individuals and justice for groups is to sentimentalise love and dehumanise justice ... Fletcher understands justice's role as finding love's relative course in different situations'.[11] This goes further than Brunner, Tillich and Niebuhr because it is confident about a unity between love and justice. It thus suggests a less cautious approach to problem solving than that provided by Hallett.

    I find Jose Miranda providing the application to Fletcher's theory, specifically for Christian ethics. Miranda searches scripture to affirm that love and justice are the same, and suggests that these are not abstract concepts, not operations of emotion, but rather, activities: activities of God and of those who choose to respond to God's imperatives to live in the divine image:
      If a man who was rich enough in this world's goods saw that one of his brothers was in need, but closed his heart to him, how could the love of God be living in him? My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.[12]
    Miranda links this to Jeremiah 22.16 ('He defended the cause of the poor and the needy ... is not this what it means to know me?') And asserts that 'The sense of justice is the only love that gets to the heart of the matter,' that 'love is not love without a passion for justice'.[13]

    Thus, love and justice combine in scripture as the defining expressions of God and those who have God 'living in them'. They are identified in acts of solidarity with those who suffer, with 'loving your neighbour as yourself'[14] in ways which offer assistance when it is perceived to be necessary, which are expressions of equality.

    Such an ethic suggests that the correct response to the Thompson-Venables question is to act in solidarity, both with the Bulger family and with two people who continue to suffer the consequences of actions they took at ten, and, being ten, could never explain.

    Such a ethic seems impossible, inapplicable in the current climate, where retribution is still by far the most loudly-pronounced form of justice on Thompson, Venables and all whose offences have scandalised society. It could apply, if more people faced the case dispassionately and saw (a) the pitilessness of the boys' treatment so far, (b) the value of restorative justice for them and society as a whole. Or rather, not dispassionately, but with a passion for a form of justice which responds equitably to the suffering of all parties.

    This suggests that the 'love-justice' ethic is adequate, but very difficult to apply in such challenging circumstances. It suggests that it is the role of Christians to expound, and to live out its consequences in a society which may be very opposed to its intentions. Though writing from a secular perspective, Blake Morrison sees this, and asserts that the alternative is a society continuing to be brutalised by an ethic which separates love and justice, and thus diminishes both:
      Robert and Jon could be rehabilitated, remorseful as they are. ... It's inhuman not to forgive damaged children, and despairing not to try to save them. As if kids who kill come from another planet, and don't deserve the chance to be human, to atone, to repair. The future won't forgive us for this - won't forgive us for our lack of forgiveness. The future will think us childish for how we thought about children.[15]


    1. Books referred to in this essay

    Atkinson, D.J, Field, D.H (eds), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1995)
    Hallett, G.L, Priorities and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
    Miranda, J.P, Marx and the Bible (London: SCM, 1977)
    Morrison, B, As If, (London: Granta, 1997)

    2. Other books referenced in preparation for this essay

    Gardner, E.C, Justice and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
    Sereny, G, Cries Unheard - Why Children Kill (Henry Holt, 1999)
    Smith, D.J, The Sleep of Reason - The James Bulger Case (London: Century, 1994)
    Tillich, P, Love, Power and Justice (OUP, 1954)

    3. Other publications referred to in this essay

    Cockburn, B, letter to Telegraph, 3 November 1999
    Dyer, C, Travis, A, Boy killers denied fair trial, Guardian, 17 December 1999
    New Statesman, 1 November 1999
    Shrimsley, R, Free Bulger's killers, says jail inspector, Telegraph, 29 October 1999


    All scripture quotations are taken from Miranda, J.P, Marx and the Bible (London: SCM, 1977), translated from Spanish by John Eagleson.

    [1] New Statesman, 1 November 1999
    [2] based on material in Atkinson, D.J, Field, D.H (eds), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1995), pp.13-16.
    [3] Dyer, C, Travis, A, Boy killers denied fair trial, Guardian, 17 December 1999
    [4] Shrimsley, R, Free Bulger's killers, says jail inspector, Telegraph, 29 October 1999
    [5] Morrison, B, As If, (London: Granta, 1997), p.240
    [6] Atkinson & Field, p.13
    [7] Atkinson & Field, p.13
    [8] Cockburn, B, letter to Telegraph, 3 November 1999
    [9] Atkinson & Field, p.13
    [10] Hallett, G.L, Priorities and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.1
    [11] Atkinson & Field, p.13
    [12] 1 John 3.17-18
    [13] Miranda, J.P, Marx and the Bible (London: SCM, 1977), p.62
    [14] Matthew 22.39-40
    [15] Morrison, p.240