“Justice Is the Instrument, but Love Is the Motive”

Many of us work in support of Access to Justice. A2J is an important response to injustice. But why do we do it? What compels us to strive to work in this field? What sustains us in this work?

For most of us it is certainly not financial reward (although there is undoubtedly money to be made by inventing and selling new tools and processes). It may be a need to “give back” out of gratitude for our experience as professionals in the justice system. It may feel like a moral or ethical calling. Perhaps it is all of the above.

Or, maybe it is something more basic. Maybe it is love.

The Reinhold Niebuhr quote above is referred to by Bryan Stevenson in an interview with Kate Bowler. You can listen to the podcast or read the entire transcript here – please do. It may change you.

Bryan Stevenson is a US lawyer and clinical professor. He founded the equal justice initiative, a non-profit law center in Montgomery, Alabama. His work focuses on eliminating the death penalty, mass incarceration and life-without-parole sentencing for minors. He wrote “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” It is also a movie. Definitely watch it.

Here is what he said about love:

I read a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr when I was a college student, and I used his quotes at the beginning of my book. And its justice is the instrument, but love is the motive. And I do think if … our desire for justice isn’t rooted in a kind of love of everyone, not just those on whose behalf we’re seeking, just for the love of everyone. Because I think of an injustice like a terrible disease, you know, and it’s this kind of infectious, kind of toxic thing. And you don’t want anybody burdened by the attributes of that illness. And you’re trying to shield people who are most vulnerable, who are likely to be victimized by the injustice. But you want everyone to be free of this horrific malady that causes you to not see humanity and to see dignity and see personhood and to see grace and redemption. And I do think you have to you have to yearn for a kind of love that you can give to any and everyone.

It isn’t common in legal culture to have discussions about love. If seeking justice (and A2J) is a tool flowing from love, then who are we to love? Stevenson says everyone. Not just our clients or those in our networks, but everyone. Inevitably, this likely requires inner as well as outer change – not something we are used to discussing.

I am reminded of wise advice from Adam Kahane, who provided critical advice to our Lab Group early in its development. [Note 1] His powerful book, Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, opens with a compelling quote from one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.

We are not talking about romantic love here. Kahane defines love as the force that drives us towards unity. It encompasses compassion, empathy, respect, and solidarity. It moves us to action.

This resonates with me as I continue to transition out of the season of full-time paid work to retirement. I have to be careful about how I choose to spend my time. I want to continue to be involved in A2J, particularly supporting families and children and I know this is because, to me, this is heart work (my way of describing the love that motivates me).

Changing systems is hard and long work. It takes both power AND love. It requires resources, wisdom, empathy, determination, perseverance. It takes love to allow us to speak truth to power. Taking Bryan Stevenson’s words to heart, if love is the motive, then let’s not be afraid to reflect on love, talk about love and act on love.


Note [1]: To read more about the early days of the Family Justice Innovation Lab click here.

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