Last year saw a victory for a US President running on a platform of hatred, and a UK vote to leave the EU on a platform of fear. Both campaigns painfully revealed how deeply divided both the United States and the United Kingdom are, and how conflicted our ideas of justice have become. But 2016 also marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. And if anyone understood what comprises the bedrock of justice, Shakespeare did: Love.
The Bard’s plays have endured this long, not only for the rich characters and brilliant language, but also because they stage the core values of mutual caring and respect for others, carrying forward the tradition of neighbor-love. In many different ways, his plays suggest that to achieve justice, we need to be guided by love.
This flies in the face of most philosophies of justice, which cordon off love as irrelevant to the tough business of achieving a just society. But the power-hungry, narcissistic King Lear only learns about justice when he experiences sympathy for the plight of the poor, the “houseless heads with unfed sides”:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare gave us the wildly improbable story of a bitterly divided community, chock full of mutual hatred, being healed through the love and sacrifice of its youth — and their love achieves what all of the efforts of the state fail to do. That story of the power of love to end strife has not only endured, it has been Americanized in the iconic musical West Side Story. Tragically, the musical version critiques the hatred but leaves out the healing. Shakespeare imagined better.
Why should politicians pay attention to Shakespeare? Because he has put the plight of those in need on the stage in ways that remind us of what it means to be human, and the grasping of the powerful in ways that warn against “mountainish inhumanity,” as stated by the Sheriff of London in Sir Thomas More.
The biblical command to “Love thy neighbor” (a better translation: “thy fellow human”) goes back more than two millennia. But just who is that person, the neighbor? In Leviticus, the fellow human is described as someone who is vulnerable, lacking the protections of family bonds (the widow or orphan), and of home (the stranger, the poor). The passage also includes the disabled, and those who are cheated and lied to by those in power.
Our duty, and the duty of our elected leaders, is to care for these people — our neighbors — and this is concrete: in the Bible, it describes leaving the gleanings of our fields for the hungry. For us, this means distributing resources, especially to those in need. To begin to acknowledge the priority of caring for all humans, love needs to be put back on the political agenda, and it should even serve as a guide in important decisions in domestic and foreign policy. Are our leaders guided by loving justice?
But should our leaders pay attention to anything the Bible says?
Because in our secular age, we lack better accounts of what it means to be human, to care for our neighbors. We looked hard for something better in my Ideas of Justice course at the Northwestern University Law School. The account offered by liberal humanism risks being reduced to sheer greed — hence, CEOs who make more than 500 times that of their workers. The account offered by economics can be reduced to machine-cold calculation that can leave “unfed sides” starved. And the account offered by power risks distillation to empty notoriety and bullying.
Shakespeare’s simple concept — that we humans exist to care for one another, to love and be loved — acknowledges that we are part of a web of connections, unable to live without community, and that these connections are the social glue that enable all to flourish. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…we must now learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together…” That message, by Martin Luther King, Jr., in A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, understands that hatred and divisiveness tear at the social fabric: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In this new year, our leaders can demonstrate their ability to be strong enough to put a stop to the messages of hatred that have swept across the UK and US recently. They can demonstrate their care for their fellow humans, as Shakespeare’s Thomas More does so poignantly:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
…and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
If we would not feed on one another, we must care for one another.