The Spiritual Dimension of Social Justice: Transforming the Legal Arena

When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love,” he conveyed a vision of justice based on the assumption that we are already connected, that we are anchored to each other in our common humanity.

Drawing of a man in bubble.

{title}Revolting Against Isolation{/title} by Olivia Wise. Credit: Olivia Wise {link url=""}{/link}

In this frame, the work of law and justice is something like the work of a mountain climber, who throws his pick to the top of a mountain, pulls strongly on the rope of conviction that links us to a common vision—our common destination—and then finds his or her steps as a result of that anchorage in a future vision based on our already existing social bond. If love can correct that which revolts against love, that means we can, based on our inherent loving bond as humans, intuit a moral direction to heal and repair that which divides and dehumanizes us.

The foundation of that felt, loving social bond is what I call the desire for mutual recognition, the desire to see and be seen by the other in a relation of true mutual presence, in what the Jewish theologian Martin Buber called a relation of I and Thou. We are all animated by this desire, all long for it to be made manifest in the world. But in our culture, the desire for loving mutual recognition is, to a large degree, denied. It’s denied when we pass each other with blank gazes on the street. It’s denied when we stare at each other through restaurant glass windows, as if we were in a zoo, gazing at others as if they were objects. And it’s denied in the roles we play within our culture that withdraw us deeply within ourselves. How much of our lives we spend in fear of each other, each throwing up an outer artificial persona of ourselves in order to conceal our true longing and vulnerability, each attached to familial or nationalist loyalties that may bind us to a collective image of community but leave us instead enveloped in mutual distance and isolation!

Woman trapped inside a bubble.

Although we each silently long for “unarmed love,” to again use a phrase of Dr. King’s, we spend much of our lives encapsulated in private, separate spheres, living out our private destinies in a kind of mutually imposed spiritual prison.

Social movements gain momentum and transformative power when they succeed at tapping into and affirming our deep and collective yearning for mutual recognition. These movements help us to break on through to the other side, to emerge from our reciprocal isolation through a common struggle for justice that links our highest moral impulses with a collective coming-into-connection that holds the promise of making those high moral impulses a living social reality. That morally inspired life force is actually what gives social movements their “movement” character. What moves is our collective being itself, awakened through our new recognition of each other’s transcendent and beautiful humanity.

As any powerful movement “rises up” in this way, its carriers must enter the legal arena, because the very basis of the movement is to make a claim on the community as a whole for justice, for correcting that which revolts against the high moral consciousness that the movement itself is carrying forward. What happens when a social movement animated by the spiritual force of a longing for mutual recognition and authentic, loving human connection enters into the legal arena?

Social Movements in the Legal Arena

A purple bubble

When any progressive social movement reaches the point when it must convert its spiritual claim into a legal claim, the movement immediately faces a significant challenge because the legal arena that we have inherited, and that we live enveloped by, is despiritualized. By this I mean that the framework of American law is based on the assumptions of what we often call liberal political theory, or the liberal paradigm, a worldview based on a secular/empirical view of the known universe and an individualistic view of the social compact. But seen from the perspective of the socially connected framework that I have articulated, the individualism of the liberal vision is actually a social description of the world in which people are inherently disconnected, rather than inherently in relationship.

Thus the communal longing for mutual recognition is not manifested in our inherited legal paradigm. Like other forms of the denial of the desire for mutual recognition, our inherited legal culture denies this desire by assuming we are ontologically separated individuals whose bond is purely after the fact and voluntary, rather than constitutive of who we are in our very essence before we even become individuals. The liberal paradigm supported the accomplishments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in establishing the integrity of the individual’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the protection of the person against the group through the medium of individual rights, but it has now become an expression of the very problem we must overcome if we are to realize our true social nature as inherently loving and generous social beings.

So to reiterate: When I say that our law as it is represents us as disconnected, what I mean is that the picture of the social world transmitted through law’s discourse and processes is one of floating, separate spheres who may come into connection through voting separately to create the government, or through the formation of contracts and a whole variety of other voluntary activities, but who are not inherently already connected in the sense of being constituted by the social bond that I’m trying to describe. The liberal legal world is a representation of the social world that corresponds to and expresses our fear of each other and masks, obscures, and denies our inherent bond and our longing for mutual recognition. Our law institutionalizes, ontologizes, and takes for granted as inevitable the existential separation that we live out painfully in our everyday private existences.

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