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Justice Permeated by Love

If you've been reading my blog, you've seen me quote before from the Reverend James Lawson's founding statement of principles for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee well over forty years ago. What SNCC was seeking, Lawson wrote, was "a social order or justice permeated by love." This has become one of many mnemonics lodged in my brain, a scrap of wisdom infused with moral grandeur to guide the generations.

Like my friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow (I have the honor of serving as president of the Board of The Shalom Center, the peace and justice organization he founded), I am disturbed by the tone of gloating triumph following the House's rejection of the "bailout" plan issuing from the progressive organizations whose positions I usually support. It's not that I thought it was a good plan; it was deeply flawed. But the triumphalism greeting its defeat bespeaks an idea of justice that knows nothing of love: punish the fat cats and the rest be damned. There is no doubt that the current crisis was created by appalling greed and an even more appalling indifference to its consequences on the part of the financial world, a drunken pyramid scheme cynically built on people's hopes for home and security. It is important to know how these events came to pass—everyone who advocated government deregulation of banks and financial instruments has blood on their money today—and to move quickly to correct the public-policy crimes that created this mess.

But punishing the perpetrators needs to be done in a way that doesn't also punish the sinned against. Every day, we hear of small businesses failing because they can no longer get credit from terrified lenders. We see the anecdotal evidence everywhere. My husband's favorite lunch place, run by Palestinian immigrants, has cut back its hours to the point where its viability is in question. I'm still trying to sell my house, and more than one prospective buyer has been unable to get financing. Manufacturing is down, unemployment is up, people are very scared. Government exists to provide for the common welfare, especially in crisis. Irrespective of its flaws, the bailout plan was killed primarily by right-wingers with ample assets who see government stepping in to help as a form of socialism and who continue to worship at the altar of market self-correction. Do progressives really want to be in that company?

The best plan will mandate a moratorium on the foreclosure of primary residences, renegotiation of mortgages to assist stressed homeowners by bringing them in line with the vastly reduced current value of their homes, expansion of unemployment and other social benefits for those hit hardest, and perhaps most important of all, hard-nosed agreements with banks to guarantee the public sector the right to regulate a renegade industry for the public good and an equity stake in return for its investment. Toward this end, U.S. policymakers should follow the Swedish example, which saved that country's economy in 1992.

My generation—the sixties generation—has been struggling for a very long time with an epidemic of disappointment. We came up in the revolution of rising expectations, foreseeing a future of justice permeated by love, and we were defeated by the Reagan revolution, a headlong return to me-first values. We have been trying to get over this epochal headache for a long time, and some of us are hoping an Obama administration will help. My husband and I were talking about it this last weekend. "You know," he told me, "I always thought we were building a just and joyous society back in the sixties. Then we lost, and that was that. But looking around now, I am wondering if the skills of vision and empathy we learned then are going to be needed very soon, to help people respond to the new conditions that are being created right this minute."

Click this link from The Shalom Center to send a letter to Congress asking for a more humane response to the debt crisis. It won't be perfect, but in accepting that, another one of those familiar mnemonics pops up with a reminder, this one from Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." What do we stand for? Who do we stand for? In response to this terrible moment for so many of our friends and neighbors, revenge needs to recede as we attempt to do as much good as current conditions permit, taking steps toward justice permeated by love.