Walking into Women at the Well, a centre for women exiting street-based prostitution, I felt ready to do the work of justice. I was armoured to resist, to volunteer my time, to fill every silence with the motion of possibility and power.
Upon leaving my first visit at the Well, I felt ill-equipped for the work. I knew how to clean and make conversation, but I did not know how to serve. Justice asked me not to volunteer my time but to give all of myself to serving. It invited me to lean into the messiness of change, of truly witnessing someone live a life while attempting to shift their own narrative from victim to survivor to thriver.
It was here, at the Well, that I learned the difference between the work of justice and the work of control. The power that justice demands is built through cultivating proximity. When you look at another, it is the act of looking that becomes your concern. You want to see in order to get closer, to care for another. It shifts the power away from you to the other.
The power that power alone commands is control. It is built through creating distance. It evokes a sense of self-centredness. When you look at others, it is because you want to see them. It is the choice to see that becomes your concern. Control is a fight for what you want – what’s right according to you. The kind of space this justice evokes is a wilderness, away and alone from the proximity of others and the ways their being in this world might disturb what is right to you.
In the act of serving, I was forced to confront the ignorant assumptions and fantasies I had about my role as an activist. Before I walked into the Well, I was more concerned with what my power could do to serve the women. In my serving, I realised my hands could curl into a fist and advocate for survivors’ rights, but it did not know what shape to take when it was time to speak tenderness and patience to a survivor’s pain.
How do I listen in a way that heals? When your rage consumes you, how do I stand in a way that holds your body together? When I carelessly ask you an insensitive question, how can we regather this space of trust? When your anger hurts me, how do I breathe deeper and stop myself from repelling from you? Who do I need to be in order for you to be free? This work was not my idea of justice. It was the work of love and I struggled to find the link between the two.
One summer afternoon, I caught a woman in deep silence, her eyes closed, facing the sun, taking in the moment of serenity, taking a break from the trauma wading through her life. I found myself thinking less about the justice I wanted to win back for her, asking God instead, to stretch this silence longer, even forever.
In that moment of silence, I heard Martin Luther King Jr’s words become whole, ‘power at its best is love…implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.’
The work, my fight for a better world, is not a fight for power. It is a fight for love. It is not won through fighting but in serving. The work is the hello said with intention, the hug received with intention, the anticipation of your space in a conversation. The work is someone looking out of you, looking after you, and looking to you with a certainty that it is you and no one else who could be their community.
I grew up an activist fighting for a better world but I forgot that the world I was fighting for, was not made up of ideals but people living those ideals. Jay Z’s reflection, that American politicians ‘see votes before people’, rings true among all of us, when we are willing to give up humanity to uphold our ideals. Ideals are seductive because they bring a certain stability and control which human nature cannot guarantee.
In our quest for peace and security and identity and rights, we forget to do the one thing that will enable those things – we forget to fight for each other. When I get close to another, I am awakened to the possibility of the latent strength in us. In the hands of another, I feel the weight of my being. Looking in the eyes of another, I feel how truth and self-deception sit in my body. Through the generosity of one’s forgiveness, I know the urgency of choosing truth over being right.
This is the work of justice, ‘love correcting everything that stands against love’, revealing to us the types of relationships which will make possible our vision of a better world. And it can only be done by moving closer not further away, by calling in, not calling out each other. It is true that before charity comes justice, but charity, not justice, is the end goal.
Justice is love and power in deep conversation, speaking the language of proximity. They need to be in conversation because love without power is not only dangerous, it is useless, and it will exhaust itself. And power without love is not only useless, it is dangerous, and it will self-immolate.
Justice is violent work because it resists the delusions of a world which says, ‘people are the problem.’ In truth, it is our inability to relate with each other that is the problem. Relationship bears the sort of responsibility and accountability that turns protests and elections into culture shifts. Relationship brings a new dimension of humility which reminds me that what I know of this world can only grow to the extent I am open to learn from the Other (enemy, dissenter).
Traversing this strange terrain, of relating to people whose ideals make you want to live in the wilderness, is hard work. It is really hard work. But that is the hard work of justice, of using your power to reclaim truth and your love to refrain from choosing self-righteousness over truth.