Social Justice and the Human Face

Social justice, despite its complexity and far-ranging implications, has a genesis that is both simple and immediately accessible—the human face. This paradox was eloquently elaborated upon by Pope Benedict XVI in his homily of January 1, 2010. It is a paradox that has challenged the minds of a number of prominent modern thinkers, such as John Paul II, Nikolai Berdyaev, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Max Picard. The following commentary on the pope’s homily draws upon some thoughts of those thinkers.

During his homily, at a Mass in St. Peter’s on the feast-day of Mary, Mother of God, Pope Benedict XVI offered the world a reflection on peace that is most thought-provoking. The subject, of course, is quite appropriate for the first day of the year, since January 1 marks the annual celebration of the World Day of Peace.

The Pontiff developed the point—perhaps original in its application—that peace begins when one person looks upon the face of another. This looking, as Benedict explained carefully, will find the “depth” of the human face “only if we have God in our hearts”. Only then “[are we] in a condition to detect in the face of others a brother in humanity—not a means, but an end, not a rival or an enemy, but another ‘I’, a facet of the infinite mystery of the human being”. The face, as essentially human, transcends ethnicity, race, sex and social status.

One who has an “empty heart”, on the other hand, perceives nothing more in other faces than “flat images”. But the more we are inhabited by God, the more sensitive we are to His presence in others. Hence, the significance of a common Father who loves us all despite our weaknesses and limitations: in looking into the face of another one can experience the unveiling of the face of God.

In the instance of Mary, looking upon the face of her Son, we have a prototype—or icon—of one person seeing the face of God in another. Pope Benedict stated: “She who guarded in her heart the secret of divine maternity was the first to see the face of God-Made-Man in the tiny fruit of her womb.” Conversely, the first face that a child sees is that of his mother and it is this gaze that “is decisive for his relationship with God. It is decisive as well so that he can become a ‘child of peace’.”

The face speaks. It speaks of love and is the beginning of all subsequent discourse. The mother’s face is like the face of God for her baby. Looking into her face, the infant comes to believe that the world outside the womb is safe and trustworthy. The child picks up these messages intuitively and immediately as he studies the face of his loving mother.

In a world of widespread depersonalization, in which people move about side-by-side rather than face-to-face, a reflection on the profound significance of the human face is critically needed. The psychiatrist Leslie Farber and others have pointed out that in pornography, for example, the fig leaf is transferred to cover the face. In this transference, the impersonal gains ascendancy over the personal. This also signifies a suppression of the spiritual.

Like Benedict, the great Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev understood how the spiritual order can manifest itself in the human face. In Slavery and Freedom he wrote: “The face of man is the summit of the cosmic process, the greatest of its offspring, but it cannot be the offspring of cosmic forces only; it presupposes the action of a spiritual force, which raises it above the sphere of the forces of nature. The face of man is the most amazing thing in the life of the world; another world shines through it. It is the entrance of personality into the world process, with its uniqueness, its singleness, its unrepeatability.”

Darwinian evolution cannot begin to explain the emergence in the cosmos of the face as a bearer of the spiritual. For Darwin and his disciples, the spiritual realm exists wholly outside of their limited sphere of discussion, concerning physical variations and chance mutations. A noted geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, has pointed out that human beings properly belong to an “ethical,” not a “gladiatorial” mode of existence. The “ethical” is not something that evolves from matter.

Max Picard, the Swiss psychiatrist whose book The Human Face has caused him to be dubbed “the poet of the human face”, says that God enters man’s face as one friend enters the house of another, without a stir. The face, for Picard, is a tempered image; it is the mildness of God that appears in the face of man.

In John Paul II’s international best-seller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, there is a chapter entitled “The Defence of Every Life”. The author strongly disagrees with the frequently-voiced accusation that those who defend the right of unborn children to live are “obsessive”. He concludes the chapter by drawing upon the ethical significance of the human face as a kind of existential and intensely personalized correlation to the Sixth Commandment. At this point, he introduces Emmanuel Lévinas’s philosophy of the face, one that has roots in the Old Testament Psalms and Prophets. Lévinas, who, like his fellow Jews, experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust, ingeniously links together the human face and the commandment “Do not kill.” He thereby provides, in John Paul’s estimation, “a testimony for our age, in which governments, even democratically elected governments, sanction executions with such ease”. Bureaucracies are not always sensitive to the moral meaning that is inscribed in the human face.

Lévinas develops his “philosophy of the face” in a most remarkable book entitled Totality and Infinity (1961). He states that the first word of the face is “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an order, a commandment that is registered in the very appearance of the face, one that is more compelling than words, more decisive than any dogma.

According to Lévinas, in the access to the face, there is also an access to the idea of God: “To my mind,” he writes, “the Infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face. The face signifies the Infinite. . . When, in the presence of the Other, I say ‘Here I am!’, this ‘Here I am!’ is the place through which the Infinite enters into language. . . The subject who says ‘Here I am!’ testifies to the Infinite.”

For Lévinas, the face-to-face encounter with the other discloses the other’s weakness and mortality. The face is, as it were, naked, destitute, and without defence. Its command is: “Do not leave me in my solitude.” In looking at another’s face, one senses the supreme inappropriateness of violence and, at the same time, the profound obligation to love. The command to treat the other with justice is registered in the human face. But it takes a godly person to read it properly.

Returning to Benedict’s XVI’s homily, the Holy Father acknowledges that the human face can also be marked by the harshness of life and by the effect of evil. But “the faces of innocent little ones are a silent call to us to take responsibility: Before their helplessness, all of the false justifications for war and violence come crashing down.” The face carries a plea to defend and protect.

Pope Benedict then draws a connexion between respect for the person and protecting the environment: “If the person is degraded, the environment is degraded; if culture tends to nihilism—if not in theory, then in practice—nature cannot fail to pay the consequences.” There is a reciprocal relationship, therefore, between the face of the person and the face of the environment. The distorted visages of emaciated children are directly connected to an environment that has not served them justly or properly.

The call to justice is written in the face of the human person, though it takes a godly person to see this. Those who argue that religion has been history’s leading cause of violence and warfare fail to recognize this primordial fact. The Judaeo-Christian tradition clearly, repeatedly, and consistently reminds its disciples that a refutation of war is written in the human face. War is unjust, and peace is not possible without justice. Consequently, peace begins when one sees the inscription in the face of the other not to kill and, by honouring that inscription, renders him justice.

Pope Benedict, by connecting the human face with the “face” of the environment, is offering an integrated vision, one in which philosophy, theology, ethics, and care for the environment are all blended together in a consistent and meaningful pattern. His homily on January 1st has profound, realistic, and rich implications for the whole world at a most critical time.