Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken; “Cogito ergo sum”—“I think therefore I am”? Nonsense. “Amo ergo sum”—“I love therefore I am.” Or, as with unconscious eloquence St Paul wrote, “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I believe that. I believe it is better not to live than not to love.William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 5
I write this article the morning after the shocking and tragic death of the inimitable and principled jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG was a relentless fighter for justice and the common good. She realized that our democracy was an experiment that must always seek improvement and fulfillment. If we are to be true to our founding document, we must always be about the creation and advancement of “a more perfect union.” This woman, “no bigger than a hummingbird” (as Rachel Maddow described her), was also as energetic and busy as a hummingbird in her attempt to achieve “liberty and justice for all.” She was immensely intelligent, but it was not her intelligence that was most important. Other justices on the Supreme Court have brilliant minds (at least some of them), but their decisions reveal a sinister and cynical attitude toward fairness and compassion. Part of what I think was so special about RBG was that her mind served her heart. And by “heart,” I do not mean sentimentality. True love has no place for sentimentality. There must be a fierceness about authentic love. That kind of love always operates from the hard reality of truth and can never be content with any status quo which lacks justice and compassion. Justice is what such love looks like in the public arena. It measures the “success” of a society by the way “the least of these” fare and are treated.
RBG’s Jewish background served her well. She learned her faith at East Midwest Jewish Center (a Conservative synagogue) and at 13 years of age served as the “camp rabbi” at a Jewish summer program in Minerva, New York. I cannot help but think that the influence of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures was one of the guiding lights in her life and tenure as a justice. “To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) is the distillation of all prophetic truth. RBG fleshed out that truth in all that she was and did.
Understandably, there is great concern regarding who will replace her on the U. S. Supreme Court. The dastardly goals and hypocritical use of power by the current majority leader of the U.S. Senate may result in the appointment and confirmation of someone who lacks integrity and any real commitment to liberty and justice for all. With the current leadership in the White House and the Senate, it’s difficult to expect anything good to come out of Washington. And so, it would be easy to succumb to cynicism and to give up on the future of our beloved democracy. But I seriously doubt if that is what RBG would want any of us to do. The following three quotes from RBG may give us both perspective and inspiration to continue the good fight for a more perfect union:
- Justices continue to think and change. I am even hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow. (Already American jurists predict that many of RBG’s minority decisions will guide the Supreme Court in the future to choose more enlightened and just paths.)
- Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.
- Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.
I have to admit I will have a very difficult time practicing the wisdom of these last two quotes. It’s far easier to succumb to anger and hostility than to persevere and to take the higher ground. But if I am to learn anything from the example of RBG, I must take her words to heart. (After all, she found a way to be a good friend to Antonin Scalia).
The quote at the beginning of this article from William Sloane Coffin reveals that all the thinking and being in the world pales in comparison to the ultimacy of love. “It would be better not to live than not to love.” We are better as a nation for the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, while brilliant, insightful, and determined, used her years on this earth to “promote the common good.” Millions of people (especially women) have better lives and more opportunities because of her fierce love and devotion to compassionate justice. Those impressive and transforming achievements constitute a legacy that will resonate in positive ways throughout the decades to some. Unfortunately, that’s much more than most in Washington will ever deserve or enjoy.