During the Advent season of 1904, the famed G. Campbell Morgan stood in the pulpit of London’s Westminster Chapel and said, “If you and I could stand above Wales, looking at it below, you would see fire breaking out here and there, yonder and somewhere else. It is a Divine visitation.”
Morgan was describing the great Welsh Revival, a remarkable though sometimes strange awakening, that swept the region. By some accounts, the spiritual renewal began as a group of Christians shared their personal religious experiences. A teenage girl, timid but utterly sincere, stood up and declared with a shaky voice: “I love Jesus!” It enlivened Wales for more than a year, and “love” became the overarching theme.
Those who study such widespread movements will tell you that love is not always a primary religious motivation. Hellfire, shame, “turn or burn,” contrition: These are at the top of the list, and can be used to browbeat both the faithful and the brazen into repentance. Love is something else altogether – a more powerful force – for love draws, it does not demand. Love attracts, it does not attack. Love embraces, it does not exclude.
A forgotten hymn that was decades old by 1904, became an unofficial theme for the Welsh Revival. Written by Welshman William Rees in his native tongue, the first stanza began: “Dyma gariad fel y moroedd.” Translated loosely – for worshippers of both Welsh and English roots at the time – it became, “Here is love, vast as an ocean!”
In my minds eye I can see a young Rees (he did not live to see his hymn become a national sensation) standing on his native, craggy coast. Conwy Castle is just to his west, and looking out across the Irish Sea he writes that stanza: “Here is love, vast as an ocean!” Then, taking a line from Psalm 85 (the Advent reading from this weekend’s Revised Common Lectionary), he says: “Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”
It takes no love whatsoever to punish someone for their guilt – to lock a person up, to deport a child, or to shame an addict – but justice is an extension of love. Justice is making whole those who have suffered unfairly. Justice is comprehensively righting what is wrong, not simply penalizing a wrongdoer. Justice is drilling down to the root causes of suffering and correcting all ills that can be corrected. Justice is facing our history, sometimes a long and ugly one, confessing our wrongs, and then attempting to make amends.
“Perfect justice,” or what the Scriptures often call “righteousness,” is not retribution or vengeance. Ultimately, it is an act of reconciliation, an act of grace. As in the words of Dr. Cornel West, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” So, we fall into that vast ocean of mercy, recognizing that we too have been kissed by heaven’s love, and find the power and process to embody loving justice – and extend that justice to others.