To paraphrase William Shakespeare: something is rotten in the state of our union.
We see it in our toppled monuments and overcrowded hospitals, feel it in the clouds of tear gas and welts from rubber bullets, hear it in the chants of protest slogans and the shouting at town halls. Yet we struggle to articulate what, exactly, has gone wrong.
The language we typically deploy to name political problems—the system is broken, our government is gridlocked—analogizes society to a massive machine, priming us to seek machine solutions to its dysfunctions. In a machine, if we identify the broken part, the blown fuse, the errant line of code, we can get it up and running good as new. By implication, if we can replace the defective parts of our social machinery—elect the right commander-in-chief, nominate the right Supreme Court justice, redraw gerrymandered districts—we can restore society to functionality. Both political parties have made such changes to great fanfare. Yet as a society we remain as broken and gridlocked as ever. Put simply, the changes aren’t working.
By evoking the breakdown of organic matter, Shakespeare’s language of rot points to an older understanding of society: not as a machine, but as a kind of organism. This biological imagery captures acute social crisis in ways that machine imagery does not. Machines break down and get fixed; organisms get sick, and with the right measures, can heal. But once the organism starts to rot—once the gangrene sets in—drastic measures are required to keep it from dying. Biological imagery clarifies what our moment requires: not another targeted, one-time intervention, but rather, full-scale transformation.
Which is where this symposium comes in. The reflections featured draw on the moral language of sin and virtue to describe contemporary social problems. This language presupposes the ancient image of society as a body politic. Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, for instance, describes the senate of the Roman republic as the stomach of the body politic, which digests nutrients and distributes them to the rest of the members.1 Similarly, Paul the Apostle uses bodily imagery to describe the relationship of individual Christians to the Christian community as a whole: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Both sources depict society, not as a machine composed of discrete parts, but as a body of interconnected parts that fall ill and heal as a single unit. And the language used to shape the morality of individuals can help diagnose and mend the body politic.
As they faced waves of famine, pandemic, and political unrest, medieval thinkers developed and refined the categories of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Theological Virtues. In tandem they comprise a kind of toolbox for the care of souls, where the sins diagnose types of spiritual illness and the virtues identify states of spiritual health. This symposium deploys this toolbox to cultivate a comprehensive view of what ails our own body politic and how to nurse it back to health. Each contributor has been tasked with choosing one of the sins or virtues to answer the same basic question: What does sin/virtue x look like in American public life?
We begin with the crisis in our collective body. The forum opens with the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In medieval thought, they describe how sin damages us both individually and collectively by distorting our pursuit of human goods. As they trace how the deadly sins manifest in contemporary American life, our authors offer a comprehensive diagnosis of the moral state of our body politic.
Once we have diagnosed the illness, we can start to envision what moral health might look like. We begin this reimagining with the Four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. They have deep roots in Western philosophical tradition as civic virtues, making them particularly useful for envisioning how individuals can work to promote a functional body politic. As our authors make clear, these virtues can take unexpected, even startling forms in a twenty-first century, late capitalist context.
The symposium concludes with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. As the most explicitly relational of the virtues, Christian tradition regards them as essential to human flourishing. They help us imagine what kind of community and society we want to become and embrace the transformations that a thriving body politic requires.
Paul argues that diversity is essential to communal wellbeing: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be . . . ? If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (1 Cor 12:17–19). Our contributors come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives in Christian thought: graduate students, senior scholars, and freelance writers; pastors, musicians, and activists; mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Evangelicals; all drawing from their respective locations of race, gender, and sexual orientation. They deploy centuries-old moral language to diagnose our society’s illnesses and help us envision a flourishing public life. In so doing, they equip us for the vital work of forming a more perfect union.
Pride and Our Public Life
In memory of George Gatta
I began drafting this article in April 2020 and completed doing so at the end of May 2020. Much has happened between now and then. When I began writing it, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic were beginning to be felt. I now know that approximately 100,000 Americans have died from the virus and we have reached historic unemployment rates. I completed writing this article as protests and riots have broken out across the United States in response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. I can’t fully comprehend let alone express the gravity of these matters. If there’s something of merit in this article, I hope that it promotes reflection, individually and collectively, about how we Americans are implicated in upholding economic, legal, political, and social institutions that promote justice for some and injustice for others.
Also, I would like to note my use of pronouns. When I use the first-person plural pronouns “we,” “we Americans,” and the like, I admit that I am painting with the broadest brush strokes. Consequently, the picture that emerges won’t be one that everyone fully endorses or even recognizes. Indeed, I have colleagues and friends who actively resist being homologized in this way: whatever political community or common good to which “we Americans” are party neither exists nor is a useful fiction.1 But to my mind, evaluating America—whether for good or for ill—requires that we have skin in the game.2 “We” and “we Americans” may not be fully and ultimately determinative of who and what we are; but they are at least partly and proximately determinative.
2. Pride in the Christian Imagination
What is the sin of pride (superbia)? How does pride take root in and shape our common life? And given its Christian pedigree, how should pride be understood in a pluralistic liberal democracy like the contemporary United States? As the COVID-19 pandemic affects our public health and protests throw our very identity as a nation into flux, these questions are vital to grapple with and urgent to answer.
In the Christian theological imagination, pride is the deadliest of the sins. According to Proverbs, pride leads to disgrace (11:2), strife (13:10), and abomination (16:5). Following Evagrius of Pontus’s index of the sins,3 various Christian thinkers have emphasized pride’s corrupting force. For Augustine, pride is the beginning of all sin (Sir 10:13). Pride causes us to abandon God in our attempt to become self-sufficient ends in ourselves. Because of pride, we perversely and unduly exalt ourselves, turning away from and failing to rightly relate to God, the “immutable good” who ought to please us more than we please ourselves.4 For Aquinas, pride causes us to overstep who we are. If we reason properly, Aquinas adds, our will should tend to that which is proportionate to us. And because evil is opposed to reason, “it is evident that pride is a sin.”5 And for C. S. Lewis, pride is the “the essential vice, the utmost evil. . . . Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” “Pride is competitive by its very nature,” Lewis explains, and that “is why it goes on and on.”6 For these thinkers, late Roman, medieval, and contemporary, pride corrupts our understanding of and relation to God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Because it distorts and perverts human thought, perception, and action, pride underlies all of the other sins.
But in our ordinary lives, is pride always so corrupt and morally problematic? To my mind, we should distinguish genuine pride from sinful pride. We take pride in our local communities, e.g., “The fundraiser enabled us to renovate the recreation center.” We take pride in our friends, e.g., “They through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.” We take pride in our children, e.g., “She read through all the Harry Potter books on her own.” And we take pride in ourselves, e.g., “Nobody else thought I could do it, but I did. And I’m proud of myself.” In these examples, we recognize and respect some achievement, we take pleasure from and feel satisfaction about what has been accomplished. Moreover, there is a relational quality to these examples: we stand in relation not only to God but also to our community, to our friends, to our children, and to ourselves. And there is perhaps humility in these examples in the very fact that we acknowledge someone’s accomplishment. But it is this very relational quality that leads Lewis to indict pride as the competitive sin. According to him, pride involves comparison, and “comparison is what makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”7 Because we live in an affluent community, we were able to renovate the community center whereas you were not; we have athletic friends whereas you do not; we have bright and literate children whereas you do not; and we have the ability to bootstrap ourselves whereas you do not. Given its comparative and competitive nature, pride thus “has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began” because pride “always means enmity—it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.”8 In the move from genuine pride to sinful pride, what happens is that we exalt ourselves over and above not only our neighbors but also God.
3. Pride in American Public Life
Thus far a brief sketch of the Christian theological understanding of pride. But how does pride find itself instantiated in American public life?
As Americans, we become familiar with pride from an early age. Or perhaps more accurately, we are formed as Americans in pride. The sources for this formation, variously genuine and sinful, include the Preamble (“We the People”) to the US Constitution and Abraham Lincoln’s “First Inaugural Address”; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Pearl Harbor Speech” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”; the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star Spangled Banner”; Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”; and airshows featuring fighter jets and T-shirts bearing the slogan “These Colors Don’t Run.” What do these formational displays and messages tell us about what America is and who we are as Americans? I think it’s an admixture (cf. Matt 13:24–30). There is the promise and responsibility of America: justice and equality; liberty and general welfare; harmony and virtue. For America—and we as Americans—are a union,9 standing with and for one another. There is also the America of comparison and competition: we are the greatest country; the freest country; and the mightiest country. On this normative vision of itself—the vision according to which we are formed—America is superlative. And we are reminded that we Americans are lucky to be in these—rather than those—circumstances.
To be clear, Americans have much to be proud of. But the Christian theological perspective nonetheless cautions us: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18; cf. Prov 18:12). In contemporary American public life, how does pride go before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall? I will sketch three examples.
Epistemic Pride. “I know better than you.” On its face, this statement reads comparatively and competitively, paternalizing and infantilizing. But to my mind there are cases when it is descriptively and demonstrably true. For example, the physician who has labored through medical school, residency, and a fellowship knows better than. . . . The glaciologist who has integrated biology, climatology, and geomorphology knows better than. . . . And the art historian who has studied history, language, and theory knows better than. . . . But on talk shows and social media, celebrities use their influence to campaign against childhood vaccinations. To defend their opulent ways of life, talking heads on various cable news channels reject the scientific consensus about climate change. And in college classrooms, undergraduate students beholden to consumerist and emotivist views of knowledge assert that they know as much about a subject as their professors. In all of these examples, we witness prideful challenges to expertise. Despite someone’s lack of training in and dedication to mastering a subject, we find Americans increasingly and publicly claiming that they are experts.
What we witness in these examples, more specifically, is what the political scientist Tom Nichols terms the “death of expertise”: “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”10 In exercising this epistemic pride, we fail to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, confusing assertion with argument, advocacy with intellection, and conjecture with conclusion. For our public life, the consequences aren’t negligible. We see, for example, the reemergence of easily vaccine-preventable diseases that affect not only the individual but also the community; we have failed to take active measures to mitigate the effect of anthropogenic climate change, which affects the present and future generations; and when they leave college, we find young adults unable to differentiate fact from fiction and feeling from truth. For pride tells us: “I know as much as you.”
Individualistic Pride. In American lore, there is no figure more mythic and more revered than the self-made man. Rising from disadvantaged circumstances and persevering against the odds, the self-made man exemplifies rugged American individualism. The self-made man pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, drawing on his native reserves of determination and intellect, patience and skill. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the sociologist Max Weber not only valorized these ideals but also theologized them. On his telling, the individual’s hard work would lead to both proximate reward and eternal salvation.11 “Do you see those who are skillful in their work? They will serve kings; they will not serve common people” (Prov 22:29). Given that the myth of the self-made man links individual determination with capitalist gain, it is little surprise that in our public life we view Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg as exemplars, overlooking their moral shortcomings.12
In our mythologization of and reverence for the self-made man’s individualism, we overlook the fact that we are formed in, interact with, and depend on our communities. “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other” (Rom 12:4–8). In philosophical and religious thought, various thinkers have emphasized the importance of community. For example, feminist political theorists (e.g., Eva Feder Kittay and S. M. Okin) emphasize that we are dependent on and formed in our families.13 Liberal egalitarians view us as parties to a social contract: “We need one another as partners in ways of life that are engaged in for their own sake, and the successes and enjoyments of others are necessary for and complementary to our own good.”14 And in Catholic Social Teaching, we are told that it is “impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities. . . . This network of relationships strengthens the social fabric and constitutes the basis of a true community of persons, making possible the recognition of higher forms of social activity.”15 What the myth of the self-made man’s individualism fails to recognize is our radical dependence on and interdependence with one another. And in our public life, this individualistic pride fosters economic and social inequalities within our shared community.
Exceptionalist pride. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to President George W. Bush’s “Bush Doctrine,” we deem America and Americans as exceptional. Our position as Americans is “quite exceptional,” Tocqueville observes, “and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” In addition to highlighting our proximity to Europe, Tocqueville notes that (among other things) our “strictly Puritanical origin,” our “exclusively commercial habits,” and our “pursuit of science, literature, and the arts” commends “view[ing] all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”16 This exceptionalist vision is a strongly normative one. We evaluate ourselves such that we—and we alone—are exceptional. But we also evaluate others according to this exceptionalism: to what extent do you conform to our vision? Given America’s vision of itself (cf. Ezek 40–48; Matt 5:14), America should, President Bush writes, “advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.”17 Since we’re the bearers of rights and liberties, the beneficiaries of equality and justice, we have a singular moral and political responsibility to make sure that others elsewhere are also guaranteed rights and liberties and benefit from equality and justice.
In many ways, exceptionalist pride shares with the epistemic and the individualistic prideful roots: exalting ourselves over and above others. But the consequences of exceptionalist pride bear much more powerfully not only on Americans individually but also Americans corporately and globally. With regard to ourselves, our exceptionalist pride shields us from evaluating ourselves. We overlook or make excuses for economic, political, and racial inequalities: we are the wealthiest nation in global history but millions live in destitution; we acknowledge the obligations of citizenship but suppress voting rights; and we pledge that we are “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all” but disproportionately incarcerate and violently police only some. In these examples, what is there about which we should positively evaluate ourselves as exceptional? And while we treat ourselves in these shameful ways, we Americans as a corporate body do worse elsewhere. We have seen wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan and against terror; we have witnessed democratically elected leaders order drone strikes and speak glowingly about global despots; and we have condoned extrajudicial killing and torture. And in our public life, this exceptionalist pride is damning: because we exalt ourselves as exceptional, we fail to see that we ourselves are sinful and yet we sentence others—oftentimes and increasingly unilaterally—to suffering and death.18
4. From Pride to Humility in American Public Life
We are formed as Americans in pride. Through epistemic pride, individualistic pride, and exceptionalist pride, we demonstrate how we’ve been so formed, misconstruing and exalting ourselves. But for every sin there is a correlate virtue. And for pride, that correlate virtue is humility. “If anyone would like to acquire humility,” Lewis notes, “the first step is to realize that one is proud,” for “nothing whatever can be done before it.”19 From the fall (Gen 3) through contemporary America, realizing that we are proud and identifying our prideful actions is diagnostic: it is part of our condition as sinful beings. But diagnosing pride is only the beginning. In American public life, what might humility require? And how might we think about ourselves anew such that we’re formed in humility even though our sinful nature leads us to pride? We must recognize our own limits, acknowledge our dependence on others, and give thanks for all that we are and have. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift” (1 Cor 4:7). Given the extent to which we pridefully implicate one another, individually and collectively, these are our burdens and our challenges.20
For such a criticism, see, e.g., Michael Baxter, “Dispelling the ‘We’ Fallacy from the Body of Christ: The Task of Catholics in a Time of War,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002) 361–73.↩
Cf. Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987); Walzer, A Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic, 1988).↩
See Evagrius of Pontus, Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons, trans. David Brakke (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2009), esp. 159–73.↩
The City of God, trans. William Babcock (Hyde Park: New City, 2014), bk. XIV, ch. 13.↩
Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Allen: Christian Classics / Thomas More, 1981), II–II, q. 162, a. 1, resp.↩
Mere Christianity, in Lewis, Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2017), 103, 104–5.↩
Lewis, Mere Christianity, 104.↩
Lewis, Mere Christianity, 105.↩
Cf. James Madison, Federalist No. 10: “The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” New York Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.↩
Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2.↩
See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958).↩
See Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark, “Being Rich Wrecks Your Soul: We Used to Know That,” Washington Post, July 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/being-rich-wrecks-your-soul-we-used-to-know-that/2017/07/28/7d3e2b90-5ab3-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html.↩
See Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency (New York: Routledge, 1999); S. M. Okin, Justice, Gender, & the Family (New York: Basic, 1989).↩
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 522–23.↩
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §185.↩
See Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).↩
Bush, Decision Points (New York: Broadway, 2010), 397. This is the “idealistic prong” of the fourfold “Freedom Agenda”: President Bush’s self-appellation for the “Bush Doctrine.”↩
In thinking about this version of pride, I have benefited from reading Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths, “War, Peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain,” First Things 136 (2003) 41–44.↩
Mere Christianity, 108.↩
Many thanks to John Bartholomew, Debbie Brubaker, Jason Heron, Kelly Lytle, Jamie Pitts, and Gordon Warren for helpful comments and conversation. Special thanks to Jeremy Sabella for his comments and for his generous invitation to participate in this conversation.↩
What we know today as the Seven Deadly Sins originate from the work of Evagrius Ponticus, who in writing essentially a field manual for desert practitioners of monasticism described what he called eight “evil thoughts.” These were names for thoughts, feelings, instincts, or frames of mind that in his experience led eremites off course.
As Evagrius’s ideas were imported into Latin thought, they were sometimes recast. For example, he speaks of acedia, at the same time an existential listlessness and a restless inability to bear down on the work at hand. Gregory the Great later subsumed parts of the idea into what we know now as sloth and despair. You can see why in this lively excerpt from Evagrius’s Praktikos:
First of all, [the demon of acedia] makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from [dinner time], to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps one of the brethren appears from his cell. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. . . . He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle, and as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight.
Evagrius calls acedia the “noonday demon,” and it is surely familiar to anyone who has worked a long and unpleasant day. You can hear across sixteen centuries the excuses for not getting the work done (that’s the sloth) and the dogmatic certainty that the work is simply too great for any one person (despair).
Evagrius seems less interested in judging his colleagues for laziness than he does in understanding from his own experience how monks come to throw in the towel too early. It begins, as he says, with simple misperceptions: the day is moving too slowly, the sun is too hot, the work is too hard. Once the distortions of reality are set, the monk’s psyche quickly starts to look for relief from an apparently intolerable situation. From here, as Evagrius notes, all the other evil thoughts arise: gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, vainglory, pride. These are all means to the end of escaping the slow, difficult practice of asceticism. We call them the Seven Deadly Sins, but Eight Spiritual Off-Ramps is closer to accurate.
Pope Francis (or at least his ghostwriters) offers a cogent analysis of how acedia manifests in today’s context in his pastoral letter Evangelii Gaudium: laziness is a problem, yes, but so is action taken withoutpreparation or a solid spiritual practice as a foundation, impatience, an unreasonable expectation of success, or losing touch with the people behind the project. His concluding remarks on the subject seem particularly relevant:
Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.
In short, acedia is less about not wanting to do the work to which one has been called as believing the work will take too long or be too hard to accomplish.
That couldn’t be more relevant as I write this, at the end of a series of long nights of unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Chaos agents on the right and left took advantage of the situation to provoke more destruction, and a violent overreaction by police. They didn’t have to push hard to get it: videos quickly surfaced online showing cops brutalizing peaceful demonstrators and bystanders, and tear-gassing, shooting at, or arresting journalists.
The situation has laid bare some of the less pleasant realities of American society. To name just a few: the terrors of racialized policing, law enforcement’s tendency to accelerate conflict with swift and indiscriminate violence when confronted with protestors, their general lack of accountability, sketchy anarchists and white supremacists all too happy to pour gasoline on a fire, and a president who likes to show up in situations like this with a box of matches and a big grin. There is a desperate need for the work of racial reconciliation in the United States that has been held back by political polarization ever since Nixon’s Southern Strategy capitalized on white backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. President Trump needs the chaos and division for his own reelection, but the “fire next time” has been a social problem a long time coming.1 It cannot be blamed on any one man, no matter how awful he might be.
In the light of these flames, sadness and despair begin to seem like logical choices, not sins. The work of racial reconciliation is so large, and our own shortcomings so obvious, that we simply cannot imagine it being accomplished. Under the constant assault of racism and violence, it’s little wonder that those without the privilege of escaping it begin to crack, or that those who do have the privilege start to think about when they can lay their work down. It has taken Americans centuries to get to the current boiling point, and it will probably taken centuries yet to fully cool things down. In the meantime, many resent the work to be done, fantasize about fleeing to Canada, Europe, or New Zealand, lose patience with themselves or who they imagine their political enemies to be, or think about shortcuts they could take to achieve a more perfect union. (One of the most damnable of the latter category is the delusion that a class-based political revolution could sweep aside racial divisions. It cannot, and never has.)
The urgency of a summons rarely improves its response rate. That’s no less true when it is a call to difficult, ill-defined work with no end date. And it is certainly no less true when it is work that will challenge the worker’s assumptions, status, and comfort in the world, as racial reconciliation will for most whites. But to heal the divisions of society is to make peace, and for Christians (I will only speak for my own tradition) to make peace is at the very heart of God’s mission. That places it at the heart of Christian mission as well. To be a Christian is to make peace. There is no other way. The work is difficult, and the work is ours.
To get a sense of the scale involved here, consider that real reconciliation requires justice. Wounds cannot be healed while relationship are out of balance. To give a couple of ripped-from-the-headlines examples, police officers must be held accountable for brutality against racial minorities. There’s no way to bring black and brown and white together when whites are literally stepping on the necks of black people. Likewise, provocateurs—the people lighting up American cities for lulz—must also be brought to justice. There’s no room in reconciliation for idiots trying to start a race or class war.
Nor is reconciliation amnesiac. We cannot forget the wrongs and the suffering of the past. This gets complicated, as South Africa discovered with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both sides of any given conflict will end up with grievances, real or perceived. It’s important to hear them all out.
Another lesson to be learned from South Africa is that forgiveness is almost inevitably necessary in order to accomplish reconciliation, but it can never be required of victims of injustice. Follow the logic here: there’s no way to repay the debt owed to black citizens for generation after generation of police abuse, much less the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Certainly more can and should be done! But the debt is staggering, and can never be fully paid. So relationships can never be fully restored until the debts are paid, and the debts are unpayable.
But feeling the burden of those debts maintains the discipline of working toward the restoration of relationship. Whatever else you want to say about reparations, the obligation of them holds white America and its institutions accountable and promotes peace.
It is also true we can never expect those who have been harmed to simply give up their prerogatives, including the prerogative of anger. This is again a matter of justice. Real damage has been done, and sometimes, it can’t be undone. Forgiveness can only be given as a free gift, and it may be a very long wait until conditions are right for it to be given.
So the way out of the mess America finds itself in is not and never can be to simply sweep things under the rug. Things have to change in order for reconciliation to come about, and that change is the work that citizens are meant to be about.
This involves more than showing up at protests and calling people on their microaggressions. Reconciliation on this scale only comes about when political conditions change to make it in the parties’ best interests to make peace. To create that change is very incremental work. Consider the example of Northern Ireland, where a formal process leading up to the Good Friday Accord took four years, and another seven to be firmly cemented into place—but was preceded by talks on and off for twenty years.
The long work in America might be criminal justice reform, which is urgently needed to create the context for racial reconciliation. Change-minded prosecutors need to be elected, city councils and police oversight boards must actually do their jobs, the carceral state needs to be undone on many levels. Again, the point is to change the political calculus, to make it so that it’s more in the interest of elected officials to keep police in check than not to do so. Only then can the work of reconciliation proceed.
None of this can be accomplished without involvement in partisan electoral politics, work that religious liberals are often reluctant to get their hands dirty with. But there are no shortcuts to transformation. The way to build peace across racial divisions in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2020 is to get better leaders in elected office. That means getting out the vote, funding groups who work to register marginalized people, contributing to candidates who understand the issues, sometimes holding one’s nose and voting for imperfect candidates.
The size and scope of the program of criminal justice reform are epochal. Unless things move very fast, it probably will not be accomplished in the lifetime of many readers. But this is precisely the point. Evagrius and his companions understood their fight to be against forces in place since the fall itself. Evagrius wrote explicitly to help find ways for monks to sustain themselves in a long, grueling, often dehumanizing vocation.
How did they do it? Francis seems to have the right idea in Evangelii Gaudium. One has to be self-giving enough to take on the work, of course. Commitment is mandatory. But commitment must also be rooted in spirituality—not necessarily religious faith, but a sense of purpose and meaning that refreshes wells run dry.
It’s important to start small, with realistic goals. Can police oversight in this community be strengthened? Can an ally be elected to the city council or as a prosecutor? Can law enforcement tactics and training be changed? All of this takes patience. Reforms will not “fall from heaven.” They will be established bit by bit, over an excruciating timeline of refusal, resistance, and sabotage. Far better to go into the work with that expectation and be surprised at how quickly things change than the reverse.
As well, it is important to understand that not every setback is a catastrophe, not every criticism or disagreement is betrayal, and not every sacrifice is unnecessary or bought at too high a price. There will be many ways to reach the goal, many competing projects and agendas. Flexibility is key to continuing the work, as is the understanding that one only plays a role in a greater system.
Most of all, anyone committed to this work has to remain in touch with the people it benefits. That means remembering the names of those lost—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and too many more to list. Those who suffer from police violence are real people with rich, complicated lives, and deserve to be heard and understood in that light. It also means understanding that the program is not more important than the people who take part in it. The work of racial reconciliation cannot proceed if it’s a game or an academic exercise in revolutionary theory. Those who want to stay in the fight for the long run have to be intimately connected to those directly affected in ways that go beyond protest slogans and performative wokeness. Community, as Peter Block knows, arises from shared struggle, but the reverse is also true: shared struggle can only be maintained with the strength of community and accountability to specific individuals.2
Building community to support struggle toward justice can in itself be exhausting and chew up valuable time. But it is far better than the alternative, which is to throw one’s hands up in despair and walk away from the work. And in slowing down to encounter and come alongside community, another truth begins to make itself known: that is the work of reconciliation, and it has already begun.
What Does Sloth Look Like in American Public Life?
What does sloth look like in American public life? To answer this question, I will distinguish three possible definitions of sloth, then deploy one of them as a lens that brings into focus a range of current social problems.
In contemporary English, sloth connotes laziness, apathy, and general lack of initiative. Given the prevalence of these tendencies, sloth can seem like a minor moral foible, hardly worthy of the traditional label “deadly sin.” To those schooled in the Protestant work ethic, however, sloth is not a mundane flaw, but a fundamental one. As Max Weber puts it, laziness is “in principle the deadliest of sins . . . because every hour lost is lost to labour for the glory of God.”1 These two versions of sloth—the popular and the Weberian—have become ingrained in our social imaginary to the exclusion of a traditional Christian account of sloth, which is actually best suited for analyzing issues in contemporary public life.
This traditional account holds that sloth is not mere laziness, but a rejection of God’s love that regards God’s gracious initiative with sorrow or indifference rather than joy. Thomas Aquinas, for example, views sloth as a vice against the joy of charity that twists character and yields an oppressive “sorrow at spiritual good.”2 Karl Barth defines sloth as “graceless being for ourselves,” a sin against love that spurns sanctifying grace and the relationships with God, neighbor, and the created order that constitute human nature.3 On this account, the slothful person curves inwards on herself, a movement that not only distorts reasoning, desiring, willing, and acting, but also yields anxiety, despair, isolation, and restlessness. Furthermore, sloth affects public life by generating social structures that cause widespread misery. In short, sloth is not a trivial flaw, but a capital vice that spawns the other deadly sins in persons and societies by disordering the ability to love and invest in relationships.
In my view, this traditional account is preferable to the popular and Weberian varieties as a lens for perceiving the slothful core of a range of problems in American public life that might otherwise escape notice. Just as virtues manifest uniquely in each person, vices like sloth can take a number of forms depending on personality, life circumstances, habits, and social structures. This can be seen in several respects.
First, construing sloth as disordered loving reveals that even apparent opposites, such as laziness and workaholism, are species of the vice. For Aquinas, sloth’s sorrow exposes a general lack of love for God, self, neighbor, and the created order that leaves a void in the human person that prompts a variety of possible behaviors. Some slothful people become lazy, apathetic, and indifferent—after all, being unable to love ensures that nothing is worth doing, pursuing, or valuing. In these respects, sloth divests from agency. Other slothful people become workaholics, chasing after lesser goods rather than resting in God who fully satisfies human desires. To this end, the pursuit of status, the accumulation of possessions, even the constant search for stimulation and distraction, are types of sloth’s disordered loving. For these reasons, the American critique of laziness actually displays sloth’s influence, as this critique has generated an incessant work ethic and economic conditions characterized by anxiety, despair, isolation, and social unrest—the very features that Aquinas and Barth associate with the vice. Examples include the gig economy’s ideal of ceaseless productivity, the increasing number of people needing to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and the expectation that days off serve the lesser good of recovering strength for working rather than the greater good of enjoying communal fellowship. Thus, lazily divesting from agency and working restlessly are outcomes of sloth’s lack of love.
Second, American isolated individualism is a form of sloth’s “graceless being for ourselves.” Alexis de Tocqueville famously remarked that Americans “owe nothing to anyone, they expect nothing so to speak from anyone; they are always accustomed to consider themselves in isolation, and they readily imagine that their entire destiny is in their hands.”4 These habits of protecting individual rights, limiting social responsibilities, and pursuing private rather than communal projects are American hallmarks from the colonial period to the present day. American individualism is also a form of sloth that defies the Christian claim that humans were made for relationship with God, self, neighbor, and the created order. Yet Christian anthropology opposes the graceless individualism that humans should secure their own destiny, rebuff responsibility for others, and reflexively oppose guidance from authorities in the name of freedom. One current manifestation of this slothful individualism is refusing to abide by Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, such as wearing masks and maintaining effective social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19. This refusal is ostensibly rooted in a desire to protect individual liberty from government intrusion, but it is actually a failure of social responsibility and love of neighbor. Hence, the values animating American individualism are generated by sloth’s graceless isolation.5
Third, sloth is a possible factor in the American cultural habits of indifference to the suffering of others and fear of outsiders. Barth says slothful people are like hedgehogs who roll into a ball and threaten the outside world with their spikes.6 This choice to be isolated from others shapes persons who evince a range of harmful traits conspicuous in American public life, including callousness to human needs, xenophobia, a strident competitive spirit, habits of excessive consumption, a preoccupation with security from potential threats, and a willingness to use violent—even lethal—force to guarantee safety.7 On this analysis, sloth is potentially at work in the widespread indifference to the suffering environmental degradation causes to plants, animals, and persons. Likewise, sloth’s refusal of loving relationship can be seen in the public indifference to the Trump Administration’s policy of indefinitely detaining migrant children and deporting their parents. Finally, sloth’s hostility and preoccupation with security can be identified in lethal police violence against unarmed black men like George Floyd, public opposition to gun control measures, the proliferation of “stand your ground” laws, and the targeted killing of passersby like Ahmaud Arbery. This is how sloth’s graceless isolation creates destructive forms of indifference and fear.
Fourth, sloth may be at the root of unjust social structures like political partisanship and white supremacy. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Barth argues that when sloth’s rejection of loving relationship takes root in a society (like it did in Nazi Germany), it directs collective behavior to injustice and violence, and generates social structures that destabilize communities and nations.8 For example, sloth fosters conduct oriented to controlling outsiders and monopolizing social benefits for one’s in-group. Political partisanship, then, is a slothful social structure because it encourages an “us vs. them” mentality, zero-sum game thinking, and a willingness to use force (such as partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, and various intimidation tactics) so the in-group dominates all others. To this end, sloth’s pernicious influence is evident in the Trump Administration’s “America First” policy, and the actions of congressional leaders to destabilize institutions and undermine democratic norms for partisan gain. Another slothful social structure is white supremacy. White supremacy is racist in its valuation of white people over other ethnicities, and xenophobic in its fear of non-whites who pose no actual threat. This common social structure connects economic policies that support the in-group at the expense of others, with sociopolitical structures open to the use of force to keep the status quo. Angry reprisals from the out-group are familiar consequences of slothful social structures, revealing a fractured society in ongoing conflict. In short, partisanship and white supremacy are examples of sloth’s hedgehog mentality shaping unjust social structures in American public life.
Finally, sloth is readily apparent in aspects of the American approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. One important outcome of sloth in Barth’s analysis is “stupidity”—such that we prefer human folly to God’s wisdom.9 An analogous preference for human folly is the stupidity of trusting conspiracy theories from political figures, or talking points from partisan news sources, over the advice of medical professionals. Studies have shown that ignoring medical guidelines about the virus yields negative health outcomes, with “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.”10 Thus, sloth may lead one to ignore medical advice, especially when following it comes at some personal cost, and the benefits largely accrue to people from other ethnic or socioeconomic groups. What is more, sloth’s partisan spirit is present in the Trump Administration’s decision to award contracts for the personal protective equipment and ventilators necessary to combat the virus to states led by loyal Republican governors rather than by Democrats, as this benefits the in-group at the expense of others.11 And since sloth makes one unable to determine what is truly good, it may spur us to prioritize economic output over the health and well-being of human persons. Viewing particular demographics as expendable for economic gain is a particularly dangerous form sloth can take. For example, seventy-year-old Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick remarks: “No one has reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”12 It is one thing to sacrifice oneself for the good of others—questionable as it may be to valorize sacrifice in this case, as there are other (more effective) ways to keep the economy afloat. But it is another thing entirely for a public official to encourage this thought process in one’s constituents or political party. Such a choice may be rooted in sloth’s stupidity, indifference, and inability to judge what is truly good and loveable.
In conclusion, viewing sloth as a vice against love, rather than as mere laziness, makes it possible to see the variety of forms it currently takes in American public life. On this account, sloth is not just an intrapersonal problem, but an interpersonal one as well. By curving inwards, the slothful person retreats from relationships with God and neighbor, and acts in ways that harm the self, society, even the environment. One benefit of this account is conceptual simplicity, as it becomes possible to see that the range of problems noted above—from workaholism to white supremacy—are species of sloth. Another benefit is clarity concerning how common choices to combat laziness and secure individual liberties may actually create the social conditions under which sloth’s disordered loving takes root. Seeing sloth as a vice against love, therefore, is preferable to the popular and Weberian conceptions as a lens for viewing a range of issues American public life.
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), 104.↩
Aquinas, ST II-II q. 35.↩
Barth, CD IV.2, 458.↩
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schliefer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 884.↩
This argument is developed at length in Christopher D. Jones and Conor Kelly, “Sloth: America’s Ironic Structural Vice,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 37.2 (2017) 117–34.↩
CD IV.2, 405.↩
CD IV.2, 420–21, 436–37, 441–43, 468–69, 476–78.↩
CD IV.2: 420–21.↩
CD IV.2, 410.↩
“COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.↩
Jonathan Allen et al., “Want a Mask Contract or Some Ventilators? A White House Connection Helps,” NBC News, April 24, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/political-influence-skews-trump-s-coronavirus-response-n1191236.↩
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Sacrifice the Old to Help the Economy? Texas Official’s Remark Prompts Backlash,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-24/coronavirus-texas-dan-patrick.↩
Brett Kavanaugh was angry. He had been on the path to becoming a US Supreme Court justice, and now, instead of talking about his distinguished legal career, the nation was talking about his high school parties. Kavanaugh faced the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he could barely contain himself. Seething with rage, he dismissed the allegations leveled against him by Christine Blasey Ford. He had not committed sexual assault, not against her or anyone. He insisted that he was a champion of women in the legal profession, a paragon of integrity. His face turning red, tears welling in his eyes, Kavanaugh denounced the “last-minute smears” that have “destroyed my family and my good name.”
Ought a judge to become angry? The judicial temperament is composed and collected, carefully weighing the facts and applying the law. For a judge to become so ruffled, something must surely be amiss. Anger tracks wrongs. When we see anger, we know a wrong must have been committed. Normally, we think the appropriate way to respond to such an injury is with words, reasons, and proposals for righting the wrong. Uncontrolled anger is how children respond when they feel themselves wronged—when they do not get what they want. But we can imagine wrongs so grave that an adult, a grown man, a judge, would regress, putting his anger on public display.
This is how anger works: when we see it, we automatically look for the wrong that was committed against the angry man. We realize that the anger could be out of proportion to the wrong, or the wrong could be misperceived, or the anger from one wrong could be displaced onto another. Nevertheless, at root, there is a wrong. Whether or not we join in the anger, we do join in the moral judgment. We empathize with a man wronged. Implicitly, we consider him innocent: the wrong was done to him.
After Christine Blasey Ford’s calm, compelling testimony recounting the attack she suffered as a fifteen-year-old girl, the prospects of Kavanaugh’s confirmation appeared to be fading quickly, with even Republicans beginning to distance themselves from him. Ford appeared so innocent now—and how much more innocent she must have been at fifteen. As soon as Kavanaugh aired his anger, the momentum shifted. Ford’s innocence was recast as confusion; Kavanaugh was now the innocent victim of a political conspiracy that was destroying is career and family.
This is the theater of anger. For his key audience, the white Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh offered a winning performance. Which is not to denigrate his sincerity, for public anger is always theatrical; that does not diminish its reality. Anger calls on an audience to look for a wrong, and to assess innocence and guilt. Protests succeed more than op-eds and position papers ever can because they cause witnesses to look for a wrong, to look for a guilty party, and to empathize with the innocent. Often protests make this easy: they name the wrong and the wrongdoer on placards.
Here is the standard account of anger: virtuous anger is righteous indignation, an emotion prompted by a wrong and directed against a wrongdoer; vicious anger is wrath, out of proportion to the perceived wrong, feeding on itself so that it grows into a blinding force. Righteous indignation motivates action to right a wrong; wrath motivates action aimed at vengeance, inevitably leading to a cycle of vendetta. If one of anger’s accompanying vices is wrath or irascibility, the other is servility or submissiveness. A disposition to righteous indignation, angering in the right amount in the right circumstances, lies midway between these two vices. For those who are inclined to see Kavanaugh as a virtuous man, or to recognize the virtue of protesters, it must be righteous indignation at play. If the anger on display is great, the wrong at which it is directed surely must be grave.
Virtue describes excellence recognized in a community, and the pillars of a community who do the recognizing are partial to those who look like themselves. Senators recognize Kavanaugh as a virtuous man because he looks like them, talks like them, and went to similar schools as they did. He benefited from the same privileges as they did; like them, he confuses his privilege with “hard work.” So too with the righteous indignation of the working-class white man, as imagined by the media during the 2016 US presidential election: if not exactly the same as elites with respect to their class position, they were clearly recognizable to elites as sharing in virtue. They were elites’ poorer cousins. Their righteous indignation was real and appropriate, even if the way they responded was somewhat confused (as cousins are wont to be).
Women, Black folks, non-Americans: these people cannot share in virtue. Or, only exceptionally, by courtesy: Martin Luther King Jr., cloaked in a performance of respectability, might have virtuous anger, but surely the anger of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Valerie Solanas, and Fidel Castro is vicious, is wrath. For those dangerously different from elite guardians of virtue, the vice of submissiveness suddenly is portrayed as a virtue. Gandhi’s protest without anger is celebrated, and Nelson Mandela is portrayed as a pacific gentleman deserving reverence (conveniently forgotten is that he was imprisoned for building bombs, and he refused early release conditioned on his renunciation of violence).
Theorists of anger who center the experiences of women, Black folks, and other marginalized groups seek to transform the calculus of virtue. Not by judging better, correcting the distortions of gatekeeping elites. Rather, theorists including Audre Lorde and María Lugones urge us to reconsider anger from the ground up. There may be anger that responds to discrete wrongs, but that is not a particularly interesting species of anger. The type of anger that deserves our attention is anger that cannot be expressed in the language available to us. The language we have is contaminated by systems of domination, such as patriarchy, anti-Blackness, and capitalism. Those systems of domination do wrongs to us in myriad ways, from bodily violence to the dull pains of microaggressions—wrongs compounded because systems of domination take away our ability to name those wrongs properly. All we can do is feel angry, a second-order anger aimed at a whole normative order rather than at a specific wrong.
For theorists of anger from the margins, second-order anger is a source of power. It opens us up to imagining radical transformation, society organized wholly otherwise after our current order is pulled up by the roots. While individuals experiencing second-order anger do not have a language to properly name the wrongs they experience, they are implicitly confident that they do face wrongs. When individuals who experience second-order anger meet each other, they can plot together for the overthrow of the world; they can collectively imagine a radically new world. This is the beginning of genuine organizing: not making explicit a problem shared by a community but rather a community realizing that the problems they share cannot be made explicit until the powers that be are no more.
According to one account of second-order anger, underneath the systems of domination that do violence to us is a world of peace. We naturally connect with each other, sympathize with each other, care for each other. Domination distorts this underlying possibility of right relation, but we can aspire to retrieve it—the voice of anger is that aspiration. Such accounts of underlying peace, sometimes called “relationality” and illustrated with examples from indigenous peoples supposedly untainted by the domination of settler colonialism, turns anger into a sort of sacred practice, a gateway to the world beyond that is already within.
Such an account seems overly optimistic, and this optimism taints its philosophical and theological soundness. What if our world is thoroughly infected by domination, with systems of domination feeding on our individual libido dominandi? What if systems of domination interlock so that even if a particular system of domination can be named and attacked, we can never see a path from our world to a world without domination? What if as soon as we start talking about a world without domination we are caught even more tightly in the net of domination, pulled down into the world rather than lifted beyond it?
If this is the case, then anger goes right when its content is apophatic; anger goes wrong when it fixes on specific worldly objects. Anger goes right when it seems most irrational, when its causes seem most mysterious. Yet second-order anger is not impotent in the world. The person who is angry in this sense is primed for action rather than pushed into action. She knows something is horribly amiss in the world. She knows the options on the table are inadequate responses. When she hears that people are joining together to name domination that infects the world to its bones, she listens; perhaps she joins. She knows organizing will not end her anger. The world will remain fallen. But she also intuits that collective struggle against domination, in its process rather than its end, will provide her with a satisfaction that is inaccessible in the world she inhabits.
Recall this has been a discussion of second-order anger; first-order anger, on such accounts, remains a matter guided by practical wisdom. But theorists of the margins deprive first-order anger of its ultimacy. It is but a crutch for navigating life together in a fallen world. The wrongs it tracks are, at the end of the day, or the world, no more wrong than actions a community agrees are right. Genuine wrongs are the systems of domination that distort our world, the wrongs to which second-order anger responds. Hence, second-order anger trumps first-order anger.
For those suspicious of Brett Kavanaugh’s essential goodness, his performance of righteous indignation should alert us to the need to think beyond the conventional account of virtuous and vicious anger, to the importance of thinking about second-order anger. Beyoncé offers a glorious illustration of second-order anger in her film-album Lemonade. The film is ostensibly organized around a Black woman’s response to suspected infidelity, with section titles signaling an emotional path from “Intuition” to “Denial” to “Anger,” and eventually moving to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” “Hope,” and “Redemption.”
While the lyrics suggest that one instance of infidelity animates the film (the notorious “Becky with the good hair”), the film’s visual universe suggests something quite different. It alternates between images of dancing, emoting Black women, images of buildings and landscapes evocative of the antebellum South, and images of everyday Black life. Anger appears, visually, after Beyoncé has spent an extended time floating underwater, in “Denial.” A voiceover tells of a narrator trying to change herself, to fast, to find religion, to repress feeling. Finally, after a superhuman time submerged, a soaked, sexy Beyoncé emerges into a Black neighborhood, complete with corner store, street vendors, and barbershop. Strutting in a billowy yellow dress, she grabs a baseball bat with the words “hot sauce” written on it from a boy. With an expression on her face shifting quickly between inscrutable, determined, joyous, and enraged, Beyoncé smashes car windows, a fire hydrant, a pinata, a store window, a security camera, and finally the camera filming the video itself. As she smashes, flames erupt on the street behind her.
Visually, Beyoncé’s anger appears to be a one-woman riot. Black stores and cars are smashed, the neighborhood is left in fire. Beyoncé’s face reveals playfulness inextricable from wrath. There is a specific, worldly occasion for her anger—the suspicion of infidelity in the lyrical register. But her anger, visually, is other-worldly, calling for the joyful destruction of the world. In the visual register, Beyoncé’s anger manifests as the threads of racial domination, of anti-Blackness, are tied together: the legacy of slavery, police violence, economic deprivation, the denigration of Black women, and the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. What she is unable to speak in words she shows in pictures: the wrong she responds to seems singular, but it is in fact manifold, constitutive of her world.
Alone, subject to racial domination, the only response Beyoncé can muster is ecstatic, crazed anger. However, in the culminating segment of the film, “Formation,” she presents another option. She is still enraged. For a time, she sings atop a police car in hurricane-flooded New Orleans. But now, “I got hot sauce [her baseball bat] in my bag.” She occupies the antebellum plantation that has intermittently served as the film’s backdrop. Most important, she is organized. She sings and dances in formation with other women (in her Superbowl performance, they wear leathers reminiscent of the Black Panthers). With anger now a tool, priming the work of collective organizing, “I slay,” she sings over and over. She conjures a world where organized Black women cause the police to put their arms up in defeat, a world without domination.
According to Aquinas, “envy is sorrow for another’s goods.” He elaborates on that description by suggesting that envy is an attitude, or perhaps more accurately a passion, experienced by those who share a way of life. For example, he observes that common people do not envy a king nor the king envy common people because they do not imagine they share a world with one another sufficient for them to think they should have what the other has.1
Though this seems a commonplace observation by Aquinas I hope to show it is very important for understanding the character of envy. Envy is a vice that threatens the ability to live well, but that vice depends on agreement about goods that can be shared. Interestingly enough, the virtues can be an occasion for envy insofar as one person’s goodness may make someone else envy their way of life.
Aquinas elaborates his understanding of envy as the sorrow at another’s good by providing what might be understood as a phenomenology of envy. For example, he observes with his usual but often overlooked insight about our foibles as human beings, that we may grieve another’s good not because they have it but because we do not have what they have. Accordingly, envy can take the form of a sadness that is occasioned by the good fortune of another. But we are subtle creatures, which means envy can also be the joy we may feel at the misfortune of another.
Aquinas observes that those who love to be honored are particularly subject to envy occasioned by someone who has acquired a reputation for goodness that exceeds their own. The ambitious and the strong are subject to envy, but so are the “faint-hearted.” The faint-heated reckon their lives have been made less by the good fortune of their neighbor.
Aquinas, drawing on Gregory the Great, argues that envy is a capital vice because the vices are so interrelated that one springs from another. Vainglory springs from pride which corrupts the mind because, as Gregory memorably puts it, pride produces envy that “craves for the power of an empty name.” This kind of envy—the envy that is sorrow of another’s spiritual good—is particularly destructive for those that would be Christians. The devil tempts Christians to envy the increase of God’s grace in a brother or sister because such envy is the way death came and comes into the world.
One of the interesting questions raised by Aquinas’s account of envy is whether those possessed by envy can know they are so possessed. Someone may acknowledge that they may envy another’s good fortune, but it is quite another thing to actually believe they are in fact possessed by envy or whether they are prepared to act on such knowledge. Envy may, as most of the vices do, result in self-deception, because we do not want to acknowledge we are envious.
Why that is the case is no doubt a complex matter, but it surely must involve the adequacy of our self-knowledge. In a recent mystery by Anne Perry a character observes that it is “much less painful to hate someone than it is to envy them.”2 That generalization certainly has the ring of truth. It does so I think because envy entails judgments about ourselves that are more negative than hate. Hate can contribute to a sense of self-worth, while envy does not.
Envy is often named as a vice in the Bible. Paul usually includes envy in his lists of vices. That envy is so listed can make his account of the significance of envy seem not all that important—i.e., envy is just another sin. But for Paul, envy is not just another sin. Envy is destructive of the kind of people that make the church possible. For Paul, a people and structures must exist that are free of envy if there is to be the kind of community that makes a truth-telling possible. Thus Paul’s admonition in Galatians 5:26 that Christians should not “become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” clearly presupposes that in the church, envy is incompatible with being a Christian. I think the reason Paul regards envy in such a negative light is very simple. Envy for Paul is incompatible with the love that makes the church the church. Such a love is patient and kind, which means a people so constituted are not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude (1 Cor 13:4).
That such a love should constitute the relation between Christians is surely the reason envy has no place in the lives of Christians. Envy sows the seeds of conflict. It is not surprising, therefore, that Aquinas treats discord after envy in the Summa. Envy is destructive of community because it has the power to divide people from one another by belittling the life of the other.
The disruption of communal life associated with envy is confirmed throughout Scripture. For example, in the book of James envy is condemned as antithetical to the wisdom that should characterize the life of the Christian and the community that is the church. According to James, where there is envy and selfish ambition there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind (Jas 3:15–16). So envy, as Aquinas suggests, is a vice that cannot help but make the kind of community that the church should be impossible.
As I noted above, the significance of envy can be missed because envy so often appears in a list of forms of behavior that are forbidden in the early church. For example, in 1 Peter, which is surely one of the most ecclesial books in the New Testament, those to whom the letter is written are admonished to rid themselves of all malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander (1 Pet 2:1–2). The author of this letter does not develop how these negative characteristics are interconnected, but the list assumes that Christians are different. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:1).
I call attention to these New Testament passages because they make clear that envy is a vice that is not just destructive for individuals. Paul assumes that envy, which is so often hidden, enables human relations that are destructive. We need friends to help us name and discover that envy possesses us. Therefore, judgments about envy presume a politics for the formation of communities that make the life of those who constitute the church as free of envy as possible. In particular, Paul’s understanding of the variety of gifts necessary for the church to flourish is crucial if envy is to be avoided. That some are wise, some are healers, others the workers of miracles, some have the gift of prophecy, but all manifest the gift of the Spirit is the politics that makes envy incompatible with being Christian (1 Cor 12:4–11).
It is not accidental that Paul claims that each of these gifts—and that they are gifts is extremely important—are a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. The presumption that there is a good that is in common makes all the difference for how envy is understood as well as morally judged. For if the good is known through the cooperative relations made possible by the virtues, then you can only be glad that your neighbor has a gift that you may not have.
These kind of reflections about the social role envy plays can be contrasted in an interesting way to John Rawls’s discussion of envy in his monumental book A Theory of Justice.3 It is seldom noticed but Rawls was intent to develop an account of politics that would make envy apolitical. Accordingly, he sought to develop an account of justice which was not dependent on egalitarian understandings of justice fueled by envy. Rawls did so because he thought envy not only makes the one possessed by it worse off, but also because envy corrupts the fundamental character of the arrangements necessary for democratic social orders (144).
Rawls, therefore, set out to provide a rational basis for an egalitarian understanding of justice that made no use of envy. He sought to develop such an account through a thought experiment he called the original position. In order to create a common understanding of justice, he asked that we each think of ourselves as behind a veil of ignorance in which we know that once the veil was lifted, some would have advantages that others would not. So positioned we could agree on principles of justice by which we could order our lives. The differences that would be present after the lifting of the veil would be based on the difference principle. The difference principle entails that no inequality is justifiable that made the least well-off more disadvantaged.
Rawls did not think his account meant envy was no longer a problem at all, just that it was no longer a problem for the basic structure of our political arrangements. He acknowledged that envy understood psychologically seems endemic to human life. It is so because envy so understood is associated with rivalries that are not subject to rational critique (537). For example, Rawls thinks envy reflects in the envious a lack of self-confidence. But envy so understood is not a threat to the political arrangements Rawls thinks he has defended.
Rawls’s account of envy makes an interesting contrast with Aquinas and the New Testament. In particular, what Rawls does not have in contrast to Aquinas is a good in common that makes envy destructive not only of community but our ability to live lives of virtue. For as I hope I have made clear, envy has been and is understood by Christians to be a vice, and as a vice, envy is a habit that is not only destructive for anyone possessed by it, but also destructive of the politics that is determined by recognition of the gifts of our neighbors.
Envy is a way of seeing the world. Envy tempts us to see difference as a threat or diminishment. Envy is the expression of a view of life that assumes we live in a zero-sum world. The alternative to envy is the reality that those that possess gifts I do not have increase my ability to live a happy life, grateful for how such difference enhances my life. Envy is a belittling vice that robs life of joy.
Yet it is hard to avoid the role of envy in social and economic orders like that of the United States. We are schooled to “get ahead,” though we have little idea what “getting ahead” entails. We are, therefore, tempted to envy those who have gotten rewards we think we should have received. We may not think we envy anyone, but as suggested above, self-knowledge is not necessarily a characteristic of the envious. One can only hope that friends will provide an alternative.
Lust, American Style
An Anabaptist Perspective
My assignment is to write on the vice of lust in US-American public life. As an Anabaptist Christian I might be expected to approach this task by naming American ills through a contrast with an idealized vision of the church drawn from Scripture and Anabaptist origins. In doing so, however, I would fail to acknowledge the power of lust within Anabaptism. I would also fail to acknowledge my own Americanness, including the Americanness of my Anabaptism. So instead I will develop an analytic of lust through a discussion of Anabaptist history, and then draw analogies for American public life.
When writing about lust as a theological vice, it is wise to observe Mary Daly’s distinction between “phallic,” patriarchal lust and the “intense longing/craving for the cosmic concrescence that is creation,” which she associates with “Elemental female Lust.”1 One does not need to unpick Daly’s knotty vocabulary, much less adopt her entire philosophical program, to accept that “lust” can be used to describe patriarchal “obsession/aggression” (2) as well as a more healthy passion for creation in its particulars—including of course sexual intimacy—and in its organic unity. A Christian may add that intense longing/craving for God is likewise appropriate.
Daly’s treatment of phallic lust also contains useful distinctions. Describing the patriarchal “Foreground” that dominates day-to-day reality, Daly identifies three types of phallic lust. First, “pure lust” “is characterized by unmitigated malevolence” and manifests as physical and psychological violence against women, including the denial of their “deep purposefulness” (2).
Patriarchal men (and complicit women), however, cannot always bear to face their undiluted lust, and so may flee from it into lust’s second form: “phallic asceticism,” a ritual and ideological attempt to conquer lust by assuming the “femininized” role of passive sufferer of temptation, for example, or violence (36–72). From Daly’s perspective, the ascetic flight from lust only heightens phallicism by intensifying the logic of (destructive) penetration, the denial of the body’s goodness, and the lies that obscure the truth of our patriarchal situation. Lustful illusions can also be perpetuated by a third form of lust, “sublimation,” in which lust is denied by cloaking it in theology—a loving Father God to justify patriarchy, an obedient Mary to affirm rape (72–77).
Against the lust of the Foreground, Daly poses the “Background” possibilities of women’s “Lust,” which she describes in terms of passionate, post-patriarchal pursuit of women’s innate, embodied potential (“happiness”), friendship, and community (chaps. 10–12).
Again, the details of Daly’s proposal should not distract from her helpful categories. Turning them on Anabaptist history, it is possible to see “pure lust” active in the stories of Anabaptist men who have raped and beaten women, such as those recently exposed in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia.2 Given the close association Daly draws between violence against women and violence against the earth, and in light of criticisms of Daly’s insufficient attunement to racialization and racism,3 Anabaptist participation in settler colonialism, ecological degradation, and white supremacy could also be viewed as exhibits of pure lust.4
If pure lust is relatively easy to identify, Daly’s descriptions of lustful evasions uncover more occult dimensions of Anabaptist lust. The Anabaptist tradition is deeply invested in its history of martyrdom, and martyrologies have been central to Anabaptist devotional life, especially the 1685 edition of the Martyrs Mirror.5 Such collections can be, and certainly have been, used to celebrate and promote intense longings for God, truth, and justice. They also can, and have, been used to sustain a “persecution complex” that has justified withdrawal into isolated, patriarchal communities.6 These communities have often failed to be accountable for their internal abuse or external relations to, for instance, the original, indigenous inhabitants of their land.7
The best-known case of Anabaptist lust is the disgraced theologian John Howard Yoder. In the 1960s or ’70s, Yoder began an “experiment” in which he invited at least one hundred women into various forms of physical intimacy up to and including sexual intercourse.8 His invitations were often accompanied by more “purely” lustful coercive behavior, including stalking, uninvited pornographic letters, and assault. Yoder’s rationale for his abuse—which he articulated to his victims and to those attempting to restrain him—was that he and his partners were embodying a foretaste of the reign of God in which the full range of non-penetrative physical intimacies were available to Christians.9
Notwithstanding the fact that Yoder admitted to exceeding his own boundaries and engaging in intercourse, this case exemplifies the “sublimation” of lust into theology, in this case into an eschatological ecclesiology. The attempt to restrain lust through non-penetrative intimacy also recalls Daly’s description of phallic asceticism,10 which claims to ward off lust by suffering, but not giving into, temptation. As Daly sees, phallic ascetics are dependent on the tempting bodies of women to prove their own rectitude, and so they require women to be seen as tempting and require women-perceived-as-tempting to be available to them: “What is really going on here is an enormous draining of women’s energies into the phallocentric cesspool” (41).
Yoder may be the most infamous example of Anabaptist lust, but it is important to see that Anabaptism as a tradition has lust deep in its roots. The preface to the 1527 “Schleitheim Confession” document, which served as a basis for unity among some Swiss Anabaptist communities and became important for twentieth-century Anabaptist theological reconstructions, claims unity over and against “false brethren” who “have fallen short of the truth and . . . are given over to the lasciviousness and license of the flesh.”11 Scholars believe the target here may have included a charismatic community in St. Gall led by women prophets, rumored to have devolved into bizarre sexual behavior. Be that as it may—and it is difficult to refrain from speculation as to whether this women-led community was not, in fact, a victim of slander—the Schleitheim document uses it as a pretext for restricting community leadership to men.12
I have already mentioned the brief episode at Münster, where male leaders forcibly instituted polygamy in order to prepare the New Jerusalem for its returning Lord.13 Shortly after the fall of Münster in 1535, Menno Simons—the namesake of the Mennonites—joined the Anabaptists and eventually became a leading pastor in the northern Anabaptist communities. Menno frequently defended his persecuted congregations in writings directed to opposing theologians and rulers. Part of Menno’s polemical strategy was to highlight his communities’ refusal of Münsterite emphases, including not only polygamy, but also prophecy, thereby closing the primary door to women’s leadership within the church.14 If compassion warrants acknowledgment of the context of persecution that produced Schleitheim and Menno’s writings, justice requires taking account of the fact that safety was sought through restricting the scope of women’s power and creativity or, in Daly’s terms, of women’s happiness.
This analysis of Anabaptist lust may seem far removed from American public life. Anabaptism in America, however, should not be viewed as a pristine outlier, but rather as a key constituent of the whole. Many Anabaptists long ago assimilated to American whiteness,15 and historians discuss the central role of Anabaptist theologians, especially Yoder, within the formation of twentieth-century American evangelicalism.16 If an earlier generation’s view that Anabaptism was the font of American democratic ideals was misplaced,17 so was the more recent view associated with Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas in which Anabaptism and America stood in merely antithetical relation.
It is therefore unsurprising to witness dynamics identified within Anabaptism as working analogously within the American body politic. At the most general level, Anabaptist and American institutions and leaders have both practiced pure lust—coercing and confining, expropriating and exploiting women and others.
Beyond pure lust, the machinations of phallic asceticism and sublimation are also visible in both Anabaptism and America. Both Anabaptist and American leaders, for example, have repeatedly based their claims to unity and security on the marginalization of women and the celebration of heroic, suffering men.
Anabaptism, moreover, may be at its most American in its tendency to combine distanced exceptionalism and aggressive mission. Anabaptist and American ideologues may have disagreed about the location of the “city on a hill,” but they have agreed that their hard work and sacrifices entitled them to live in it. And they agreed that this gave them the sometimes grim, sometimes gleeful responsibility of spreading their gospels of peace.
Mary Daly wagered that there was an alternative to lust beyond or behind patriarchy. She described this alternative as “Elemental female Lust,” a passion for the possibilities of women in community. A justice-seeking, creation-affirming “intense longing/craving” seems worth wagering on even if, unlike Daly, we hope it can be experienced by more than women and mingle with passion for God. Even if we hope to experience it in Anabaptist and other Christian communities. Even if we hope to experience it in America.
Mary Daly, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984), 3. The following references to this book are included parenthetically in the text.↩
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia,” Vice, December 22, 2013, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4w7gqj/the-ghost-rapes-of-bolivia-000300-v20n8.↩
See discussion in Traci C. West, “The Gift of Arguing with Mary Daly’s White Feminism,” Journal of Feminist Studies of Religion 28.2 (Fall 2012) 112–17.↩
The list could be extended, of course. With a critical eye to Daly’s argument that transgender people (whom she refers to as “transsexuals”) have bought into a patriarchal lie (Pure Lust, 51–52), violence against trans persons should also be named as a negative form of “lust”—one that Anabaptists have no doubt perpetuated.↩
Thielman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theater; or, Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, trans. Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1950).↩
Carl Stauffer, “Formative Mennonite Mythmaking in Peacebuilding and Restorative Justice,” in From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding, ed. Andrew P. Klager (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 146–47. On the related weaponization of Anabaptist peace theology to silence and marginalize LGBTQ Mennonites, see Stephanie Krehbiel, “Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA” (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 2015), and Gerald J. Mast, “Pink Menno’s Pauline Rhetoric of Reconciliation,” Pink Menno (August 2, 2013), http://www.pinkmenno.org/2013/08/pink-mennos-pauline-rhetoric-of-reconciliation/.↩
Mennonites have repeatedly moved to lands that have recently been cleared by powerful states (Russia, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Paraguay, etc.) of earlier, usually indigenous inhabitants.↩
Rachel Waltner Goossen, “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89.1 (January 2015) 7–80.↩
I assess this rationale in my essay “Anabaptist Re-Vision: On John Howard Yoder’s Misrecognized Sexual Politics,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 89.1 (January 2015) 153–70.↩
It especially recalls her discussion of Gandhi’s similar “experiment” (Pure Lust, 39–41).↩
John Howard Yoder, trans. and ed., The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1977), 9.↩
See discussion in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, eds., Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, ON: Wilfried Laurier University Press), 20–21.↩
See Ralf Klötzer, “The Melchiorites and Münster,” in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521–1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Boston: Brill, 2000), 217–56.↩
Snyder and Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women, 253–54. Within the “Melchiorite” strain of Anabaptism to which both Menno and the Münsterites belonged, women prophets such as Ursula Jost, Barbara Rebstock, and Anna Jansz had previously exercised considerable influence.↩
Philipp Gollner, “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism, Cultural Power, and the City,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016) 165–93.↩
David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).↩
Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1944).↩
Lust, Sex, and the Masquerade of Power
When I say the word “lust,” it’s likely that the next thing that comes to your mind is sex. Not just sex, but lots and lots of sex. Obsessive. Excessive. Or maybe, even illicit kinds of sex. Whatever comes to mind, it’s likely to be some kind of sexual desire or behavior that either pushes the limits or exceeds the boundaries of what is good for us.
Yet, as the well-known idiom “a lust for power” reveals, lust isn’t exclusively concerned with sex. Fundamentally, what lust craves is inordinate control, power, and domination. At its core, lust confuses the difference between power and empowerment. Though both involve our desire to feel personally safe, secure, and self-confident, empowerment, in this context, is about feeling confident that one has autonomy over one’s own life and body. Whereas power gains its confidence by controlling the lives, bodies, and circumstances of others in order to feel more secure.
Because we recognize that lust in this sense is a boundary violation of some kind, it’s reasonable that we would seek to avoid it by clarifying what and where, exactly, those boundaries are. Unfortunately, because sex is so often involved in these boundary violations, we tend to narrowly treat lust as a sexual morality/integrity issue rather than fully recognizing it as a distortion of our desire to secure dignity and empowerment.
As a woman and a gay person, I have special interests in delineating lust (the desire for power) from sexual desire (the want for sex) in light of male domination and heterosexual domination. Both forms of oppression exist because they are able to use sex/sexuality against women and LGBTQ+ people to control, manipulate, and authorize where our bodies “should” be and how our bodies “should” perform in society. The only thing this has to do with sexual morality is the way that the cultural mores regarding sex are used as a justification for maintaining power.
While it is true that undisciplined and obsessive sexual behaviors do cause harm to ourselves and others, it is actually lust which makes sex bad and not the other way around. That is, we should recognize that sex is the target and not the cause of lust. Because lust operates by masquerading as any number of our otherwise natural desires, we need a clear understanding of what, exactly, lust wants, as well as how and where it operates.
Lust constantly intrudes on daily life. Some would point to the proliferation of sexual imagery in modern culture as evidence that society is suffering from an epidemic of lust. Others would argue that our societal obsession with sex goes well beyond mere imagery. From commercial advertising to entertainment and public media headlines filled with the private shame and scandal—there’s little doubt, we’re very entertained, interested in, and influenced by sex. But is this lust? Does the high visibility of human sexuality in our culture suffice as evidence of moral depravity? Or, is this proliferation a reflection of just how genuinely significant and meaningful sex is to us?
One of the reasons why lust favors our sexuality as a target is because sex is inexorably embedded in a web of primal needs. We need healthy, beneficial, and intimate relationships for good psychological health. It is good for us to love and be loved. For a well-balanced life, we need a degree of material security and self-confidence.
But lust is im-balanced. It throws desires off-kilter, either by pushing us to exceed the limits of desires that we try to meet or by overwhelming us with the desires we try to ignore. In a sense, lust is like a tapeworm. It feeds off our desires (whatever they may be), using them as fuel in order to perpetuate itself. It has a way of convincing us that any measure of what we have is unsatisfactory, insufficient, and that we will never be fully secure or happy unless we dominate, possess, and control whatever it is we think we lack. The lie that lust would tell regarding our otherwise natural desires for sex, material goods or self-esteem, is that we will never be secure until we have gained all there is to gain or until we become convinced that we have total command of our domain.
Power over Bodies
Sexual abuse and violence are among the most extreme ways in which power can dominate bodies, particularly female bodies. A staggering one in three women and girls experience sexual violence in their lifetime.1 To a less violent, but no less damaging degree, 64 percent of women have experienced harassment just walking down the street and 20 percent reported being followed.2 For women, this is a daily reality to which the emergence of the #MeToo movement has given witness.
Naming, exposing, and combating sexual harassment and abuse is at the heart of the #MeToo movement. Predominantly, the movement has coalesced around concerns for the victimization of women by men in power, but in broader scope, it has become “viral” because it speaks to the ways in which women, specifically, have had to deal with lust in their daily public lives.
The sexualized expressions of lust may range from just plain irritating, unwanted sexual attention to the extremes of prosecutable criminal abuse. Yet, the point of the #MeToo movement is that regardless of their severity, all of these things cause harm. What women are saying, and their harrowing experiences confirm, is: it’s abuse of power, not sex, that is the real problem.
Inequality, impunity, and shame all contribute to the sexual vulnerability of women in society, and specifically in the workplace.3 As was seen in the case with #MeToo’s most notorious catalyst, Harvey Weinstein,4 many of the women were sexually assaulted and silenced because Weinstein held the positional, professional power to exploit them. Many of the victims and witnesses (including men) were professional associates who depended on Weinstein’s expertise and endorsement. Because there was so much at stake for all involved, both personally and professionally, it would take decades to break the silence and to see Weinstein criminally charged.
Most accounts largely recognize how Weinstein used his powerful status to gain access to and sexually exploit his victims. Simply said, Weinstein used his power to get sex. But lust can also use sex/sexuality to get power. Either way, it’s human sexuality that always occupies the vulnerable position. Yet, from the sex-for-power perspective, we can begin to see why even (non-physical) sexual harassment is so injurious. It is not necessary for the bad actor to attain or even desire sexual gratification to utilize sex/sexuality as an effective tool of coercion and domination. In short, lust weaponizes sex and sexuality to gain power.
The power of weaponized sexuality isn’t limited to the physical domination of human bodies. It also includes expressions of power that damage a person’s sexual reputation for the exclusive purpose of elevating the status of the perpetrator. Some of the ways this is done include false allegations of sexual misconduct, unauthorized public revelations of one’s sexual orientation, or good old-fashioned public shaming for anyone who deviates from the script of accepted sexual norms. The prevailing concern in these instances is less about moving toward some public good or justice and more about gaining dominance or authority by negatively manipulating the perceived sexual reputation of another.
Shame and Control
Sexual reputation holds significant sway in our society. Pressures to this reputation can be applied individually, but they can also be used to marginalize entire groups of people. Just as male domination in society exerts its power over women, heteronormative domination seeks to maintain its power at the expense of LGBTQ+ people in very particular ways.
On a civic level, those who occupy positions of power, from lawmakers down to local law enforcement, have used their power to criminalize LGBTQ+ sexual activity and limit or deny access to rights and privileges. This authorizes and legitimates sex-based discrimination in order to consolidate power and privilege for a heteronormative majority.
On a social level, institutional religion has asserted claims to moral authority by stigmatizing non-heteronormative sex and sexual identity. Sexual reputation (or purity) and submission to religious authority are treated as metrics of individual religious piety. Access to leadership roles, full membership, and participation in certain rites and rituals are strictly enforced on the basis of sexual purity, gender conformity, and sexual orientation. (It is also worth noting that these are the same religious means by which women are manipulated to conform to male submission and authority.)
Take the example of evangelical Christianity, where preaching is key to projecting and asserting religious authority. Culture war language is routinely deployed from the pulpit to single out and blame LGBTQ+ existence for society’s moral decline. Calling LGBTQ+ people “unnatural” and “abominations to God,” they are routinely accused of presenting a unique danger to humanity itself. Charges against them range from having ideological agendas such as the will to disintegrate institutional marriage and destroy families, to threatening the planet by inciting the judgmental wrath of God because they are behaving wickedly. This not only disparages people in the pews but also rings in the ears of the nonreligious. As prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community increases, so too does the confidence that heterosexuality will remain the status quo.
Sex-based discrimination persists because institutional power continues to stigmatize the sexual reputation of the LGBTQ+ community. This not only damages the ways in which LGBTQ+ see themselves, it also profoundly alters their ability to engage in public life.5 As a consequence, “LGBTQ[+] people face higher rates of poverty, stigma, and marginalization, which put [them] at greater risk for sexual assault.”6 Disparities in healthcare, job insecurity, and disproportionate youth homelessness are just a few of the ways discrimination makes being LGBTQ+ such an insecure experience.
Obviously, sex is important to us and it should be. Especially when we consider how profoundly influential sex and sexuality proves to be in determining whether or not we feel secure in terms of our sense of personal safety and self-worth. It not only influences the way we see ourselves, how we feel about ourselves and how we treat ourselves, it also influences the way we see, feel about, and treat others. If we are to experience wholeness in our lives, we need a degree of confidence in both our physical and emotional security. That is, we not only need to be physically secure, but we need to also feel secure within our sense of being.
We can try to protect our bodies and keep them safe in the world by establishing physical boundaries, and when/if necessary, defend those boundaries and/or punish those who would trespass them. When it comes to emotional security, we can try to bolster our confidence by trying to reassure ourselves that we have all we need, but without the agency to participate in our own security, we suffer.
As it turns out, we can actually be safe but feel unsafe. We can actually have more than enough but feel like we have nothing. Part of the complexity of resisting lust effectively is in learning how to tell the difference in whether or not we are hurting ourselves, being hurt, or hurting others.
So, when it comes to identifying how lust shapes our motives, thoughts, and behaviors—the challenge is not just distinguishing between what we want and what we need and whether such things are good or bad for us, but also involves how we go about attaining our fulfillment affects other people. We must ask the question: Who or what must I overcome to get “it”?
How we answer may tell us all we need to know about whether we feel secure and empowered or insecure and powerless; whether we are attempting to order ourselves or assert order over others.
“A Staggering One-in-Three Women, Experience Physical, Sexual Abuse,” UN News, November 24, 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1052041.↩
UN News, “A Staggering One-in-Three Wome.”↩
Colin Dwyer, “Harvey Weinstein Sentenced to 23 Years in Prison for Rape and Sexual Abuse,” NPR, March 11, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/03/11/814051801/harvey-weinstein-sentenced-to-23-years-in-prison.↩
Sejal Singh and Laura E. Durso, “Widespread Discrimination Continues to Shape LGBT People’s Lives in Both Subtle and Significant Ways,” Center for American Progress, May 2, 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/news/2017/05/02/429529/widespread-discrimination-continues-shape-lgbt-peoples-lives-subtle-significant-ways/.↩
“Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community,” Human Rights Campaign, https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community.↩
Gluttony and American Identity
The first landmark treatment of gluttony in Western Christianity, as far as I know, comes from Gregory the Great. His Book of the Morals, a sixth-century collection of biblical commentary and ethics, seems quaint when read today. He was highly concerned with the keeping of fast, for example. We Americans almost never fast or feast. We mostly just eat.
That said, Gregory understands a truth that extends beyond cultural norms: that those who can’t triumph over physical concerns are no match for spiritual enemies. “But some, ignorant of the order of the contest, neglect to tame their appetite, and proceed at once to spiritual battles. And though they sometimes display many acts of great bravery, yet from the sin of gluttony ruling over them, they lose, by the allurement of the flesh, all that they have done boldly; and, while the belly is not restrained, all their virtues are overwhelmed at once by the lust of the flesh” (Book of the Morals, vol. III, part VI, no. 59). From there one can begin: that it’s important to overcome gluttony, and that failure to do so ruins higher pursuits.
Gluttony isn’t what it used to be. In the medieval period, admonition against gluttony was as much practical as spiritual; an impoverished family who ignored the Lenten fast might eat themselves into hunger. Americans don’t live in that world. Though systemic oppression afflicts the marginalized today,1 the problem in America isn’t a scarcity of food, but an artificially scarce, intentionally wasteful abundance.2 Ours is such a nation that the worst off have little recourse but to eat cheeseburgers till they’re diabetic, and the rest of us throw our microgreens away.
Instead of wastefulness and scarcity, let’s consider it from a uniquely American perspective—the notion of individual identity—and start with scripture, specifically, Christ’s admonition against showy fasting.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt 6:16–18)
Jesus emphasizes the importance of secrecy in abstinence. Perhaps it’s because, when people profess their own temperance, that act lends itself to a different kind of gluttony; one becomes a glutton for praise. Why is this bad?
Consider the Incarnation. “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). True, but “the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god” (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks). To be a Christian is to live, not only on bread, but on the true love and esteem of our neighbor, freely given as God’s love is freely given. Through the Incarnation and our faith therein, humans are vested with the potential for the manifestation of divinity, for theosis. To manifest that divinity is the meaning of a Christian life. Inversely, when we seek praise from one another for how we consume, we seek for our neighbor, as a bearer of the divine image, to mar that image within us and themselves, since they praise not the divinity but flesh oriented toward flesh. We seek to be raised up as an idol, as a spiritual being whose sole relations are of this world, always demanding sacrifices, never transcending them. This is the epitome of sin.
The tendency to seek praise and validation for consumption runs rampant in American life. Whether it’s your Republican dad who grills factory-farmed beef at the church cookout, liberals who think they’re good for buying ethical shampoo, or hipsters who consider their favorite Radiohead album a personality trait, Americans define themselves by what they consume and seek validation for toxic identities. In doing so, we seek God to affirm us as consumers, as brands, remembering that to seek validation from others is, if not to seek validation from God, at least to seek validation from God’s window and reflection. Gluttony transcends the culture war. We’re all guilty.
The notion of hereditary guilt, of having been “guilty from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5), is common to the Western Church. The Orthodox, on the other hand, believe that, while humans may enter a fallen world, we do not inherit that fallenness. Rather, sin is taught to us by a sinful world. This claim is evinced by Christ’s exhortation toward childlikeness; children, as long as they remain children, have yet to be taught sin. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
That in mind, let’s look at how kids see things, and how people come to fall from their perspective. To use an anecdote: I was at a Juneteenth event this year, and during it, someone started shooting off fireworks. Two children I saw, playing on a nearby hill, leapt for joy and screamed, that is so fun! They manifested enjoyment without gluttony, not because they didn’t feel joy—they liked those fireworks a lot—but because, at that moment, it wasn’t about them. It was about the fireworks, and how fun they are. A glutton would be wondering why the fireworks weren’t bigger, or reminiscing about the best fireworks they ever saw, or taking a video to flex on Instagram, or otherwise distancing themselves from the moment. Kids don’t do that. If gluttony marks that moment people consume as an extension of identity, then enjoyment, free from sin, means learning, like children know, to enjoy things as they are.
As time goes on, people change, and abandon their innate childlikeness. We become self-aware, and we become insecure. Advertisers know this. Targeted ads shift from bombastic fantasy3 for children to something no less ridiculous, but a lot more insidious, for adults.4 They become about success, persona, identity: you, too, can impress your employers, if you associate with our brand. Adults are susceptible in a way children aren’t to the notion that what they buy is who they are. Why?
It starts in earnest with adolescence. Kids identify with brands, but only loosely, and they’ve yet to develop that rigid, imprisoning “self.” But kids grow up; in that moment of vulnerability, they become susceptible. Historically, we’ve relied on good examples, set by our communities, to get us through these formative periods. But community as it once was, an ecosystem of persons to grow around and imitate, is dead. It’s been replaced by the nine-to-five work week, an assembly-line model of public schooling, daytime television and, later, the iPad and the smartphone. Caught in a relational vacuum, divorced from traditional community structures, what’s left is to buy.
So we, good Americans that we are, go to market. We buy clothes and accessories, music and video games, hair dye and jewelry, almost all of it made by the oppressed across the globe. Our purchases differentiate us from our own in myriad ways, and a thought calcifies in our souls: this is who I am. I’m sociable and I look nice, or I’ve got a running list of my favorite albums in a given genre, or these gymnastic lessons are really paying off, or I feel so centered after that yoga session, or that trip to the barber’s a glow up, or I’ve always got good liquor on tap. These are all market choices, all identity statements, all about that most dangerous pronoun, I. These are power structures, power structures forced onto us by our appearance, our assigned gender, and how much money our parents make. In the same way the hard facts of the natural world force different creatures into niches, the artificial brutality of neoliberal society sorts us by consumption habits. Gluttony creeps into our existence through our vulnerability, through our need to feel safe, and it continues to infest American life until we cast it off, or die.
As Americans settle into their bodies, into the hard facts of a fabricated yet violently enforced reality, we break into tribes based on how and what we consume. Each of these things says something about us, forming a lingua franca. Our identification with different brands enforces the social structure and becomes a prison of ever shrinking possibilities. These structures are as insidious as they are omnipresent and advanced; Algorithms track what we buy and force us ever more deeply into “ourselves,” targeting us—a violent metaphor, appropriated from marksmanship—with whatever it is we already tend to buy.5
What’s this to do with gluttony? It has to do with consumption. More importantly, it has to do with identifying with consumption. Common sense says that we are what we eat. I don’t disagree, on an immediate and physical level. But we aren’t what we consume. We’re not the music we listen to; we’re all the songs that lie in our souls. Nor are we the food we purchase; we’re the food we could grow with our own two hands. We are made in the image of God, and contain infinite creative possibility that no identity or label could possibly define.
Gluttony would have it otherwise. Gluttony would see us reduced to creatures that take and take, never giving back, never dreaming our own dreams, never living our own lives, never enjoying the things we consume. It would make us facsimiles of consumption, without a single creative expression or honest opinion of our own. Joy become joyless under gluttony, since the object of joy exists entirely for us and lacks the otherness necessary for joy. Gluttony fashions us into tyrannical idols worshipped, not even by others, but by Platonic shadows,6 dim notions and identity claims, the objects of our consumption reduced to self-given, self-received offerings.
This process reaches its horrific culmination in our politics. It almost goes without saying that most of the political issues Americans identify with are about human suffering: whether it’s abortion, LGBT+ rights, economic welfare and woe, detention camps at the border, famine overseas, or Black Lives Matter, it’s a general rule that people get most impassioned about suffering and marginalization. Americans take sides concerning this suffering, sides predetermined by our habits. We consume media and regurgitate it onto social platforms, and aside from that, most of us do very little. In the process, we commodify the suffering of others as an ornament to our identity.
It’s perhaps no coincidence a broader religious culture that developed the practice of wearing a torture device as jewelry generated a society where people post videos of others getting murdered for retweets. Regardless, one need look no further than social media to understand American gluttony. To us, suffering is “a sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth), a commodity, a sideshow at our collective circus. Those who commodify suffering most often have nothing at stake except in the sense that, for things to change, they’d have to make sacrifices. Instead, they draw those sacrifices to themselves, expanding our consumption through social media; awareness of this dynamic, expressed over social media becomes one more commodity. Gluttony is an agent of our violent and exhortative systems. It parasitically absorbs the energy we’d use to change the world, encouraging us, instead, to consume and regurgitate media about the changes we’d like to see.
Gluttony is not the act of consumption. Nor is it the act of enjoying consumption: to truly enjoy a thing, to cultivate the spiritual fruit of joy through it, is holy. Gluttony is the mode of being by which a person, consuming, believes the thing exists for them. It’s the joylessness of yet another night drinking beer and arguing impotently through the TV set with the referees presiding over the game, of a music nerd listening to an album and passing judgement without ever singing a song themselves, of a slacktivist retweeting something they’ve built a whole identity around pretending to care about. In all these examples, the consumer both consumes and conceives of the object of consumption as existing for them, and themselves, as for consumption. “Eat to live, not live to eat.” – attributed to Socrates. Would that we could listen to him.
When looking for a way out of gluttony, consider childlikeness. The kids I saw on Juneteenth get it. Their spirit, triumphing in the simple joy of a crack of gunpowder and a spark of light, overcame gluttony with that special effortlessness given to childhood. They, along with truly and deeply temperate people, understand that it’s not about them.
Nathaniel Meyersohn, “Groceries Were Hard to Find for Millions. Now It’s Getting Even Worse,” CNN.com, June 9, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/09/business/food-deserts-coronavirus-grocery-stores/index.html. See also Ray Offenheiser, “The Coronavirus Has Revealed the True Nature of Hunger in America,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 19, 2020, https://www.philanthropy.com/article/The-Coronavirus-Has-Revealed/249026.↩
Jerry Shannon, “From Food Deserts to Supermarket Redlining,” Bunk, August 14, 2018, https://www.bunkhistory.org/resources/3029. See also “Food Waste in America in 2020: Statistics & Facts,” RTS.com, https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/.↩
Spandana Singh, “The Algorithms behind Digital Advertising,” New America, Open Technology Institute, February 19, 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/oti/blog/algorithms-behind-digital-advertising/.↩
What Greed Looks Like in American Public Life
Advanced economies have overcome scarcity. This is a basic fact. We are able to produce enough goods and have enough time to provide services to maintain a basic material security for all.
This claim is susceptible to misunderstanding. It does not mean that this abundance is “just there”—we have to work to keep it available. Nor are material resources (or time) infinite—thus, economic efficiency still matters. Nor, most importantly, does it mean that everyone can have whatever they want. Quite the contrary: this illusion of unlimited wants is key to why we still face scarcity. What the basic claim does mean is that we (in the aggregate) spend lots of time and resources on all sorts of things that are clearly beyond necessity. We (in the aggregate) know we have more than enough.
The mystery of sin, in the above scenario, is why we act like we do not have enough when we do have enough. Let’s be clear—the “we” is the abstraction of the American population as a whole. Obviously, some—though perhaps not that many—literally do not have enough; a considerably larger group only has enough in tenuous, insecure ways, and/or only by enduring brutalizing work conditions.1 Why is this? Why has the apparently-emerging postwar middle-class-life-for-all failed to materialize for so many decades, even as economic productivity has continued to grow (albeit more slowly)?2
A common story is that this “mystery” of sin is not so mysterious: “some” are greedy—and the system is “rigged” in their favor. The solution to the sin of greed is very simple: redistribute. Take from the people who have five pies and give them to those with no pie.
This story is not wrong, but it’s incomplete in a potentially distorting way. It can suggest that there is a mechanical, technocratic solution to greed, when in fact, the problem is ultimately moral. It is analogous to those who think the environmental crisis will be solved through better technology and incentive systems. Yes, these may help (although they may create unintended consequences, too, just like technocratic redistribution plans do). But the environmental crisis is about something more personally and socially pervasive. So too, the moral problem of scarcity-despite-abundance is not just about “some” bad apples. It’s about a disease that infects us all even if it affects some of us more severely than others. That fundamental disease is greed. We need this vocabulary of greed to understand our condition (as well as a related disease, luxury, which drives pervasive collective greed, as I will explain later).
To start, the moral vocabulary of the vices is based (always) on an account of human nature and flourishing. Vices distort our relations with others, but more deeply, they distort our selves. This sense of self-distortion is utterly missing from accounts that reduce greed to the distribution of goods. Of course, our nature is to be social animals—we live in relation with others. So we learn early in life that the child who wants to monopolize all the toys has taken more than his share. We start to think greed is a matter of taking more than one’s share, which leaves others without. So it might be good to have five pies, but only if others have pies, too.
The problem is in wanting five pies to begin with. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes, in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, that Aristotle’s vice of pleonexia—often translated greed—is not simply taking more than one’s share, but the disposition to seek more for its own sake.3 This is the error of the porn addict or the drunkard—to (as Bill McKibben put it) feel good after two drinks, and conclude that ten drinks will result in feeling five times better. The error here is to equate “more” with “better.” There is no standard by which to judge what is “good.” There is only the standard of “more.”
The sin of equating more with better is at the heart of all the carnal vices: lust, gluttony, and greed. But the Dantean logic for placing the greedy deeper down in hell indicates a more pure and less bounded version of the shared error. Gluttony and lust fail to recognize human standards for drinking and sex. They make goods meant to be instrumental means to human flourishing into human flourishing itself. Sex and drinking are meant to be subordinate—sub-ordered—to a larger vision of human happiness. So gluttony and lust might be said to be particular instances of greed.
The same is true about the ancient vice named “luxury.” While precise definitions of the Greek tryphe and Latin luxus are difficult, all share a sense that inordinate attention to material niceties, especially creative comforts and ornamentation, distort human nature by allowing material desires to exceed reasonable limits, preoccupying the self and hampering the pursuit of more important goods, such as the larger public good and goods requiring strenuous discipline.4 For the ancients, one should want only the material goods one genuinely needs as a means to pursue higher and more important ends. Today, the bumper sticker “He who dies with the most toys wins” is a typical instance of luxury, even though it is shorn of some ancient connotations—life is ultimately about the pursuit of toys. While the precise boundaries of what counts as luxury shift through time, it remains clear that the seeking of material objects that comfort, delight, and signify our social status can become an end in itself. It is no longer measured by any standard other than “more.”
Yet the vocabulary of greed signifies something distinct from this, something even deeper. You can run out of closet space, or own more devices than any person can use reasonably. These may not stop determined luxury addicts, but like alcohol’s inevitable bodily effects, they are speed bumps of finitude that cannot be avoided without increasing effort.
I have argued elsewhere that luxury is the core neglected vice of American life—perhaps of advanced economies overall—because it is such a widespread disease.5 Most Americans still want more and more money because they want more and more lifestyle-elevation, however they define it. Despite all the scientific research and folk wisdom that demonstrate hedonic treadmill effects,6 that the pursuit of material goods does not make us happy, we are still the drunkard who thinks ten drinks is five times better.7
But underneath all this luxury comes the space for greed. For there is one object where the pursuit of “more” does not encounter any material barriers: money. Scripture rightly notes “money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). It is surely the case that a society sick with luxury ultimately treats its symptoms (but not the disease) by sustaining systemic greed—by conveying to us relentlessly that more money simply is better. Each of us individually may constantly want more and better stuff, but what this adds up to systemically is a belief that we just all need more money.
Money is in some sense not a thing at all. Volumes have been written about what money is. In the end, money—much like its close relative, property—is a set of human agreements, a network of trust through time and space, a faith placed in human arrangements that do not rest with any one person. Money—again, like arrangements of private property—is therefore a strange thing. It is a stunningly creative human achievement that is essential to the very abundance we enjoy. Money is good, just as sex and alcohol are good. Reliable money systems mean trade and division of labor, savings and investments, and low transaction costs, among other things. And yet its pervasiveness and magical power to be “converted” (virtually on demand) into anything one’s heart desires easily turns into an idol, exactly when it is not subordinated to human flourishing. Indeed, underlying many of our public debates about wealth and inequality is a kind of magical thinking that attributes a power and mystique to the increase of money itself. In these ideologies, money is made from nothing, sustaining the key illusion that Dominican Herbert McCabe described as “the possibility of wealth without work.”8
That greed is systemic in our public life is obvious in MacIntyre’s biting example:
That a systematically lower standard of living ought to be preferred to a systematically higher standard of living is a thought incompatible with either the economics or the politics of peculiarly modern societies.9
MacIntyre is not saying that people should be poor. He is saying that human flourishing is not equivalent to standard of living—and that, at a certain point, elevating “living standards” actually blocks flourishing. Thus, the problem of luxury is crucial to sustaining systemic greed, because, as long as rich and poor together constantly demand an ever-higher standard of living (beyond reasonable necessity), we will require an overall economic system where more is always better. To support a population ravaged by luxury, we must collectively support an economic system driven by greed.
Let’s not sugarcoat this problem. While racial enslavement may famously be America’s original sin, its deepest habitual sin, developed by constant practice and denial, is greed. While we disown slavery and racism constantly, even as its stubbornness remains horribly embedded within us, we continue to proclaim with pride that America is “the richest country in the history of the world.” As if richer means better. It is difficult to find any human tradition of religious wisdom that would endorse that mistake.
Yet sin need not have the last word here. After all, to be this richest country is to have taken the state of abundance with which I began further than anywhere else. And we continue to have at least some residual social capital that makes us reject blatant celebrations of greed. What steps need to be taken to move out of the grip of that disease?
As I’ve suggested elsewhere,10 American Christians do have to stop celebrating luxury. Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko, declaring sincerely that “greed is good,” exemplifies the full development of systemic greed.11 However, Gekko is an absurd movie fantasy of a greedy bond trader, whereas the celebration of lifestyle excess is far more pervasive, both in media and our actual lives. Does anyone visit an acquaintance’s newly built McMansion and say, “This isn’t a beautiful house, it’s excessive.” Analogously, HGTV’s House Hunters series celebrates excessive renovations and heightens standards for sellers nationwide by encouraging people to “expect” more and more in a house they buy.12 We need to learn standards of “enough” through which the pressure on the collective economic accelerator could be reduced. These won’t be government-issued standards and they won’t mean the abolition of rich people. It means that collectively, culturally, we won’t aspire to micro-imitations of those lavish lifestyles.
This indicates a second step. The real key players for a society that was less greedy and more genuinely abundant are not the 1 percent, but “the 39 percent”—that is, the people in the upper two quintiles of income distribution. According to the latest available numbers, in 2018, that meant households making more than $79,542.13 Doesn’t seem like much? How about households making over $130,000 a year? That’s the top 20 percent. The standard of living these figures support depends on a variety of factors—for instance, my colleagues with three kids living in DC can barely make it on $79,000, whereas a single person just out a college living in low-rent Dayton might be living the high life with $60,000. The point is: the key moral agents are the people whose income really is “more than enough.” They are not only the class that sets lifestyle aspirations for everyone below them, but also the class Richard Reeves dubs the “dream hoarders”14—that is, who bid up the costs of so-called positional goods,15 like desirable housing and good schools, all to make sure their kids come out ahead of others. This is a race no one wins; in fact, we collectively lose, since we pour resources into positional competitions that just keep everyone in place.
Because of these pervasive, overlooked dynamics, shaking one’s fists at the idle rich (who, in our society, are often not at all idle) does not get at the real problem.16 The bigger problem is us, lacking an account of the life of genuine flourishing. If we want to see greed in America life, sure, we could look at the accumulators of great fortunes. Or we could look at the race to imitate their homes, their travel lifestyles, their fancy drinks and food—and ask, how much collectively are we spending on all this, and is this really collective happiness?
Or, put another way: is that the way to live one’s daily life if one aspires “to walk humbly with your God” (Mc 6:8)? There are better things for us to do with our abundance than this. And if we did them, we might see the collective underlying disease of greed go into remission.
Dylan Matthews, “How Many Americans Live on $2 a Day? The Biggest Debate in Poverty Research, Explained,” Vox.com, June 5, 2019, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/5/18650492/2019-poverty-2-dollar-a-day-edin-shaefer-meyer.↩
Robert J. Gordon, “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” Working Paper, Working Paper Series (National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2012), https://www.nber.org/papers/w18315.↩
Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).↩
David Cloutier, The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015); Amy Uelmen, “How Much Is Enough?,” America Magazine, October 29, 2015, https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2015/10/29/how-much-enough.↩
Wikipedia.com, s.v. “Hedonic Treadmill,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill#:~:text=The%20hedonic%20treadmill%2C%20also%20known,negative%20events%20or%20life%20changes.↩
Martha C. White, “Here’s Proof Buying More Stuff Actually Makes You Miserable,” Time.com, March 13, 2014, https://time.com/22257/heres-proof-buying-more-stuff-actually-makes-you-miserable/.↩
Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, ed. Brian Davies (New York: Continuum, 2002), chap. 3.↩
MacIntyre, Whose Justice?, 33↩
David Cloutier, “Sending the Wrong Signal,” Commonweal, December 9, 2013, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/sending-wrong-signal.↩
Tomi Kilgore, “Happy Birthday, Gordon Gekko: My 5 Favorite Quotes from the ‘Wall Street’ Villain,” MarketWatch, May 6, 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/happy-birthday-gordon-gekko-my-5-favorite-quotes-from-the-wall-street-villain-2019-05-06.↩
“Household Income Quintiles: 1967 to 2018,” Tax Policy Center, March 24, 2020, https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/statistics/household-income-quintiles.↩
Richard V. Reeves, “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust,” Brookings.edu, June 13, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/.↩
Wikipedia.com, s.v. “Positional Good,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positional_good#:~:text=Positional%20goods%20are%20goods%20valued,case%20with%20other%20consumer%20goods.&text=The%20extent%20to%20which%20a,referred%20to%20as%20its%20positionality.↩
Tim Fernholz, “Lawyers and Car Salesmen Are America’s Prototypical Capitalists,” Quartz, January 31, 2019, https://qz.com/1532957/lawyers-and-car-salesmen-are-americas-prototypical-capitalists/.↩
Introduction: The Cardinal and Theological Virtues
The body politic is in critical condition, and our contributors have masterfully deployed the Seven Deadly Sins as a diagnostic toolkit to help us grasp the nature and severity of its illness. But even the best diagnosis is fruitless unless it leads to an effective prescription. To that end, we now turn our attention from diagnosing the body politic to examining what it will take to heal it.
The prescriptive portion begins with the Four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. That these virtues play an important role in public life is clear. Less obvious, however, is how. The world has fundamentally transformed over the last couple of decades, years, and even months. Authors MT Dávila, Robin Lovin, Aaron Scott, Jon Kara Shields, and Colleen Wessel-McCoy walk us through what it means to enact these virtues in light of these changes.
The symposium concludes with the Three Theological Virtues: faith, hope, and love. In Christian thought, these virtues manifest most powerfully in the form of restored relationships with God and one another. By spurring us to imagine our relationships at their best, they help us to envision thriving communities and how to repair broken communal bonds to enact that vision. Contributors include Randall Balmer, Shawn Copeland, John Fea, Briallen Hopper, and Scott Paeth.
If the sins help us grasp what’s wrong with the body politic, the virtues help us cultivate a sense for how to set it right. May the following reflections inspire and strengthen us for the work ahead.
We are often ambivalent about political prudence. If we are told that our representatives were “courageous” or “just” in drafting equal opportunity legislation, we will usually be prepared to praise them. If we are told they were “prudent,” we may suspect that they compromised their principles or held back on their demands for fear of opposition. These hesitations reflect a duality in the concept of prudence itself. In the medieval typology of virtues and vices, prudence or “practical wisdom” is both an intellectual and a moral virtue. To be prudent, we must act morally in pursuit of genuine human goods, but we must also act with understanding, in ways that really will achieve the good we seek. Prudent legislators need principles of justice, but they also need to know how the rules they propose will be implemented in practice, and what level of public support a program will need to be effective, and what the limits are of law’s coercive power. Without that intellectual grasp of the political situation, they may have justice and courage on their side, but they lack prudence. If they fail to achieve the goods they seek, the outcome is not just a defeat, but a moral failure as well.
Failures like that are all too common in any ongoing struggle for justice, and they are a reminder of how difficult it is to achieve prudence in politics. The dual nature of the virtue, intellectual and moral, requires an alignment between two different sorts of judgment. On one hand, the facts of the situation must be known and weighed, so that likely outcomes can be assessed, and appropriate tactical decisions made. Experienced politicians are often known for prudence, because those who fail to acquire these intellectual skills are not likely to remain in politics very long. The prudent person knows how to compromise, how to make alliances, and when to accept defeat in order to fight another day. But just for that reason, political prudence is often confused with self-interest, or with a kind of survival instinct that weighs how a decision will impact the politician’s career against the principles at stake. We are inclined to call a political choice “prudent” when it minimizes risk, even if more might be achieved by paying a greater cost.
But using the term that way separates the intellectual and moral aspects of prudence. Certainly, risks to oneself and others are part of the calculation by which a prudent person decides on a course of action, and those who lack the intellect and experience to do this well are unlikely to make prudent choices. But moral prudence also considers what goods are at stake and assesses risk accordingly. To protect long-term career possibilities ahead of short-term gains may be prudent, if we have correctly calculated that we might contribute more to achieving an important moral goal over the long run. But a decision that puts self-interest ahead of important issues of justice, general welfare, or public safety is imprudent in moral terms, even if great risk to oneself results from attending to those greater goods.
History provides many examples of courageous choices that were also strategically prudent. Bonhoeffer concluded that it was a prudent choice, one by which he could make an effective contribution to the reconstruction of German religious and civic life after the war, to give up the safety of exile in New York and return to Germany. At considerable risk to herself, Rosa Parks gave a powerful impulse to the Civil Rights movement by a prudent, strategic decision to violate the rules that segregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. Lincoln was unpopular through most of the Civil War both with those who had made a principled commitment to emancipation and with those who were prepared to accept the continuation of slavery as the price of conciliation with the secessionists. His uncompromising commitment to a peace based on a strong national union may be regarded as prudent, because he pursued the policy that he calculated would secure what he regarded as the key political principle, ignoring opportunities to bring his political opponents under control by clouding the purpose toward which he was working.
That we still argue about Lincoln’s choices a century and a half later points to one of the difficulties that beset systematic thinking about prudence as a political virtue. It is difficult to make general statements about the sorts of action that exemplify it. We know political courage when we see it, even when we disagree with its goals. We understand the temperate voice of moderation in a conflict that is sharply polarized. And even when we cannot formulate a theory of justice, we intuitively admire the just person who organizes a fair solution between the parties to a conflict. But the prudent person, it seems, may be the one who refuses to compromise, or the one who is eager to do so; the one who appears to be holding on to a career, or the one who makes a personal sacrifice; the one who carefully listens to all sides, or the one who listens to none of them. Despite our assertions about the unity of the virtues, the prudent person may appear at times to be intemperate, cowardly, or unjust, to say nothing of lacking in faith, hope, and love.
If our judgments about prudence as a political virtue are to be more than retrospective assessments of what did and did not work, we must have in mind some conception of the goods that a prudent choice is meant to secure. These will differ with circumstances, of course, and they will reflect the wider political commitments of those who are making the choices. We are unlikely to praise the prudence of decisions that effectively realize a goal we find reprehensible. But one good that all political agents share is the political community itself. Prudent political decisions, then, are decisions that achieve important goods for a society in ways that allow politics to continue into the future.
A prudent decision allows politics to continue by being accountable to the political community as a whole. Not everyone will be pleased by a prudent decision, and indeed, the more inclusive the audience, the more likely it is that some will sharply disagree. Being accountable is not the same as being ready to compromise, but it does require treating everyone as worthy of respect and open to persuasion. Lincoln, again, and also Edmund Burke, appear in political tradition as examples of this sort of prudence in dealing with their political opponents. Even when the lines of opposition were sharply drawn, they were ready to make a case for their position to those on the other side. Responsibility in this classical political sense means acknowledging that legitimate authority is derived from the people as a whole, even when authority, for the moment, holds a firm grip on power and is backed by a substantial majority. Otherwise, as the authors of the Federalist argued, we have a tyranny of the majority.
Prudence also requires political responsibility in a more specifically modern sense delineated by Max Weber in his 1919 lecture on “Politics as a Vocation.” Prudent leaders tailor their plans to specific problems, and they do not project their solutions farther into the future than they can see. This does not mean that they lack convictions. But convictions are not policies, and as Weber insisted, an ethics of responsibility is different from an ethics of conviction. Responsible efforts to realize goals must leave space for further development and future corrections in light of changing circumstances.
Prudent, responsible politics is not easy in our contemporary circumstances. Burke and Lincoln belonged to a time of more expansive political rhetoric, in which it was possible to make a case that acknowledged the arguments on the other side and pointed to possibilities beyond the immediate conflicts. Our debates are conducted in formats that require that opponents be quickly belittled and dismissed, in order that we may have a few characters left over in our Tweet for a slogan that identifies which side we are on, rather than making a case for it.
Other, deeper problems can be seen in tendencies prevalent in contemporary versions of the ethics of conviction. Weber illustrated this kind of ethics with the religious zealotry of the radical Reformation, but his more immediate concern in 1919 was a revolutionary ideology that believed it had grasped a material explanation for all the facts of history. Anyone who makes an argument against revolution, this ideology insisted, is operating with a false consciousness. Efforts to persuade them are beside the point. An ethics of responsibility that takes opposing arguments seriously is part of what must be overcome. Our contemporary versions of this ethics of conviction may be represented by talk show hosts and op-ed columnists, rather than by mobs in the streets. But they pose similar difficulties for those whose political vocation is to seek prudent, limited solutions instead of a permanent choice that eliminates the need for future politics.
These difficulties are formidable in themselves, but it is also important to remember that political responsibility is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the virtue of prudence. Beyond sustaining the good of politics into the future, a course of action is virtuous only if the goals pursued through politics are themselves good. Finding appropriate ways to achieve a goal may be an intellectual achievement, but precisely because prudence is both a moral and an intellectual virtue, prudent choices must point the way to goals that are genuine human goods.
As John Rawls observed, the arguments necessary to establish that are not always easily articulated in terms of the public reason by which modern pluralistic democracies make their policy choices. But prudent, responsible politics requires a political culture large enough to sustain an ongoing discussion of the human good, apart from particular questions of policy. That discussion should allow for wide participation in which people can bring to bear the full range of reasons through which they understand what they hold to be good.
It is this connection between prudence, politics, and human goods that sets the theological boundaries for political virtue. Insofar as politics is concerned with human goods, it can never be a matter of indifference to Christian ethics. To be sure, many political questions will concern adiaphora or will involve choices between goods that are so evenly balanced that it is pointless to argue that there is one conclusion on which all Christians must concur. Seeking to impose an ethics of conviction on the questions to which Christian citizens bring their varied backgrounds, experience, and insights to bear is to misunderstand the nature of Christian formation, and insofar as it reduces the effectiveness of Christian political participation, it is in itself imprudent. On the other hand, because politics is not, in itself, a sufficient good, the Christian cannot assume that the continuation of a political system is always a goal for Christian ethics. Bonhoeffer made a prudent choice to return to Germany in anticipation of participating in a reconstruction of German political life, but he concluded in the end that there was no way to achieve a political good under a regime with Hitler at its head. Rosa Parks and her community of faith could envision a way to the future built on a prudent politics of nonviolent resistance, but if the alternative of “segregation forever” had prevailed, more radical action, outside the existing political framework, might have been required. If the Union that Lincoln saved had proved incapable of ending slavery, the Abolitionists who wanted to bring an end to the Constitution itself would have won the moral argument. The good embodied in a political order is an important good, but it requires more than political order alone to make the disposition to continue politics a virtue.
The challenges Americans face are manifold and intersecting. The year 2020 has highlighted yet again the systemic nature and scope of racial injustice. Righteous anger and anguish boil up against the constant threat of violence and second-class status which Black Americans face, from disparities in neonatal health,1 to economic justice,2 to extrajudicial public execution.3
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into relief inadequacies and exploitation within our public health infrastructure. We have seen callous disregard for the well-being of workers across the “white collar / blue collar” divide, as medical staff, cleaners, and meat-packers are called into work without adequate rest or protections. Furthermore, the frequency and severity of extreme weather and resource scarcity events continues to increase—climate change ultimately threatens our existence as a species. Social exclusion and bigotry compound the impact of these public health4 and environmental crises for Black and Indigenous Americans.5
What does the virtue of courage look like under such circumstances?
Courage is the power within a community or a person to face hardship: to endure sufferings one does not choose, or to follow through with just action despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles—enduring hardship, even unto an unremembered or reviled death. Courage does not determine what needs to be done or how to do it, but manifests in the way one persists: enduring suffering, uncertainty, and evil without forsaking hope or commitment. Courage is the inner power to will the right action despite dangers, and, even in the knowledge of possible, even likely, failure.
The virtue of courage is a dispositio, not a momentary power. Like the other character virtues, it is characterized by constancy. Courage, or “fortitude,” is not a heroic transformation during a crisis, but persistently facing difficulty with inner strength.
One misleading thing about the study of virtue is that despite scholars’ conception of virtue as personal dispositions formed by living in community, both academics and their publics tend to focus on individual virtuous agents, exemplary actions, and individuals’ dispositions. Often when we think about public(ized) suffering, we are drawn into the role of spectators and judges. As Lauren Berlant, queer theorist and scholar of public affect writes, we consume scenes of distress as “a claim on the spectator to become an ameliorative actor.”6 We take the privileged role of the compassionate gaze. We narrate “the embodied indignities of structural inequality as opportunities for individuals to reach out to each other, to build concrete human relations.” Each crisis is an opportunity to perform one’s virtue, to embody one’s enduring character. But accepting the individual as the sole or preferred locus of responsibility leaves us morally incompetent and hamstrings our virtue—note not our virtues, but our virtue—a power with which to face the evils (sometimes within ourselves) laying behind and beneath the creation and distribution of harm.
Americans care a lot about being good. We want to be happy and to deserve to be happy. Virtue-talk in the context of American public life highlights the virtues of leaders or exemplary citizens as sovereign individuals. Although we acknowledge institutional barriers that cannot be brought down by individual determination, our concept of virtue remains fixated on what the individual can do, rather than displacing the individual as the fundamental unit of analysis. We would rather be virtuous agents (victims or allies) in a racist society than focus on creating a just society.
A personal focus on virtue need not turn out this way. But while we continue to think about who is the best among us and how to be more like them, we continue to think of virtue within a comparative, even competitive, model. This is an obstacle to considering how we may build communities where everyone has the freedom to pursue justice and flourishing together without making sacrifices of others. Perhaps this is a danger of following an Aristotelian model in which some other person is always the barbarian, the woman, or the slave whose service to the city is a lesser, but necessary, good which serves my flourishing as a “virtuous agent.”
An alternative to this personal virtue model focuses on fortitude as a communal virtue which is enacted by a group working together toward a set of common ends. As Michelle Alexander wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, “Our only hope for our collective liberation is a politics of deep solidarity rooted in love.”7
What would it look like for a community to be prepared to endure and share hardship as a community with equanimity? How does a community choose and prepare for communal actions, acknowledging the hardship that such actions require (of all its members) without hesitation or retreat? Let us imagine a community in which no one is left to suffer alone. We might ask, how does the virtue of fortitude befit a community that hungers and thirsts for justice—a body politic that cannot rest until all its members have a part in God’s justice and peace?
To possess such fortitude perfectly is eschatological—a moment in the reign of God. I have never experienced it. But sometimes, when I squint, sitting around a table of hospitality, I think I can see the power of communal fortitude. I have three tentative proposals.
First, the communal fortitude, or courage, needed for this moment gathers our history and “owns” it: rejoicing with those that rejoice8 and weeping with those that weep. We must allow ourselves to know deeply. We must be haunted by the dead who would see us do justice and refuse to elect further sacrifices to profit, to individualism, and to the status quo. We like to think that we honor the dead with monuments and holidays, but if we read history with fortitude, unstinting in criticism of our heroes and ourselves,9 we may find some saints in the dock while other holy people, many unnamed (Matt 26:13), charge us by their dangerous memories.10
Writing about the School of America’s watch movement, theologian and activist Kyle Lambelet argues that through belief in the resurrection, Christians today are in solidarity with the crucified dead present in our politics: “Whether binding us in obligations of solidarity, compelling us as a higher law to acts of transgression, or inspiring us through their examples of sacrifice, the dead refuse to stay dead.”11 At all levels of social action—in street protests and crafting legislation, leading organizations or planning for community gatherings—we look toward the future, but draw our resources and concepts from the past.
We face two temptations when we retrieve the past. The first is to remember an unblemished past and the second is to erase our connection to it. We must have the fortitude as a community to take responsibility for outcomes we did not intend: both inherited outcomes and unintended outcomes brought about through our past action.
We must, as I tell my five-year-old when she unwittingly whacks her younger sibling, take responsibility for harms we have caused, regardless of our good intentions (or any intentions at all). We must seek repair, and when we cannot repair, we must not only seek forgiveness, but acknowledge the persistence of a debt we cannot pay. This debt is not existential guilt, but a reminder, a stain, of evil: what should not be. At the same time, it is a longstanding tradition that in the lives of the holy we may find strength for the journey and a touchstone of liberation theology that in the lives of crucified people specifically, we may come to see the power of God acting in history.12 After all, it is witness to Christ and not suffering or endurance itself to which the martyrs direct our gaze.
A second dimension of communal fortitude is the ability to look unflinchingly into an uncertain future. Knowing our past well can help to stymie the nostalgic impulse to re-create former political hierarchies (often with a myopic optimism that simply excludes undesirable aspects of the past to be restored). It takes courage to accept costs we have to pay in order to reach for justice. These costs feel especially heavy when we must pay without any surety of successful outcomes, without a definite vision of what successful outcomes would require. To follow the model of the Combahee River Collective, communal fortitude makes common cause with the most systematically excluded, such that their future possibilities are the justice we seek together. Today in America we must listen to the trans and queer, disabled, and incarcerated women of color—refusing any peace from anxiety about the future which does not secure their lives and loves.
The precarity of this fight requires a solidarity in what Paul Farmer called “the long defeat.”13 This dimension of fortitude is “long-suffering”: staying committed despite the long delay to the accomplishment of social change. In the pause between incarnation and general resurrection, Christians face temptations to both quietism and despair. It is easy to become paralyzed—expecting God to renew creation without ongoing human involvement, becoming inured to the depth of our involvement in the fallibility of creation. Likewise, it is easy to become exhausted by the seemingly endless struggle against evil: abandoning hope in the finality of Christ as redeemer of the whole of creation through the Body.
Both anemic waiting for utopia and the anticipating dystopia bode poorly for Christians in community seeking virtue. When we look to the future we sometimes construct apocalyptic scenarios in which the decisions before us are reduced to calculations in which the value of human lives can be measured against other losses—where the survival of some is triaged against the dignity of all. These scenarios train us to engage social problems with the presumption of failed relationships and prompt preemptive negotiation over fundamental rights.
Communal fortitude manifests in the shared inner strength to create alternative relationships and resource flows without a blueprint of the equitable systems which will replace current unjust structures. It requires trust and willingness to throw off the comforts which keep us linked to current inequities. Sometimes, as in the case of climate change and equity in global development, we lack a unified plan to tackle the scope and complexity of the problem and proceed in a pragmatic, ad hoc fashion.14 Sometimes, as in the community practices needed to replace policing and incarceration,15 we have models and plans.16 But even with a plan, as abolitionist Mariame Kaba notes, we still lack the imagination to feel secure in it.17 Imagining and acting on these plans anyway requires communities of courage.
Third, we need the communal fortitude to relinquish and take control of our cooperative endeavors. Forging bonds and sharing resources with others we do not seek to manipulate takes fortitude especially when we are conscious of a common history which would give them a reason to distrust or seek vengeance against us.18 In real power-sharing, through organizing and practices of social democracy, we recognize the independent power of others. Our common work may fail or may take a path different than we, individually, would wish. But through a lasting commitment to transformation, we acknowledge the truth that until all are free our liberty is taken at others’ expense, and too dearly bought.
To give up control over a community to all members of that community is not to allow institutions to replace individual power and responsibility, but to build responsiveness to and safety for all stakeholders into the institutional systems we depend on. We must have fortitude to resist economic reductionism which encourages such institutions to serve other goals first. Service to our community, especially the vulnerable, must be central to their mandate and operation.
These are three forms of fortitude that seem urgent for our American community and communities: courage to remember clearly, courage to face uncertainty and risk for the sake of justice, and courage to build relationships and institutions which are accountable to the goals of reducing harm and inclusive flourishing.
“Racial and Ethnic Disparities Continue in Pregnancy-Related Deaths: Black, American Indian/Alaska Native Women Most Affected,” CDC, press release, September 5, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0905-racial-ethnic-disparities-pregnancy-deaths.html.↩
Kimberly Amadeo, “Racial Wealth Gap in the United States: Is There a Way to Close It and Fill the Divide?,” The Balance, updated June 10, 2020, https://www.thebalance.com/racial-wealth-gap-in-united-states-4169678.↩
“2017 Police Violence Report,” https://policeviolencereport.org/.↩
Randall Akee, “How COVID-19 Is Impacting Indigenous Peoples in the U.S.,” PBS News Hour, May 13, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/how-covid-19-is-impacting-indigenous-peoples-in-the-u-s.↩
Beth Gardiner, “This Environmental Justice Activist Breaks Down Deep Ties between Racism and Climate Change,” PBS News Hour, June 25, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/this-environmental-justice-activist-breaks-down-deep-ties-between-racism-and-climate-change.↩
Lauren Berlant, Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.↩
Michelle Alexander, “America, This Is Your Chance,” NYTimes.com, June 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/opinion/george-floyd-protests-race.html.↩
Wikipedia.com, s.v. “Juneteenth,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth.↩
Katie Grimes, “Moral Heroism and the ‘Man of His Time’ Defense,” Women in Theology, May 1, 2019, https://womenintheology.org/2019/05/01/moral-heroism-and-the-man-of-his-time-defense/; Caroline Ann Morris, “Jean Vanier and Cancelling Our Darlings,” Women in Theology, February 29, 2020, https://womenintheology.org/2020/02/29/jean-vanier-and-cancelling-our-darlings/; https://www.google.com/books/edition/Living_a_Feminist_Life/yfCzDQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=Killjoy. See Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).↩
Johannes Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology (New York: Seabury, 1980).↩
Kyle B. T. Lambelet, ¡Presente!: Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead (Georgetown University Press, 2020), 174.↩
Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003).↩
Tracy Kidder, Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (New York: Random House, 2009).↩
Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).↩
Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (New York: Verso, 2017).↩
“Addressing Harm, Accountability and Healing: Toolkits, Reports, and Guides,” Critical Resistance, http://criticalresistance.org/resources/addressing-harm-accountability-and-healing/.↩
“Towards the Horizon of Abolition: A Conversation with Mariame Kaba,” interview with John Duda, The Next System Project, November 9, 2017, https://thenextsystem.org/learn/stories/towards-horizon-abolition-conversation-mariame-kaba.↩
Courage in 3 Acts and an Epilogue Rethinking the Virtue in Light of #BLM, Mental Illness, and End of Life Care
Rethinking the Virtue in Light of #BLM, Mental Illness, and End of Life Care
This essay reflects on courage in three acts1 and an epilogue. Act 1 looks at courage through the lens of the current demonstrations for racial justice. Some of the demands such as “Defund the Police”2 and Prison Abolition,3 are framed by outsiders as being “vague” goals. Such critiques (themselves exhibiting bias toward particular definitions of order and the good) raise the question of what it is that we name as the highest good in American public life. Act 2 sits in the uncomfortable and existentially threatening reality of addressing long-term mental health needs in a woefully inadequate healthcare system and in a cultural milieu that refuses to attend to mental illness as a public health crisis. In this scenario, it helps to rethink the kinds of threats against which the person and society may stand steadfast, often in complete isolation from any sense of an ultimate good, whether personal or communal. Act 3 walks the path to the end of life, locating courage in the symbiotic relationship between person, family, and society. In this act courage is both almost imperceptible and ridiculously obvious. The epilogue hopes to bring these insights together into a contemporary reframing of courage that admits to its uniqueness among the virtues needed for public life, places its heroism in lo cotidiano4 of our human project.
Act 1: #BLM, 2020 Edition
The public execution of George Floyd bore the weight of a string of murders of black and brown bodies by police during the spring of 2020. The ensuing protests push for a vision of justice that goes beyond “giving to each their due.”5 While demands are made for the rightful arrest and prosecution of the parties responsible for these murders, protesters are pushing for a different reality to reshape what justice looks like. Kerry Danner suggests that this is the task of the metavirtue of humility: “Humility helps correct the moral vision of both the privileged and the marginalized and points to the strength—even the necessity—of communal responses.”6 The current wave of protests is asking the entire nation to communally reimagine what justice looks like, a step that takes both humility and courage. This is not the dream of any one civil rights leader, but the voices of generations of black and brown bodies lifting the veil off of the violence of the American project.
In the last couple of months protesters have highlighted three key elements of courage as a public virtue:
- Courage is the use of moral and cultural imagination to overcome social paralysis in the face of the perennially existential threat that bears down on black and brown bodies in this nation.
- Courage is the communal effort of generations, readying themselves and guiding others to sustain the loss of an inherently sinful and violent understanding of “the good” enshrined in a racist civil order.
- Courage is reorienting the national discourse and will toward a common good whose contours and institutions are yet to unfold, but whose key commitments guarantee life and flourishing for all.
Socialist ethicist René Sánchez notes that most historical projects dominated by violence and the will to conquer typically take their project’s righteousness and justice as givens, as divinely sanctioned and ordained. But historical projects that seek to dismantle these are judged as vague, having no clear vision of the good, and grounded in anarchist visions of (dis)order.
The current moment in American public life marks the stage during which courage is being reshaped as the ability to break free from state-sanctioned violence as the only means to create the good life and uphold the rights of every human being. It profoundly questions past iterations of the “American Dream” as the foundation for the current state of affairs, and risks everything for the dawn of a new dream, a reality envisioned generations ago, engendered the moment the feet of our foremothers and forefathers were shackled to the cargo hold of trans-Atlantic ships.
Act 2: Mental Health Needs
In The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich pairs courage with our profound anxiety before the awareness of our possible nonbeing. “The courage to be is the ethical act in which we affirm our own being in spite of those elements of our existence which conflict with our essential self-affirmation.”7 To be human is to be aware, and to be aware is to be anxious—existentially so—that life as we understand it comes to an end with absolute finality, and with a slew of losses big and small throughout. Before this sense of our own demise, courage presents itself as acceptance and confidence, “the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”8
I have spent the past several years attending to the long-term mental health needs of my family. In a health care system woefully inadequate to address childhood psychiatric and psychological needs, I have become the central manager of a variety of services I’ve had to claw at, argue for, and cajole from various service providers. This in itself can drive the most centered being into a whirlwind of despair. Anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, eating disorders, school phobia, and other mental health needs are compounded by the injustices of stigma and a nearly absolute lack of resources. Nonbeing and loss—from the possible loss of a child to suicide, to the loss of the life one had planned, including dreams for our children, a family vacation, attending a conference, being able to sleep through the night—become lo cotidiano of a home with mental illness. If courage as a virtue requires being oriented toward “the good of reason,” mental illness seems to preclude it altogether.
But the courage to accept acceptance (Tillich’s key term, and part of the toolbox of psychotherapy),9 even while we identify our lives or life circumstances as unacceptable, happens in community. Mental illness radically isolates the person and family members, to succumb to the unreasonableness of the pain of personal and collective chaos, often with very few opportunities for effective treatment. Hope as a part of the virtue of courage becomes present in holding steadfast against this chaos and isolation. In community I have found the strength of hope, not in easy solutions to what I know will be a lifetime of challenges, losses, and some victories, but in the aid that comes from the solidarity of others similarly engulfed in the experience of loss and chaos, together refusing to be brought down by pain. It has been as simple, and as challenging as finding the right support in parents’ groups on Facebook and other platforms, showing up for another treatment program with a loved one with no clear indication of whether it will successfully rein in the chaos, facing another day where “the good of reason” is, at best, unclear. As Tillich proclaims, “the courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of chaos and loss.”10
Navigating the mental health needs of my family highlights one more element of courage as a virtue for public life:
- Courage is clinging to life by connecting our humanity to others’, by consistently reaching for what makes us radically human, and living into it against the specter of profound chaos and loss.
Act 3: End of Life
On March 25, I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to the emergency room. She was disoriented, refusing food and water. Two months later she would succumb to an incredibly aggressive form of dementia, the signs of which had only become visible around Thanksgiving a few months prior. I did not know then that I would be bringing her to my home to accompany her to her death.
On Good Friday we began hospice care at home, clear on the plan that we would not resort to hospital care or extraordinary measures to sustain her life. Caretakers came in and out for basic care, while my sister and I looked after who she was becoming, changing daily, journeying to death.
For Aquinas “the virtue of fortitude is about the fear of dangers of death” (ST II.II.123.4). He names endurance “the principal act of fortitude . . . that is to stand immovable in the midst of adversity” (ST II-II.123.6). Life ends. And the certainty of this end continually threatens to bend our will to be dominated by fear and the chaos of nonbeing. So what makes for “a good death”? I asked this frequently in the days leading up to my mother’s death. I could sense courage in the room. But it wasn’t in her. And it surely wasn’t in me. Was it a gift of grace stemming from the Catholic sacrament of the anointing of the sick?
Conversing about why I go by the initials “MT” with a colleague recently, he asked me which name I would want to be known as at my deathbed, etched on my tombstone. My immediate and almost instinctual response was that we have no name at the time of our death. I was transported back to my mother’s room during the days leading up to her death. I couldn’t pinpoint the source of courage because there was no her. There was no I, either. There were no names. We were in a delicate symbiosis of souls, dying and living, controlling pain, remembering love, tending to a broken body ever rushing to its demise, being prayed into whatever came next. “To love one’s own life is natural: and hence the necessity of a special virtue modifying the fear of death . . . the principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is to stand immovable in the midst of adversity.” I’ll have to take Aquinas’s words for it.
A fifth element for a contemporary understanding of courage for public life is this:
- Courage does not eschew loss, but, rather, willingly makes room for sharing in the loss of others, sustaining each other in the process of journeying toward our ultimate good.
Epilogue: Imagining the Good
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung reminds us that “it is ironic that courage—a virtue of strength and power—is something we need because we are vulnerable.”11 For Konyndyk courage is that virtue that helps us identify our fears, and check them for how they align with our loves. Engaging in this ongoing process is itself an act of courage, for realigning our fears—the fear of leaving behind a status quo sustained by violence against black and brown bodies, of confronting chaos and unhealthy coping behaviors, of losing a loved one, takes immeasurable “inner strength.”12
As a public virtue at this moment courage is the strength of a nation that must die to itself for the sake of a future in which all people can live into their vision of the good life. Courage during slavery was multigenerational. It was supported by the hope that the long struggle toward freedom—a freedom that no one could clearly define, but that was ultimately existentially contrary to the current condition—was beyond the present generation, and always subject to the destructive power of sin. It meant the end of certainty of the way things were and continue to be (slavery, oppression, violence, death), and the beginning of a good that might not be clear or guaranteed, but that is worth the risk.
Courage dares to imagine a new reality even when the effects of sin might prevent it from ever coming true. In its practice it must be corporate, communal, even as it bears the loss of the fundamental transformation of the self and the community. The soldier who risks self to preserve a status quo way of life in which they have a vested interest isn’t nearly as courageous as those who understand that at the other side of their risks and losses is a transformed reality, most certainly of the self, but perhaps also of others, a new way of being community, a new human project.
This is the lesson from the current protests for racial justice. They take their place in the intergenerational struggle for a vision of the good over four hundred years in the making. The toppling of statues that paid homage to the heroes of the false good of slavery suggests the courage of this generation to tear down present injustices in order to imagine with the ancestors.
I borrow the literary device of utilizing “acts” to develop a point or theme from the public radio show This American Life (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/). It serves to anchor the conversation in particular stories, unfolding insights toward some cohesive reflection on a topic.↩
Annie Lowrey, “Defund the Police,” Atlantic, June 5, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/defund-police/612682/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw3Nv3BRC8ARIsAPh8hgLnSJTIj7j0xoPs4IkVckE8jqAHrUJCaj-W8QJ0XCdlmZdazuuTD74aAh5bEALw_wcB.↩
“Prison Abolition” (a curated collection of links), The Marshall Project, https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/4766-prison-abolition.↩
Lo cotidiano—or the “dailyness”—is the phrase coined by Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz and other Latinx theologians to represent the sense of the divine, especially divine purpose, experienced by marginalized communities (such as Latinas) in the everyday struggles for survival and thrival amidst profound injustice and personal and communal pain.↩
Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II.58.↩
Kerry Danner, “Hope, Courage, and Resistance during Climate Change: Insights from African American Economic Cooperative Practices,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 36.2 (Fall/Winter 2016) 175. Danner uses Lisa Fullam’s concept of humility as a metavirtue in Fullam, “Humility and Moral Epistemological Implications,” in Virtue: Readings in Moral Theology, ed. Charles Curran and Lisa Fullam (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2011), 250–74.↩
Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Subsequent ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 3. Inclusive language is my own adaptation.↩
Tillich, Courage to Be, 164.↩
Alexander L. Chapman and Martha Linehan, “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder,” in Borderline Personality Disorder, edited by Mary C. Zanarini (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2005) 211–42.↩
Tillich, The Courage to Be, 190.↩
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, “Courage↩
Konyndyk, “Courage,” 311.↩
Holy Temperance in a Revolutionary Moment
tem·per·ance | \ ˈtem-p(ə-)rən(t)s , -pərn(t)s \
1: moderation in action, thought, or feeling : restraint
2: habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions
It may be too late for temperance. It is, at the very least, much too late for temperance as we have long advertised it.
We weaponize our understanding of temperance in American society, particularly against the poor. Imperialism and Protestantism, doused with the gasoline of white supremacy and set ablaze by capitalism, centuries ago hammered American notions of “temperance” into cultural tools for extracting more labor and more self-blame from the ranks of poor and working-class people. An internalized narrative of self-sufficiency and sober self-denial at all costs—regardless of economic hardship, regardless of political abuses at the highest levels—stoutly furthers the American capitalist project. The “temperance movement” itself was one small but crystalline example of this. Are you suffering, traumatized, and ill-adjusted to the sick society that surrounds you? Must be all the booze—pay no mind to the industrialization, poverty, the deeply patriarchal social order.
There have, of course, been legacies of resistance to capitalism’s distortion of “temperance”: moments, movements, and communities devoted to entirely different concepts of balance and discipline that did not hinge on exploitation. The humble survival programs and rigorous self-study of the Black Panthers leveraged the powerful concept of self-control as inseparable from political autonomy for poor Black communities (and, at least in Chicago, poor Brown and white communities as well).1 For their wildly successful free breakfast programs for children, the Panthers were identified by J. Edgar Hoover as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”2 Thus their chapters were infiltrated and sabotaged, their young leaders like Fred Hampton assassinated. So goes holy temperance in America.
In the context of the twenty-first-century United States, our popular individualist narratives of “self-control” are at best an illusion. At worst, they are a tool of violent scapegoating and profound psychological gaslighting. These narratives are a mind fuck, pure and simple—a deliberate one. Hyper-individualized notions of temperance are at the foundation of our grotesque national mythology of bootstrapping it out of poverty, of telling suffering people to have Jesus cure their heroin addiction so that the government doesn’t have to lift a finger to fund healthcare, housing, healing arts, and culture. We are reaping what we have sown: mass death—and so many of them deaths of despair and shame.
I spend most of my week with people who use lots of drugs (or who did, once upon a time). I am the cofounder of an organization—a church of the streets—in a rural poor county where there is a lot of meth and even more heroin. There are around five hundred people in our congregation scattered across the county’s encampments, back alleys, jail cells, and trailer parks. I love my people. I love my people, and therefore I despise the ways “temperance” has been used to bludgeon them with blame, with self-loathing, with state and vigilante violence at every turn.
Poor people are relentlessly scapegoated and pathologized as being wasteful, immoral, licentious, and intemperate. Poor people are convenient scapegoats for our lethally imbalanced political and economic system. Media coverage of the ongoing uprisings in the wake of the highly publicized police murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd sharply illuminate this point. Handwringing moderates, usually of some economic stability, clutch their pearls and gasp, “Protesting is one thing, but looting is unacceptable!” Why? This country has been looting poor people since day one. America has particularly looted poor Black people of bodily autonomy, of labor, of wealth, of political power, of family, of safety, of health, of life itself in an ongoing history of atrocities. Even in my broke-ass redneck parish, responding to the prolific misinformation that “looters” might attempt to come to our community, our priest simply replied, “Capitalism and the timber industry looted Aberdeen a long time ago. There is nothing left to take.”
One hundred years ago, Aberdeen, Washington, was the timber export capital of the entire world. More raw timber was logged, milled, and shipped out from here than anywhere else on the planet—to build cities across the globe and line the pockets of corporations and a tiny handful of local families. In the 1990s, when the timber industry packed up and went abroad where it was cheaper and easier to exploit human beings and natural resources, the working-class people left behind were rendered as surplus population. “Temperance” to the capitalist class ultimately defined our human beings and our human needs as excess—as fat to be trimmed in service of the bottom line.
How do you temper a surplus population? Three of temperance’s hallmarks are humility, abstinence, and self-regulation. Capitalism has mutated these positive traits into humiliation, austerity, and state violence. In the void left by timber, Aberdeen saw the emergence of incarceration as a replacement industry—both in the form of a state prison used to incarcerate Black and Brown people from other poor communities, as well as an expansion of municipal and county jails to incarcerate local poor white and Native people. In tandem with the expansion of policing, criminalization, and incarceration, we have seen an absolute explosion of the drug economy. Drugs do not flood poor communities in the United States by accident and they never have. It is not an accident that the small city at the epicenter of opioid overdoses in Washington State houses no inpatient treatment program. It is not an accident that this town of sixteen thousand people—with one thousand people homeless—apparently cannot fund affordable housing but can always find the resources to secure more militarized police equipment. Likewise, it is not an accident that our dominant local narrative around addiction is inseparably intertwined with our local narrative around poverty: bootstrap your way out of it. If you can’t—if for some ungodly reason you need help, healthcare, housing, meaningful living-wage work before you can heal—then you are weak, dissolute, and you should be consumed with shame. This is the formula for “temperance” America offers to poor people.
And what is the “temperance” we have permitted to billion-dollar corporations and the rich? Here, have some more. Of everything. Have another formerly working-class neighborhood to gentrify while homeless people are dying in the streets. Have another round of water rights while Flint’s taps still run with poison. Have another war over oil while veteran rates of suicide skyrocket. Have another city council or key senator’s seat in your pocket while poor people are disenfranchised through escalating voter suppression. Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, writes,
This system treats injuries to the rich as public crises requiring massive government action, but injuries to the rest of us as the unfortunate results of bad luck and personal moral failures. It is able to do this—and sustain this inequality—through the creation and reinforcement of the powerful ideological belief that an economy that benefits the rich will benefit the rest of us. We are seeing now how this holds true even in a crisis that affects us all. The rich will still be prioritized over everyone else. . . . The failure to fully care for workers and the poor is in part the consequence of the fundamental faith that the rich will construct a healthy economy out of this crisis, an economy that can and will take care of us. But the power of this belief defies what we see every day about how the economic interests of the rich do not correspond3 with ours.4
You and I are currently living through one of the most intemperate moments of human history, in a society whose economy and politics are fundamentally structured around maintaining the power of the most wealthy. In the first ten weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, US billionaire wealth increased by $485 billion while forty million Americans filed for unemployment. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, nearly half of Americans were already poor or low-wealth. So what might true temperance look like, in this moment of American public life?
The only theologically sound definition of temperance we can pursue at this point in human history must be a revolutionary temperance. It must be collective and it must be structural.
So what kind of temperance do we need in the days to come? What does temperance look like in a society already at war with the poor and oppressed, with conflict steadily spreading and escalating?
We must first and foremost seek material temperance—concrete balance, mercy, and hospitality—in our distribution of political and economic power. In June of 2019, the Poor People’s Campaign released the “Poor People’s Moral Budget,”5 identifying enormous sources of financial and political redress for the 140 million Americans who are poor or one emergency away from poverty, including: $350 billion in annual military spending cuts, $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street; and billions more in savings from ending mass incarceration, addressing climate change, and meeting other key campaign demands.
Second: we will need temperance in our strategy. By “temperance” I do not mean centrism—just the opposite. We are faced with the reality of immediate, critical, mass life-and-death struggles. We have to meet this reality with the utmost urgency, while at the same time recognizing that our current layers of crisis were centuries in the making and will not be undone quickly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither did it fall in a day. Our movement to restore balance, restore justice, restore right relationships with one another and the whole of creation will be, by necessity, the project of generations. We need the kind of temperance, fortitude, and endurance that will allow us to run a long game, constantly and effectively recruiting more and more people into what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called “the nonviolent army of the poor.”
Third: this kairos moment we find ourselves in requires of us a profound spiritual temperance. We are out gunned. We are out spent. We have numbers on our side in terms of the numbers of people who are suffering from poverty, violence, and repression—but we are not yet nearly organized enough to contend directly with the forces we’re up against. The scale and scope of what we face is staggering, and despair over the hope of our cause is a real and chronic specter. And yet: this has always been true for poor people under empire. And yet: empires have always fallen. Empires do themselves in, in the end—in new and horrifying ways each time, but with great consistency nonetheless. What is never a given is what and who will emerge from the rubble. That part is, in many ways, our responsibility. Seeing it through is a deeply intellectual commitment, a deeply political commitment, and an even more deeply spiritual commitment. What kind of spiritual temperance can meet this task? It takes many forms, and I have had the immense gift of witnessing it already at work in the daily lives of countless poor people. This is the kind of spiritual temperance that doggedly anchors itself in life and human connection—through songs shouted through the drains, through love letters to the outside—even during lockdown at the county jail. This is the kind of spiritual temperance that drives someone to socialize their entire month’s worth of food stamps in order to share a feast with twenty other homeless people. True temperance is not only self-sacrifice; it is also deep inner orientation to finding and enacting balance in the face of excess. When every excess you face is an excess of deprivation and lack, temperance will very often look like trusting in and mimicking the abundance of God.
In the material, strategic, and spiritual temperance called for in this revolutionary moment, then, let us move forward together: wise as serpents, innocent as doves, temperate as Christ himself amid the moneychangers.
Tana Ganeva, “Black Panther Fred Hampton Created a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ to Support Poor Americans,” TeenVogue, July 25, 2019, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/fred-hampton-black-panthers-rainbow-coalition-poor-americans.↩
“Hooever and the F.B.I.,” PBS.org, https://www.pbs.org/hueypnewton/people/people_hoover.html.↩
Chuck Collins et al., “Billionaire Bonanza 2020: Wealth Windfalls, Tumbling Taxes, and Pandemic Profiteers,” Inequality.org, April 23, 2020, https://inequality.org/great-divide/billionaire-bonanza-2020/.↩
Shailly Gupta Barnes, “Kairos Center Policy Briefing #1: Predictable and Possible,” Kairos.org, https://kairoscenter.org/policy-briefing-1-predictable-and-possible/.↩
Shailly Gupta Barnes et al., “Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live,” Poor People’s Campaign, June 2019, https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/PPC-Moral-Budget-2019-report-FULL-FINAL-July.pdf.↩
What Does Justice Look Like in American Public Life?
Perhaps none of the virtues is as contested as justice. That’s probably because it has such a deep relationship to American public life today. Even now there are those marching in the streets under the banner, “No justice? No peace. No racist police.” They are met with tear gas, military equipment, and the epithet “social justice warrior”1 on social media. The tanks and tweets are backed by think-tank theory that “social justice is the lodestar of modern progressive politics,” one that’s infecting higher education. The gains of twentieth-century freedom struggles met the backlash of neoliberal theorist Friedrich Hayek’s “The Mirage of Social Justice” in 1973.2 He drew a short line from any demands for economic and social equity to totalitarianism. In this framing the obligations of the state are limited to the basic conditions of nondiscrimination and equal protection under the law.3 But even these minimal criteria had to be wrestled into practice by the long history of social movements. And there continue to be vast inequalities in their application.4
Does justice as a virtue apply only to the habits of the individual? Or is it a basis for claims on society? Those who add “social” to justice are arguing for varying degrees of the latter. Those who argue for the former often appeal to the classic definition where justice is a personal mediator between the needs of others and the protection of what is one’s own. The virtue of justice in that line is the personal habits of finding the right balance between selfishness and selflessness. The related virtue of charity is how you tilt the scale a little toward the other when you feel you are out of balance.
These two alternatives do not float as ideas apart from the lived reality of contemporary American life. That we must take to the streets to insist that black people should not be murdered in their sleep, or while jogging, or driving, or breathing, is a crisis of justice. The demand that there will be no peace while white supremacy and civil immunity direct our police forces is a demand for justice as a social virtue. It has implications for the personal virtues of individual cops, but the answer to the murder of black people by the state is not simply cultivating virtuous habits among its officers. In American life today, the virtue of justice is in crisis.
When conservative Catholic philosopher Michael Novak deconstructed “social justice,” he traced the origin of the phrase “social justice” to priests in Italy in the 1840s during the rise of capitalist industry. They revived the term “general justice” from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, because the organization of society was undergoing the violent shift from family farms to wage labor. They were not asking how good farmers could become good employees, but how life is valued and cared for in the new economic and social conditions. The strain of industrialization on the family was enormous and eroded its capacity to meet people’s needs. They were figuring out what other structures could fill the gap.5 The social conception of the virtue of justice was about intervening in conditions where the existing social forces failed.
Around the same time in the United States, the slaveholding elites were mounting their defense against the growing anti-slavery and abolitionist movement. There was a wave of appeals for improving the conditions of people held in slavery so as to save the institution of slavery. In “The Duties of Christian Masters,” Rev. A. T. Holmes appealed to Colossians 4:1, “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” He argued the pursuit of what is “just and equal” meant enslavers going beyond the legal obligations to feed and clothe the people they held in slavery—more than what a “civil tribunal would enforce”—because the tribunal of God will want to see that you gave a little extra to the food rations. Charity intervenes as the virtue that helps mediate justice. Holmes continues by reiterating one of the long-standing justifications of slavery, that enslavement is morally beneficial to the enslaved. He tasked Christian enslavers with “frowning uniformly upon vice, and smiling upon virtue . . . to improve the moral condition of his servants.”6 One’s understanding of justice is bound by one’s material conditions and one’s relationship to the existing arrangements of power. Here, Holmes defines justice along the lines of his role as a cleric for the institution of slavery and those who profit from unwaged labor extracted from black people by torture.
That same decade Fredrick Douglass proclaimed after the Dred Scott decision that, despite the brutal loss in court, the institution of slavery was doomed by the struggle for freedom of the enslaved.
Jefferson said that he trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just, and his justice cannot sleep forever. The time may come when even the crushed worm may turn under the tyrant’s feet. Goaded by cruelty, stung by a burning sense of wrong, in an awful moment of depression and desperation, the bondman and bondwoman at the south may rush to one wild and deadly struggle for freedom. Already slaveholders go to bed with bowie knives, and apprehend death at their dinners. Those who enslave, rob, and torment their cooks, may well expect to find death in their dinner-pots. . . . I am in no frame of mind to pray that this may be long deferred.7
Here again justice is bounded by conditions. From absolute poverty, owning not even one’s own person and children, it makes no sense to talk about the virtue of justice as consisting of the habits of balancing one’s own selfishness with the demands of others with charity. The idea is rendered absurd. Justice in the 1850s America required the reordering of social, economic, and political power. For Douglass, God’s justice doesn’t come by way of the powerful cultivating habits that keep their own selfishness in check, but from the leadership of the oppressed in the struggle for freedom. Douglass knew it was coming. Indeed those who had been held in slavery were the ones who pushed the nation to war and dealt the final blow to the Confederacy.8
Reinhold Niebuhr understood that inequality blocked the realization of justice but continued to think about it in terms of mediating vices. He said that while individuals can move toward a greater balance between selfishness and selflessness, as a society we can realize only “proximate justice,” a balance of power between powerful collectives. James Cone pointed out that this leaves unanswered what hope is offered to groups without power. Cone noted that even though Niebuhr lived in segregated America, he took little notice of the conditions of black life. Niebuhr thought that nonviolent resistance was a form of “constructive coercive power,” but saw little hope for the success of black freedom struggles in the face of Southern “customs.” Time, patience, and lowered expectations were necessary evils.9
Like Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr. shared the assessment that justice could not be realized in an unequal society. He understood all too clearly that power could not be induced by moral appeals to concede justice. But where Niebuhr advised tactical manipulation of self-interest within the existing inequalities of power, King developed strategies to achieve what Niebuhr thought was impossible. King and the movement called black people to know that the divine freedom within them could make them free in history, and he matched that theological conviction with political strategies and tactics to make it real.
In the year before his assassination King concluded that despite the gains of the previous decade, the nation remained entrenched in racism, poverty, and war, and that “you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other. . . . The whole structure of American life must be changed.” He argued that the political strategy that gained the landmark legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement had not built the power that would be necessary to make justice and freedom real. He argued, “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problems until there is a radical re-distribution of economic and political power.” This meant that the previous decade had been an era of reforms, but “after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution.” He called it a move “from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”10
In this new era King assessed that it was the poor, if they could unite across color lines, who could build the power necessary for political and economic transformation. “The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” To begin to develop this leadership of the poor, King began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, saying, “The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”
To build a Poor People’s Campaign that could pull together the full breadth of the nation’s poor, including the 70 percent who were white, he called together a multiracial, multiethnic group of organizers from poor communities across the country. They joined him in Atlanta in March of 1968, where he said, “It has been one of my dreams that we would come together and realize our common problems. Power for poor people will really mean having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness, and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say yes when they may be desirous to say no. And it is my hope that we will get together, and be together, and really stand up to gain power for poor people. Black people, Mexican-Americans, American-Indians, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian whites, all working together to solve the problem of poverty.”11 He was shot three weeks later.
Among the leadership of the poor that convened for the Poor People’s Campaign were the mothers, mostly women of color, from the National Welfare Right Organization, ten thousand strong at the time.12 Two decades later welfare rights leaders were continuing to organize when Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk preached at a gathering of the National Union of the Homeless and National Welfare Rights Union, “Our strategies have to be developed and tested in those places where the victims of poverty have a critical and a central voice. We have been clear that strategies pursued in behalf of the victims of poverty can often lead to charity, not justice.”13 The organizing and organized poor shift the answer to the question of what justice looks like today and make its realization possible.
Douglass, King, and Delk all argued for the agency of the poor in the realization of justice. They addressed the conditions of America in the 1850s, 1960s, and 1990s, but their insights remain relevant today. The virtue of justice must be considered in relationship to the conditions of society, and in particular its inequality. Even when unemployment and poverty are at record lows, there are 140 million poor and low-income people, about four out of every ten of us. Three Americans hold more wealth than the bottom half of us. Black males born in 2001 are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white males. Beneath COVID-19 there was a preexisting pandemic of preventable death for lack of health care. And there are more homes sitting vacant than there are homeless people.14
If justice in today’s America is only about the habits of the individual, using charity to dampen selfishness, it is merely a call to virtues that maintain the existing inequalities. Our social, economic, and political order is systematically failing to meet the human rights to food, housing, education, health care, and freedom from state violence and mass incarceration. As with the origin of the term social justice, we are wrestling into being new ideas and structures capable of meeting those demands. In a society as unequal as ours, justice cannot be known apart from the poor and dispossessed organizing for power. Justice without power is charity. The poor are taking action together, breaking their isolation, marching, and educating. They are intervening in the crises of today to change the narrative about police violence, the essential contribution of service sector labor, and the real possibility of universal healthcare and housing. The poor are refusing to lay down and die. With Douglass, I am in no frame of mind to pray against them.
Ohlheiser, Abby. “Why ‘Social Justice Warrior,’ a Gamergate Insult, Is Now a Dictionary Entry.” Washington Post, October 7, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/10/07/why-social-justice-warrior-a-gamergate-insult-is-now-a-dictionary-entry/.↩
Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2, The Mirage of Social Justice (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1976).↩
The judicial oath of office requires judges to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.”↩
Institute for Policy Studies, “The Souls of Poor Folks: Auditing America 50 Years after the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Poverty, the War Economy / Militarism and Our National Morality” (Washington, DC, April 2018).↩
Michael Novak, “Social Justice: Not What You Think It Is,” Heritage Foundation (Heritage Lectures 1138), December 29, 2009, 5.↩
A. T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters,” in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, ed. Paul Finkelman (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 99–100.↩
Frederick Douglass, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” May 1857, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-on-the-dred-scott-decision-2/.↩
See Steven Hahn, “Did We Miss the Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History?,” in The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press, 2009), 55–114; W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Atheneum, 1985).↩
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011), 70–71. See also Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013).↩
Martin Luther King Jr., “Speech at Staff Retreat,” Frogmore, SC, May 1967 (King Speeches, series 3, box #13, King Center Archives), 8–9.↩
Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (documentary, biography, history), 1970.↩
Guida West, The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women (New York: Praeger, 1981), 50.↩
Yvonne V. Delk, “The Role of the Church in Fighting Poverty,” National Survival Summit: Up and Out of Poverty Now, Philadelphia, July 21, 1989, 5.↩
Institute for Policy Studies, “The Souls of Poor Folks.”↩
Faith and Public Life in a Time of Trial
There is a crucial scene in the movie Hidden Figures that gets to the heart of the word “faith.” Earlier in the film, Katherine Johnson, a NASA “computer” made an impression on Astronaut John Glenn when asked to present the mathematical calculations for his Friendship 7 flight. However, when she is later replaced by a mechanical IBM “computer,” he asks to have the IBM’s calculations double-checked by Johnson. Given the choice of placing his life in the hands of the machine, he opts instead to place his trust in a person in whom he has confidence, and who had demonstrated to him that his confidence was warranted. In the end, he goes forward only once Johnson has signed off on the figures that meant life or death to him.
This trust, and specifically personal trust grounded in the experience of another’s disposition toward our good, is what Christianity typically means by “faith.” Far from being an unfounded belief, lacking in evidence—“blind” as they say—faith is in fact grounded in the concrete experience of the goodness of God and God’s disposition toward the good of creation. While I am fond of the t-shirt slogan that “faith is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change,” it fails to penetrate to the core of what faith is about.
As with Glenn, the core question is what it is that motivates our faith. He places his trust in Johnson because he knows that she cares for his life and his well-being in a way that the IBM never could. And so when he accepts her calculations, it is not despite the evidence, but precisely because the evidence of his senses is given meaning and context by the personal relationship he has with Johnson. A similar personal relationship contextualizes how Christian faith interprets the evidence of the world. We do not deny the evidence of our senses, but we understand it fully only when interpreted in light of the faith—the personal trust—that we have in God.
If we were to go only on the basis of the evidence of our senses, the times in which we live would look bleak indeed. Months of pandemic and quarantine, punctuated by repeated incidences of police violence, all in the context of an administration the corruption of which is outmatched only by its incompetence, is enough to raise the specter of despair in even the hardiest soul. The catalog of depredations committed or overseen by the Trump administration, much of which has been all-too-readily forgotten in the buffeting waves of further malfeasance, makes it hard to believe that there is any larger framework of meaning in which our current circumstances make sense. Yet, faith provides that larger framework, and aids us in understanding the context of the present moment in light of an underlying trust in God.
Faith as Disposition
My understanding of faith is grounded in the work of H. Richard Niebuhr, for whom faith was a response to the reality of God’s self-disclosure in revelation. Revelation, for Niebuhr, is “that intelligible event which makes all other events intelligible.”1 In other words, through the event of revelation, we become open to perceiving the world in a different way. It shifts our perspective and offers us an interpretive framework through which the other events of our lives take new shape. Faith, in this respect, is an acceptance of this framework as the determinant of our understanding of the world. It is, furthermore, a reorientation of our values toward the object of faith. Faith, for Niebuhr, is both “trust in that which gives value to the self” as well as “loyalty to what the self values.”2 Insofar as revelation illuminates our center of value, faith impels us into a condition of trust and loyalty toward that value-center. Furthermore, in the Christian sense, that value-center must necessarily be a source outside of and beyond ourselves. The fundamental question of faith is thus whether that which we value is worthy of our loyalty and trust.
In the same way that revelation makes faith possible, faith makes it possible to understand that which has been revealed. In this sense, faith is always an “insider” perspective on its value-center. While it is possible to describe and explain the experience of faith, it is not possible to convey its significance to one who has not experienced it for themselves. It is for this reason that theology, as reflection on revelation from the place of faith is “objectively relativistic,” because “one can speak and think significantly about God only from the point of view of faith in him.”3 Faith, in this respect, is a particular disposition of the person rather than a question of intellectual assent to a set of propositions.
For Christians, both revelation and faith are grounded in the reality of Jesus Christ. Through Christ we can see the paradoxical and yet grand condition in which we find ourselves as human beings. In the terms of Richard’s brother Reinhold, we are finite and free, fallen and yet redeemed, sinners and yet forgiven. Faith provides the hermeneutical key that unlocks the tragedy and grandeur of human existence while providing an impetus for human responsibility within history and for the sake of society.
Yet, faith always has to grapple with the reality of uncertainty—the “in spite of” against which we maintain belief. Faith always reaches toward certainty, precisely because the anxiety out of which we as human beings cannot help but act impels us to attempt to resolve the paradoxical state of our existence. Yet, no such resolution is possible. Trust exists in the face of uncertainty, and is grounded ultimately in a reliance on that intelligible experience of revelation through which our existence is repatterned. As Kierkegaard puts it:
Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and objective uncertainty. If I am able to apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in faith, I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty, see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am “out on 70,000 fathoms of water” and still have faith.4
In the present moment, many of us feel this uncertainty acutely, and faith is difficult to maintain. However, it is precisely the presence of faith which should drive us out into the struggles of the present moment in spite of that uncertainty.
Faith and Political Progress
There are those for whom faith is an analogue for inaction. The shopworn story about the man in a flood, who believes his faith in God will save him, only to die, illustrates the problem. Standing before God he says, “God, why didn’t you save me,” to which God replies, “Hey, I sent you two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want?” Yet, understood as a virtue, Christian faith is a goad to action, not indolence. Faith in God does not encourage us to do nothing, but rather to risk everything. Insofar as Jesus Christ is the model of faith, what he shows us is precisely the need to trust wholly in God in the midst of our action, to refuse fear, and to place our lives wholly within the hands of our center of value and the object of our trust.
It is a mistake to think that this kind of faith will keep us safe from harm. Far from it. Faith of this kind is far more likely to put us in opposition to those forces and movements which stand against God, and therefore it is more likely to drive us into conflict, and bring us closer to harm. It is also a mistake to believe that faith of this kind guarantees success, either for us individually or for the values on which we stake our lives. Rather, what faith does is to sustain us even in the midst of our inescapable uncertainty. It buoys us as we float over 70,000 fathoms of water.
In the present moment, this faith can—and does—empower those who have seen themselves again and again cast to the underside of history to stand, once more, and to struggle, once more, for the sake of a more just world. The fact that they have done so before does not stop them from doing it again. This is faith in action. To stand in the face of tear gas and flashbang grenades and shout “I can’t breathe,” knowing that doing so risks being trampled by horses, or beaten by Billy clubs, is an act of faith. Those who march are not doing so out of a sense of certainty, but in the face of massive uncertainty, yet they stand up in the name of a center of value that demands justice for those for whom justice has been too long and too often denied.
In faith, however, we can participate in the historical struggle without arrogating to ourselves the authority to direct it. Faith permits us to persevere despite the impossibility of knowing with certainty whether we will succeed precisely because we see that the ground of our faith is a source that goes beyond all historical possibilities, and promises a fulfillment that transcends that of which we are historically capable. This leads us from a faith in that which is historically possible to an ultimate faith that extends beyond history. For Christians, this faith is enacted here and now in the midst of the present moral struggles precisely because we recognize that we are not called on to resolve the contradictions of the historical moment, but only to participate in them. We are not called upon to retreat, but to engage, with whatever resources are at our disposal. We do not control the outcome of the story in which we find ourselves. But to have faith is to believe that the center of value in which we place our trust is the source of love and the guarantor of justice for all of creation. This faith grants us courage, which has the capacity to overcome our uncertainty.
Faith, Hope, and Love
Faith is only one of the three great theological virtues, and is finally inseparable from the other two. As faith abides along with hope and love, it relies on these other two theological virtues to sustain it. Faith without hope or love is indeed blind action. Hope gives faith direction, while love gives it content. Together, they stand at the heart of Christianity’s commitment to making a more just society.
Bleak as the times may seem, Christian faith is grounded in that personal relationship with the One on whom we have come to rely. To the extent that we keep faith “in spite of the evidence,” it is not because we do not perceive it, but because we recognize that it is only a small part of a larger picture. We see what John Glenn saw when he placed his trust in Katherine Johnson: faith is relational. One cannot have faith in an abstraction or a concept, but only in the personal connection through which we come to see our reality in a new light. It is not within our power as individuals, or even as a community, to bring about a complete transformation of human society. But in faith, we may participate with those others who recognize the vast divide between the society in which we live, and the society in which we should live. Doing so, we venture forward in uncertainty, but in faith; without guarantees, but in hope; in the face of hatred, but in the name of love. In that unity of faith, hope, and love we may recognize that our lives are finally determined by One in whose encompassing presence we are unified.
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 69.↩
H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1943), 16.↩
Niebuhr, Meaning of Revelation, 16.↩
Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 207.↩
“Come Be a Fool as Well”: A Reflection on the Theological Virtue of Faith
In his short book Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich defined faith as the “total surrender to the subject of ultimate concern.” It is the “most centered act of the human mind.” By this definition, Americans are people of deep faith. I write this on July 4, 2020, the 244th birthday of the United States. As I look around, watch the news, and follow my social media feeds, I can say with confidence that the people of my country have surrendered to their ultimate concerns.
As believers in popular sovereignty, we have long supposed that we can govern ourselves. As our great prophet Abraham Lincoln taught us, Americans affirm that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” I recently came across a letter to George Brinton McClellan Harvey, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century journalist who edited Harper’s Weekly. A reader named Benjamin Dean put a unique spin on Hebrews 11:1 when he wrote to Harvey: “I have faith in the American people which is the ‘substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’” Today, our unswerving belief in the people and their right to govern has devolved into a nativist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual populism that is ripping our country to shreds and empowering an incompetent, morally corrupt president.
As capitalists, we have a deep and abiding trust in financial markets. We believe that the economy, complete with the conspicuous consumption that fuels it, will be our salvation. We stare at the bottom of our screens as the ticker streams by, praying fervently that this will be the day the gods of the Dow will perform their magic and bestow us with blessings. But the prophet Adam Smith has only heard the prayers of a few. The invisible hand has done little to prevent inequality, instability, and environmental degradation. As historian Eugene McCarraher writes in Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, we worship at the throne of “capitalism’s ontology of pecuniary transubstantiation, its epistemology of technological dominion, and its morality of profit and productivity” (675). These gods have few answers when the pandemic comes, or when Black men and women are killed in the streets, or when we give birth to children who will live in a world that is becoming more uninhabitable every year.
As constitutionalists, we believe in the Bill of Rights. These rights are sacred, we are told, because Thomas Jefferson said they have been “endowed by our Creator.” The founding fathers—that great cloud of witnesses who the sage of Monticello called “an assembly of demigods”—taught us to defend these rights to the point of martyrdom. We have been dutiful disciples of this rights-based faith to the point that we no longer take seriously the needs of our fellow human beings. Wear a mask or social distance? Tyranny! End the life of a baby in the womb? Do not take away my right to choose!
As nationalists, both at home and abroad, we bow to the gods of “America first” and “Make America Great Again.” While the world mocks our claims of exceptionalism and global arrogance, we drape ourselves in the flag, build walls, and celebrate Empire. We genuflect before the military, use our power to protect American economic interests (usually oil) around the world, call ourselves an “indispensable nation,” and then wonder why terrorists attack. We ignore the lessons of history at our own peril. We claim we are a Judeo-Christian country but disregard the wisdom of Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Americans have always had, and continue to have, an unshakeable faith in the god of improvement. We have drunk deeply from the wells of Enlightenment optimism and inaugurated a secular eschatology through our pursuit of personal ambition, education as a means of social climbing, and scientific dabbling with the integrity of the human person. We hope for a utopia—a land with no limits where the superstitious belief in original sin and the antiquated notion that the world is broken will one day be overcome by new discoveries and advances in knowledge. This is a paradise without death or judgment.
We march upward and onward, but our faith does not take us anywhere. As Tolstoy said of Ivan Ilych, “He performed his official task, made his career, and at the same time amused himself pleasantly and decorously.” Is this all we can expect from our pursuits of happiness: pleasantries, politeness, and comfort? Our anxieties lead us in unprecedented numbers to the psychologist’s couch and the pharmacist’s counter.
When Elizabeth Willing Powel saw Ben Franklin leaving the Constitution Convention in September 1787, she reportedly asked him, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin famously responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” But Franklin’s words about the sacrifices essential to the preservation of a republic—the civic humanism necessary to sustain such an experiment in shared governance—have always been subordinated in the American psyche to Poor Richard’s “way to wealth,” his autobiographical reflections on how to “make it,” and his observation that the sun on the back of George Washington’s chair in the Pennsylvania State House—later called Independence Hall—was rising, not setting.
* * *
I have spent the better part of a career teaching about American faith, but my task here is to write something about faith as a theological virtue. Christian faith, of course, is something altogether different from our fidelity to American creeds and ideals, although it does not always appear that way when so-called “Christian leaders” speak in public. Tillich tells us that “idolatrous faith” is still faith, but it is “demonic,” “ultimately destructive,” and will always lead to “existential disappointment.”
From the Christian point of view, faith ceases to be heretical, and becomes life-giving, when we surrender to God as our ultimate concern. Tillich illustrates this kind of spiritual capitulation with the first part of the Jewish Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4). Faith is radical trust in a God who created the world and sustains it. All the myths and narratives we use to order our lives, including the ones we celebrate on July 4, must be subordinated to the story that God is telling about the world. Anything less is idol worship.
Is this kind of faith irrational? Yes. Despite the best efforts of some Christian traditions, faith cannot be transformed into something intellectually respectable. As a result, true believers will always be outcasts and strangers, especially in those places in the West where cultural power is wielded. The powerbrokers might pay lip service to people of faith when they find common ground with them on certain social or political matters, but the guardians of modernity will always hold the true believer at arm’s length because genuine Christian faith is scandalous, outrageous, and offensive. At times, the enemy of faith will not be the secularists, but the church itself.
Faith bids us come and die. Therefore, it always demands courage. But it also requires meekness. People of faith do not respond to power with more power. They do not seek revenge. They do not delight in war—either militarily or culturally. Instead, they inhabit lives of submission to God and trust that he will make things right. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in The Cost of Discipleship, puts it well:
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” This community of strangers possesses no inherent right of its own to protect its members in the world, nor do they claim such rights, for they are meek, they renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus Christ. When reproached, they hold their peace; when treated with violence they endure it patiently; when men drive them from their presence, they yield their ground. They will not go to law to defend their rights, or make a scene when they suffer injustice, nor do they insist on their legal rights. They are determined to leave their rights to God alone. . . . Their right is in the will of their Lord—and that no more. They show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to this earth. Leave heaven to them, says the world in its pity that is where they belong. (The Emperor Julian wrote mockingly in a letter . . . that he only confiscated the property of Christians so as to make them poor enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.) But Jesus says, “They shall inherit the earth.” To these, the powerless and the disenfranchised, the very earth belongs.”
There is a difference between “faith” and “belief.” While so-called “statements of faith” are important for defining the spiritual ideals and values for which we are called to come and die, faith is something more than mere intellectual assent to a set of concepts. We should not confuse it with doctrinal pronouncements. Such confusion, as Christian writer Peter Enns warns us, leads to the “sin of certainty.” Faith is more than the mere guarding of theological fortresses, a type of religious “sentry duty” that announces “who’s in” and “who’s out.” This is not the kind of faith that leads us to press on through the dark night of the soul. It does not move mountains (Matt 17:20).
Christian faith is also not relegated to the monastery, as we are told by those who preach a so-called “Benedict Option.” Neither is it consigned to mere “thoughts and prayers.” Our sweeping trust in God’s purposes for our lives, and our participation as characters in the story God is telling about the world, is practiced as a form of citizenship, not as members of an earthly nation, but as royal priests in the kingdom of God. We are called to inaugurate an eschatology that will have its ultimate fulfillment in a new heaven and a new earth. Faith takes us on a vocational journey that will occasionally be characterized by periods of doubt and suffering. But, as Enns writes, these moments of despair and doubt will teach us to “move toward God” and exercise trust “when all the evidence is against it.”
During the ambiguity and pain that comes with any long pilgrimage, faith summons us to speak, write, and engage the world as agents of reconciliation, defenders of life, lovers of neighbors and enemies, sufferers with the poor, and stewards of creation. We belong to a kingdom of God that is not of this world, a kingdom of love, compassion, and justice. And because Jesus Christ launched this kingdom through his death and resurrection and will one day bring it to a glorious completion, people of faith will always be about the work of announcing its arrival. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “The world dreams of progress, of power and of the future, but the disciples meditate on the end, the last judgment, and the coming of the kingdom. To such heights the world cannot rise. And so the disciples are strangers in this world, unwelcome guests and disturbers of the peace.”
The life of faith is the life of foolishness. As the apostle reminds us, God chooses “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and what is weak to “shame the strong.” (1 Cor 1:27).
Singer-songwriter Michael Card explains it well in his song “God’s Own Fool”:
So come lose your life for a carpenter’s son
For a madman who died for a dream
And you’ll have the faith His first followers had
And you’ll feel the weight of the beam
So surrender the hunger to say you must know
Have the courage to say I believe
For the power of paradox opens your eyes
And blinds those who say they can see
So we follow God’s own Fool
For only the foolish can tell
Believe the unbelievable,
And come be a fool as well
The Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said that “the Holy is too great and too terrible when encountered directly for men of normal sanity to be able to contemplate is comfortably.”
I believe; Lord help my unbelief.
I have to believe that among the three theological virtues, hope is the one that, over the centuries, has attracted the least attention. Faith—the impossibility of faith, the beauty of faith, the simplicity of faith—has received its due, and love, the last of these and the greatest of these in St. Paul’s formulation, has, in addition to its recitation at Christian weddings, been pondered and analyzed endlessly in everything from greeting cards to treacly romantic comedies.
But what about hope? That seems to be the neglected virtue in the triad of theological virtues.
It strikes me that each of the theological virtues has its own characteristic and its own locus. While faith is a disposition of the spirit, and love is a disposition of the heart, hope is a disposition of the will. The workings of both faith and love are, to some degree, outside our ken, beyond our rational control. As a Christian I believe in the moving of the spirit, the Holy Spirit, which more often than not defies rational explanation and points at least some of us in the direction of faith. Similarly, most of us have little rational control over love, especially erotic love. Bonds of kinship and the virtues of compassion guide the expression of agape love, but eros is another matter, an impulse that kicks against the traces of rationalism.
If faith is a function of spirit and love a function of the heart, hope is a disposition of the will and therefore governed, at least to some degree, by rationality. We can will ourselves to be hopeful, even if that hope is counterintuitive. Hoping against hope is the phrase we apply to counterintuitive optimism in the face of despair.
The best illustration that comes to mind is the classic Peace Corps advertisement of the early 1960s. The black-and-white ad, which appeared in countless magazines, showed a tumbler partially filled with water. The copy asked whether the glass was half empty, or half full. If you answered half full, the small print said, you were suited to the Peace Corps—that is, you viewed the world through the lens of hope rather than despair, a disposition that was, at least to some degree, volitional.
After accepting this assignment to write about hope, I began to think about times in my life when I have felt hopeless. There are not many, I must say, because my life has been blessed far more than I deserve. The one that stands out, however, is when I was going through a needlessly, absurdly protracted divorce. My ex used the occasion to alienate my sons from me, an estrangement that took more than a decade to redress. I felt desolate and alone, bereft of hope. I recall many times lying on the floor in the darkness, trying desperately to summon the will to go on with life or even physically to stand on my feet again. A debilitating sense of hopelessness washed over me; I felt as though I was drowning.
Other moments of hopelessness might have been less crippling, though no less real. They have been connected, more often than not, with politics. As a political junkie from the age of nine (the Johnson-Goldwater campaign of 1964), my sense of hopefulness or hopelessness has often been tied to the vicissitudes of politics: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 or the Kent State shootings two years later—or, on the side of hopefulness, the election of the nation’s first African American president in 2008. The presidential election of 1972, my first opportunity to vote, left me feeling hopeless for months thereafter. I’ve felt bereft following other elections—especially 1980, 2004, and 2016—but never so acutely as when George McGovern, a manifestly decent man, lost so decisively to Richard Nixon.
It was after one of those elections, when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, that I had a revelation about hope. I wrote a book, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, in which I catalogued how the Religious Right had defaulted both on the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament but also on what I consider the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, which almost invariably took the part of those on the margins of society.
In the course of my book tour, I would typically enumerate the ways in which evangelicalism, my own tradition, had defaulted on the gospel: the neglect of the poor and disregard for women; the efforts to undermine public education, which provided the opportunity for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder to advance themselves; the persistence of racism; the willful refusal to grapple with centuries of Christian teaching about what did and what did not constitute a “just war.” Then the questions. I was often asked, following this dirge-like litany, whether or not I was hopeful. The first time, I was caught off guard; I didn’t know how to respond, and I’m sure I fumbled through an answer.
The next time the question came, I was ready. Yes of course I’m hopeful, I responded. Anyone who is a parent doesn’t have the luxury of despair. If you are responsible for bringing a child into the world, it seems to me, you simply cannot give up on the world this child inhabits.
Hope, I understood in that moment, is an act of volition. It is, at times, counterintuitive: hoping against hope. It is also countercultural. It’s easy at times to be overwhelmed by despair, by hopelessness. And Lord knows we have ample reasons these days: climate change, a pandemic, a feckless, amoral administration headed by a pathological narcissist.
But the gospel calls us to hope, as counterintuitive as that sounds. Jesus, according to the New Testament, brought Lazarus out of his tomb even though his body had begun to stink. Hope is Easter after Good Friday. Abraham and Sarah learning that they are about to pay a visit to the maternity ward. The lame man kicking aside his crutches. Lazarus rising from the grave.
Hope is counterintuitive. And hope, unlike the other theological virtues, is volitional. We can will ourselves to be hopeful, and in so doing we have grasped something important about the gospel, the “good news.”
Andrew Cuomo Practicing the (Natural) Virtue of Hope
The fracture of national life provoked by the novel coronavirus, a severe acute respiratory syndrome, demoralized many of us Americans. Anxiety and isolation have edged some of us to fantasy and indifference, others to rage and hostility, and still others to exhaustion and despair. In a scathing critique of government (mis)management, Atlantic contributor George Packer wrote: “The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted . . . like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”1 The president and his minions frittered away weeks of preparation, wallowed in “willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies,” and touted “conspiracy theories and miracle cures.”2 Pretending that preparation, scientific data, facts, and truth-telling are for lesser mortals,3 these putative adults, entrusted by sworn public oath with the welfare of the nation, lapsed into churlish and childish behavior, surrendered to infantile imperiousness and ignored the summons to engage the hard, difficult, strenuous virtue of hope.
Packer’s rebuke reflects much of the current disparaging discourse about politicians and politics. Media commentators, pundits, and talk show hosts not only deride inept and self-serving political practice, but politicians themselves deride politics. Indeed, politics strikes the average citizen not only as a “secondary and dispensable activity,”4 but a noxious one. Punishing outbreaks and surges of the coronavirus continue to teach us that politics is a primary and indispensable activity. No one grasps this lesson better than the controversial governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo.5 During the first hundred days of the pandemic, the governor along with his team of aides and advisors consulted medical professionals and scientists; grappled for nuanced understanding of scientific and medical data pertinent to the spread of the virus; marshalled and weighed scientific and medical advice in order to develop, propose, plan, communicate, and carry out vital strategies to save human life.6 Cuomo and his team offered the nation a real-time lesson in practicing the strenuous natural virtue of hope.7
To construe hope as a natural virtue changes neither its object (some particular good), nor its epistemological and praxiological foundations—that the good can be known and, though difficult, is possible (perhaps probable) to achieve. Moreover, as a practical political virtue in service of realization of the common good,8 hope sharpens attention, awakens aspiration, focuses understanding, guides discernment, tempers judgment, demands action, directs and sustains exercise of political responsibility. Yet, hope is not some “emergency virtue [simply hauled out] for a crisis.”9 In the exercise of political responsibility, hope avoids empty promises, rejects hollow optimism or “magical” thinking, and refuses dubious gestures. Hope manifests itself in intelligent and active attentiveness to others, consciousness of the conditions of their lives, “availability . . . and readiness for acting.”10
Governor Andrew Cuomo used the word hope sparingly in interviews and press conferences, but in announcing “New York on PAUSE,” he recalled dealing with emergencies during his tenure at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Cuomo summarized his strategy in the familiar adage, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” With one eye on history and the other on the future, the governor continued, “[When] we look back on this situation . . . ten years from now, I want to be able to say to the people of the State of New York that I did everything we could to save lives. This is about saving lives. If we save one life it will be worth it.”11
In considering some elemental dimensions of the natural virtue of hope—attentiveness and availability, action, cooperation, and compassion—this essay aims to show that Governor Cuomo carried out his responsibilities in a manner that suggests his practice of hope and personal integration of two humanistic (and religio-theopolitical) ideas—the basic goodness of human nature and the worth of human life.12 Further, Cuomo gave back to New Yorkers (and, by extension, to all Americans) a rich and deep sense of collective responsibility, of obligation for and to one another—a sense of the common good.
Attentiveness and Availability: On March 2, 2020, Governor Cuomo held the first press conference to confirm New York State’s first diagnosed case of the coronavirus. This briefing set the pattern for the more than a hundred that followed, providing daily updates on COVID-19. At the initial briefing, the governor was flanked by physicians, medical experts, heads of hospitals, and the mayor of New York City. At subsequent briefings, he was accompanied by key aides, physicians, public health specialists, and municipal officials—all prepared to respond to questions if greater detail or clarification was warranted or requested.13
At each briefing Cuomo and his team, ever attentive to scientific and medical data, presented up-to-the-minute factual information about the spread and effect of the virus around the state—numbers of diagnosed cases, those testing positive, beds and intensive care units for COVID-19 patients, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and sadly deaths. If a journalist’s question could not be answered satisfactorily at the moment, a member of his team pledged to follow up. These briefings reassured the public and announced changed or new and pertinent protocols developed and revised to contain the spread of the virus. Cuomo regularly cautioned those with underlying illnesses and/or compromised immune systems, especially senior citizens, to monitor changes in the condition of their health.
The coronavirus pandemic has and continues to frustrate the acumen, responsiveness, efficiency, and empathy of governments and government officials at every level around the globe. No country or province or region or state, and certainly no government official, met this test without fault. The governor of New York State is no exception. As the virus spread and surged and New York’s hospitals faltered, journalists questioned Cuomo’s assertion that “we [New Yorkers] think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York. So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”14 Still, the governor and his team met the crisis with intelligence, imagination, humility, and perseverance. He exhorted New Yorkers to change their behavior in order to: “Flatten the curve, slow the spread, reduce the density of contact.” As the public grew conscious of the magnitude of the sacrifices health care workers were making, they poured out their gratitude. But, Cuomo insisted: If New Yorkers wanted to thank health care workers properly: “Stay Home. Stop the Spread. Save Lives.” “Wear a mask. You wear a mask to protect me. I wear a mask to protect you.”
In an atmosphere saturated with anxiety and fear, transparency in communication is crucial. Repeatedly the governor distinguished fact from opinion. In the early days of the pandemic, Cuomo recognized what he called the “bigger problem . . . a fear pandemic. The anxiety is outpacing the reality of the situation.” He continued:
Now, why do people get frightened ? People get frightened when one of two things happen. Either I’m not receiving information or I don’t trust the information I’m receiving, or the information is very frightening.
. . . I also know that people have received mixed messages on this, and I think that’s part of the problem. Federal government says one thing, then you have this political debate. This one says it’s underestimated, this one says it’s overestimated. I think that has caused an uncertainty where people don’t know what to believe.15
Cuomo was attentive not only to the statistics and the heartbreaking outcome they narrated, but to the psychological and emotional toll that narrative was taking on human beings. While never dismissing or disregarding the fear and anxiety that people felt, he put that fear and anxiety in proper perspective.
The visuals augmenting the governor’s presentations graphed the daily rise (and decline) of diagnosed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths; charted statistical information; illustrating plans for change; and introduced uplifting quotations from the speeches or writings of historical figures including Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as pithy aphorisms from one of his father’s favorite philosophers, A. J. Parkinson.16 At the conclusion of nearly every presser, the governor encouraged New Yorkers: “We’re going to get through this, because we are New York tough, and tough is also smart and tough is also united . . . and tough is also disciplined and tough, most importantly, is loving.”17 Cuomo engaged viewers on practical, cognitive, affective, and moral levels; moreover, in modeling the practice of hope, he cultivated hope not only among New Yorkers but among his wide national, even international, viewing audience. Indeed, Cuomo’s plain-talk daily briefings became, Mark Binelli observes, “appointment viewing, not just for New Yorkers, but for all Americans feeling terrified, unmoored, and hungry for something resembling competent national leadership.”18
Action: There will be debates as to whether Governor Cuomo acted quickly enough, but by March 7, 2020, New York was under a state of emergency. Executive Order No. 202 assisted overstressed local health departments by expediting the purchase of essential resources, testing supplies and equipment, leasing of lab space, and hiring needed personnel; allowing qualified professionals other than doctors or nurses to conduct diagnostic testing for the coronavirus; and investigating price gouging of hand sanitizer.19 When neither the federal government nor the Center for Disease Control (CDC) were able to meet the need for testing and rapid reporting of results, the governor contracted with twenty-eight private labs to increase coronavirus testing capacity. He agitated to gain FDA authorization for these labs to run manual, automated, and semiautomated testing, thus increasing the testing capacity in New York to approximately six thousand per day at a time when the country was testing five thousand persons per day.20
As the virus landed crushing blows on New York State’s hospital capacity, the governor and his team took several measures: recruiting additional medical staff, along with a relief or reserve staff, who would be prepared to relieve ill or exhausted health care workers; appealing for volunteers from among health care professionals across the country to come and help New York; requesting mental health professionals to provide online mental health service.21
On Friday, March 20, Governor Cuomo declared “New York State on PAUSE:” PAUSE was an acronym: “Policies, Assure, Uniform, Safety, for Everyone.” This executive order directed closure of all nonessential businesses statewide, canceling or postponing all nonessential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reasons, social or physical distancing in public, and limiting outdoor recreation to noncontact activities. The executive order was accompanied by the “Ten-Point Plan” summarizing precautionary public health measures and by “Matilda’s Law,” a set of practices for senior and vulnerable populations, named after the governor’s eighty-nine-year-old mother.22
Cooperation: A conspicuous aspect of a society working well is the coordination of individuals and groups coordinating competencies, skills, and expertise to achieve a goal. The governor fostered cooperation within New York State—bringing private and public hospitals to cooperate in response to the virus. The State Department of Health served as a “command center”—sharing information between hospitals, organizing and controlling a central inventory system to assist in efficient purchase and distribution of supplies. When even more beds were needed, Cuomo argued for and gained federal permission to utilize Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center as a makeshift hospital and mobilized the state’s National Guard to prepare the center for use. He persuaded the federal government to dispatch the USNS Comfort, a naval hospital ship with a one-thousand-bed capacity, to New York.
Without federal authority to invoke the Defense Production Act, which permits the federal government to force private companies to manufacture supplies for national defense, Cuomo relied upon persuasion. He and his team identified and met with business and manufacturing leaders who could assist the state in producing hand sanitizer, protective gowns, masks, etc.
Recognizing the traffic flow between and among the people of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, Cuomo instigated cooperation among the governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania (the governors of Delaware and Massachusetts would join them later) to develop measures to regulate movement and travel between and among the states in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, to pursue information for joint purchasing of needed equipment, etc.
The governor took cooperation to a richer and deeper level: Cuomo’s practice of hope reminded New Yorkers, indeed, all Americans, about authentic community, about the common good. Through example Cuomo showed his listeners what it meant to prefer and choose collective or common good over individualism or personal interest, to prefer and choose obligation over irresponsibility or claims about “rights.” He insisted that people wear masks not for themselves, but out of respect for others—elderly parents and grandparents, siblings and relatives, friends and neighbors. Cuomo repeated: “I wear the mask because I respect you. You wear the mask because you respect me.” He continually thanked the people of New York for taking on changes in behavior that stemming the virus required. At his final briefing he said, “I am so incredibly proud of what we did together. We reopened the economy and saved lives, because it was never a choice to do one or the other.”23
Compassion: Compassion originates in a deeply felt response, however inchoate, to awareness of some other person’s suffering or anxiety and recognition that the suffering of another is part of our own life’s being. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported a telephone conversation with Governor Cuomo in which he declared that the pandemic is “as much a social crisis as a health crisis.”24 Put differently, Cuomo recognized that the pandemic was a threat to humane and compassionate living. During briefings, he made himself vulnerable by recounting humorous self-deprecating stories, or referring to members of his family or some familial or personal event. During the first update, Cuomo recounted a late-night telephone conversation with one of his daughters, who had phoned him after hearing the report of New York’s first diagnosed case of the virus. Cuomo said that he “could hear in her voice she was nervous.” Reportedly, she said to him, “Don’t tell me to relax, tell me why I should be relaxed.” Looking and speaking directly into the camera, the governor stated: “I want to make sure I tell the people of New York what I told my daughter. In this situation, the facts defeat fear. Because the reality is reassuring.”25 Cuomo certainly did not dismiss or disregard the real fear and anxiety that people felt, but he put the fear and anxiety in an appropriate medical and scientific perspective
Cuomo was vulnerable, never disengaged from his own humanity, prodding us to recover our own. As the weeks dragged on, he cautioned New Yorkers that managing the virus would be not be “a sprint, but a marathon. You have to gauge yourself.” He encouraged care for self and care for others, sharing some suggestions he had gleaned from other New Yorkers on walks with his daughter and his dog, Captain:
People come up with all of these interesting ideas . . . who’s painting their house because they never had time to paint their house before; who’s working on a project that they never got to; who’s reading a book that they never got to do; who’s writing a book. . . . writing [a] journal . . . writing [a] life’s story.26
Since many people were sheltering at home often with adult children, Cuomo stressed the importance of communication. “You have the advantage of time here, and you have the advantage of time for communication.” He had, he said, “long conversations” with his daughters.
It’s just us, just us talking. No place to go. She doesn’t have to go to work. She doesn’t have to run out, and [the conversations] are priceless. I’ll never get the opportunity in life to do that again. . . . I’ve talked with my mother for hours and it’s special. So yes, it [the physical distancing] is terrible and I’m not trying to say it’s not a terrible circumstance. But, even in a terrible circumstance if you look hard enough you can find a few rays of light.27
Cuomo urged New Yorkers and all Americans to
practice humanity. . . . If ever there is a time to practice humanity the time is now. The time is now to show some kindness, to show some compassion to people, show some gentility. . . . It is a time for a smile when you are walking past someone. It is a time for a nod. It is a time to say hello. It is a time for patience and don’t let the little things get you annoyed.28
On Cuomo’s terms, this was New York tough being loving.
“Hope is a complex act that in some sense contains elements of love, desire, courage and confidence.”29 For these past several months, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, has practiced hope: attentive and available to the needs and demands of the public and social health crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, initiating possibilities for action and cooperation in service of the preservation of human life. In confrontation with an unknown, unpredictable, deadly virus, Cuomo and his team crafted ways for individuals, families, groups, and communities to assume and share responsibility. He demonstrated the crucial role of government (or authentic politics) in defending human life and in advocating for and supporting its flourishing.
During the April 2, 2020, press briefing, Cuomo was elated about the medical professionals who had come to help New York and pledged to repay in kind: “When your community needs help, New Yorkers will be there. And you have my personal word on that. . . . I will be the first one in my car to go wherever this nation needs help as soon as we get past this. I will never forget how people across this country came to the aid of New Yorkers when they needed it. And I deeply appreciate it.” The governor of New York established two coronavirus testing sites in Houston, Texas; sent testing and tracing teams to Atlanta, Georgia, and the COVID-19 medication Remdesivir to Florida. On July 20, 2020, Cuomo along with members of New York’s COVID-19 task force headed to Savannah, Georgia, to meet with Mayor Van Johnson, to share what New York learned in fighting against COVID-19.30
Cuomo had an idea as to how politics (government) ought to function authentically: practicing hope—being attentive and available, instigating cooperation, and operating in compassion. In the telephone conversation with Dowd, Cuomo quoted his father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, about the way government should act: “The idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings—reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race or sex or geography or political affiliation.”
George Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” Atlantic, special preview, June 2020, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwHMsSvWfxhRQxKFbMBrShZvTTr.↩
Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwHMsSvWfxhRQxKFbMBrShZvTTr.↩
William F. Lynch, Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless (1965; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 180.↩
Glenn Tinder, The Fabric of Hope: An Essay (Atlanta: Scholars, 1999), 151.↩
See Adam Nagourney, “In the Game of the Father,” New York Times, July 14, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/14/magazine/in-the-game-of-the-father.html/; Editorial Board, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Power Play,” New York Times, October 30, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/31/opinion/governor-cuomos-power-play.html?searchResultPosition=5/; Michael Shnayerson, The Contender: Andrew Cuomo, a Biography (New York: Twelve, 2015); Shane Goldmacher and Brian M. Rosenthal, “Cuomo, in Writing, Reinterprets Fund-Raising Ban on Appointees,” New York Times, March 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/nyregion/cuomo-appointee-donations-campaign-finance.html/; Joseph Specter, “Excommunicating Cuomo? Some Catholic Leaders Angered over New Abortion Law in New York,” Democrat & Chronicle, January 28, 2019, updated January 29, 2019, https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2019/01/28/excommunicating-cuomo-some-catholic-leaders-angered-over-new-abortion-law-new-york/2703530002/; Mark Binelli, “Andrew Cuomo Takes Charge,” Rolling Stone, issue 1339 (May 2020) 44, 46–49.↩
Quotes by Governor Cuomo come from notes that I made watching his televised COVID-19 update press briefings in real time, then later viewed video-recordings of some of those briefings, and, read their transcripts. See https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/novel-coronavirus-briefing-governor-cuomo-confirms-11-additional-cases-bringing-new-york-state/.↩
Virtue is moral excellence: avoiding evil and doing good—and doing good with the consciousness, ease, and grace exemplified by women and men of practical wisdom. Such consciousness, ease, and grace is possible only through practice, through habit—rational, intentional, repetitive self-correcting action directed toward some personal or collective or institutional goal. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II q. 40; II-II q. 17.↩
The phrase “common good” holds an ambiguous position in the history of Western political philosophy. By common good, I mean a desideratum—disciplined yearning, deliberation, judgment, and action in concrete efforts to realize a choiceworthy way to live. The common human good represents a valued, true good—implicitly transcendent, befitting the grandeur of God’s human creation, ordering and enhancing and beautifying the interdependence of human living. For a schematic setting out the elements of the human good, see Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), 27–55.↩
Lynch, Images of Hope, 33.↩
Tinder, Fabric of Hope, 151, 152.↩
https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-governor-cuomo-signs-new-york-state-pause-executive-order/; Cuomo’s experience included an appointment to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development in 1993, under President William J. Clinton. When HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros left his office, Cuomo succeeded him as Secretary of HUD from January 1997 through 2001 when the Clinton administration ended.↩
Governor Cuomo grew up in a Catholic household, attended Catholic elementary and secondary school, and graduated from Fordham University. Given his Catholic parents and his Catholic education, these two basic tenets of Roman Catholic teaching about the human person (theological anthropology) would have been repeated in one form or another throughout his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. New York’s governor well may have absorbed these principles without deliberate intention from his familial background and Catholic education. Given the exigent circumstances of the pandemic, on my reading, these notions contributed to his understanding of and approach to his gubernatorial responsibilities. These tenets or beliefs also cohere with the “Black Christian Principle,” i.e., all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, are equal in God’s sight, as this was formulated by historic Black Christianity.↩
The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, attended the first press conference; regular attendees at subsequent briefings included State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa.↩
See “Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: At Novel Coronavirus Briefing,” March 2, 2020, https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-novel-coronavirus-briefing-governor-cuomo-announces-state; see J. David Goodman, “How Delays and Unheeded Warmings Hindered New York’s Virus Fight,” New York Times, April 8, 2020, updated April 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/new-york-coronavirus-response-delays.html/.↩
Clayton Guse and Denis Slattery, “In a Nod to His Father, Andrew Cuomo Resurrects A. J. Parkinson, a Fictitious Philosopher, in His Daily Briefings,” New York Daily News, May 11, 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/ny-andrew-cuomo-a-j-parkinson-20200511-d5hfwnjarbgwtha7rmfda6fvv4-story.html/.↩
https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-governor-cuomo-holds-briefing-new-yorks-covid-19-response; see Matei Schwartz, “New York Tough, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the Transformational Power of Branding,” April 24, 2020, https://medium.com/@mateischwartz/new-york-tough-governor-andrew-cuomo-and-the-transformational-power-of-branding-5c9ba5c6e6cd/.↩
Binelli, “Andrew Cuomo Takes Charge,” Rolling Stone, 44, 46–49.↩
Alexandrea Sternlicht, “76,000 Healthcare Workers Have Volunteered to Help NY Hospitals Fight Coronavirus,” Forbes, March 29, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/03/29/76000-healthcare-workers-have-volunteered-to-help-ny-hospitals-fight-coronavirus/#3f72595b1d32/.↩
These measures included remaining indoors; screening visitors and aides by taking their temperature, and determining if the person exhibits other flu-like symptoms; wearing a mask in the company of others; staying at least six feet away from individuals; and refraining from taking public transportation unless absolutely necessary.↩
Danielle Zoellner, “111 Days of Cuomo Coronavirus Briefings Have Come to an End,” Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/us/voices/cuomo-coronavirus-briefings-new-york-governor-press-conference-a9576131.html.↩
Maureen Dowd, “Tough Love from Mario Cuomo,” New York Times, March 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/opinion/sunday/cuomo-new-york-coronavirus.html?searchResultPosition=8.↩
https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-novel-coronavirus-briefing-governor-cuomo-announces-state/; Cuomo often referred to family members, particularly his father former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and mother Matilda Raffa Cuomo, his brother CNN Journalist Christopher Cuomo, his sister radiologist Margaret Maier Cuomo, his daughters, and one of his daughter’s boyfriend, known as “the boyfriend.”↩
Sister Mary Michael Glenn, “A Comparison of the Thomistic and Scotistic Concepts of Hope,” Thomist 20.1 (January 1957) 27–74, at 33.↩
Task Force members included among others Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to the Governor; Robert Mujica, State Budget Director; Larry Schwartz, Former Secretary to the Governor; Lisa Pino, Executive Deputy Commissioner at the NYS Department of Health, see https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-departs-savannah-georgia-help-city-fight-against-covid-19/.↩
Love in Public
LOVE IS LOVE.
LOVE TRUMPS HATE.
In a time of public hate, slogans like these speak to a longing for powerful public love. Whether they’re staked out on yard signs or held high at marches, they invoke a sense of love as self-evident and self-defining and indisputable and triumphant. If life is a poker game, love is the winning card that will cause hate to throw in its hand. If life is a ball game, love is a team to root for that will never break your heart.
The gap between these confident love-based affirmations and the burning world we are living in feels increasingly intolerable. I understand the need for utopian chants that attempt to conjure into existence a truth that may not yet exist in practice. But lately, when I see these slogans, I find myself wanting to push back against them.
LOVE IS LOVE ignores the fact that some kinds of love are safer than others, more protected, and more powerful.
LOVE TRUMPS HATE refuses to acknowledge that often Trump trumps love.
And in the face of so many devastating defeats, LOVE WINS prematurely claims a nonexistent victory.
It’s easy to pick apart slogans like these. Maybe even too easy. After all, what can one expect from a brief hashtag-length statement that attempts to sum up a deep truth in a few words? These days even the powerful four-syllable sermon that is BLACK LIVES MATTER can feel like an empty concession when it’s quoted in a pandering corporate email or painted in photogenic yellow on a road in lieu of reparations, defunding the police, or other systemic change.
Words, as always, are failing us, and “love” most of all, as it is expected to do an immense amount of ethical work while simultaneously coming across as uplifting and consensus-building. Despite its ubiquity, from daily professions of affection to heart-shaped emojis, love’s meaning is not obvious and it cannot be controlled. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” declared Martin Luther King Jr., in words that have morphed over the last half-century from an urgent call to protest into a passive-aggressive anti-protest social media meme. It’s not the first time that radical love has been repurposed in the service of an unjust status quo. (See the history of Christianity.)
People have been marching under love’s banner for a long time. Now, in a national atmosphere clouded with viral droplets and tear gas, how can we invoke love without tautology or triumphalism or nostalgia or naivete? How can we prevent love from being used as a synonym for evasion or suppression? What does public love look like now?
Justice and Tenderness
Justice is what love looks like in public. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.
—Cornel West, “Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback,” Harvard Graduate School of Education, October 4, 2017
A few years ago, Cornel West gave a talk in which he expanded on his oft-quoted claim that “justice is what love looks like in public” by contrasting public love with private love: justice versus tenderness. I appreciate the way West names the different faces of love—the way he evokes both fire and gentleness. Love encompasses both. But I’ve been wondering about the neat way he splits it up.
Just a few months earlier, West had traveled to Charlottesville to protest the white supremacist Unite the Right rally. On the eve of the event, a mob of torch-bearing white supremacists surrounded the church where West and others were leading a galvanizing worship service. The mob trapped the congregation inside and pepper sprayed people who tried to leave. “There were hundreds of people—elderly, children,” Rev. Seth Wispelway later told a reporter for Think Progress, “so we held steady with them and got them outside entrances. We helped get some water to activists who were pepper sprayed.” The next day, police stood by with tacit approval as hundreds of neo-fascists attacked West and a group of clergy who were peacefully protesting, and a group of antifa intervened to protect them. West later testified, “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists. . . . We singin’ ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ They saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed.”
In Charlottesville, love looked like preaching powerfully against injustice. It also looked like tenderly shielding the old and young and caring for the injured. It looked like protest and protection. It looked like singing and fighting. Steadfast and gentle. Bold and serene.
Some of the most powerful examples of love I’ve seen this spring seem to unite these different modes of love. Maybe love looks like public tenderness in a callous world, and private justice in an unjust one.
The Morgue Workers
I feel a responsibility to this place, this community. We a safety net hospital. Working in the morgue right now, I’m still trying to figure out why God placed me here at this moment.
—Gary Hilliard, “‘Lord Have Mercy’: Inside One of New York’s Deadliest ZIP Codes,” New York Times, May 22, 2020
Gary Hilliard’s job is to move dead bodies, and in the months when COVID-19 was first ravaging the Rockaways, he moved so many. Working with a partner, he would throw his whole strength into it, over and over, shifting each body in a bag halfway onto the gurney with the first heave, then shifting it all the way, getting it from the hospital to the refrigerated trailers that served as the morgue, and then from the morgue to the hearse. It is clearly exhausting labor, physically and emotionally. But despite the relentless nature of the job, Hilliard still recognizes and honors the endless bodies as human beings, as lost lives.
When I watched a short online documentary about the crisis at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital during the first wave of COVID patients,1 I was struck by the abundant tenderness shown by so many of the hospital workers, not least Hilliard, who brings a sense of spiritual purpose to his work. At one point, when he sees a name he knows on a body bag, he is moved to both recognition and benediction: “Lord have mercy. Ah man yeah I know who he is. My son’s grandfather’s best friend. Jesus. Yeah, that’s him. God bless him, man. Jesus.” He gives the bag a couple small pats the way you might pat a friend on the shoulder, rests his hand on it for a moment, and in that moment the indistinguishable invisible body becomes a person once again.
Tenderness like this takes a toll on the living. “It’s more emotional for me now than it was for me two months ago. It’s starting to tap into my pain,” Hilliard says.
But tenderness also helps to restore what injustice corrodes. Tanisha Brunson-Malone, a forensic technician in New Jersey, also spent much of this spring in refrigerated trailers full of corpses. Instead of raising and lowering the dead, her job was performing autopsies. When the magnitude of the death began to wear on her, she started buying daffodils on the way to work, a hundred dollars’ worth a week, so she could place one or two blooms on top of each body bag. Her gentle ritual brought a sense of meaning to a situation that was constantly threatening to strip it away. She had been feeling “exhausted and depleted,” she told a reporter.2 These acts of tenderness were “therapeutic.” They were a way of loving the humanity in others and also in herself.
COVID-19 is killing people by the tens of thousands, and it is killing Black people and Brown people and poor people most of all. American public policy in this pandemic is based on the hateful premise that some lives do not matter. Love like Hilliard’s and Brunson-Malone’s confounds this lethal lie with insistent, persistent care—with a gentleness that does justice to the injustice that surrounds them. They are essential workers doing essential and costly emotional work.
We are reminded that the strength of our movements is tied with the strengths of our relationships, the depth of our connectedness, and the necessity of mothering at home, in the streets, and beyond.
—Nadine Naber, Souzan Naser, and Johnaé Strong, “Radical Mothering for Abolitionist Futures Post-Covid-19,” Abolitionist Journal, June 18, 2020
The “mother-activists” and “mother-survivors” who make up the Chicago-based abolitionist group MAMAS (Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity) believe that liberation movements are most powerful when they see private and public love as the same love. As mothering people whose children have been taken away and tortured by the prison system, the Mamas are motivated by love for their own children, for other people’s children, for each other. In the words of MAMAS cofounders Nadine Naber, Souzan Naser, and Johnaé Strong:
Mother-survivors share a fierce determination to collectively challenge repressive systems and corporate vultures who profit from incarceration. They nurture one another, declare their love for each other, and seek not only to bring their own children home, but also to expose and protest the inhumanity of the entire prison system. As they integrate care and collective unity with resistance, they are a force to be reckoned with. While they stand on the front lines of the fight for future generations, social movements of all types would do well to let them lead by example.
Their love challenges conventional dichotomies and hierarchies between public and private, between political organizing and direct service, between critique and caregiving, between other people’s families and their own. To the Mamas, sharing food and shelter and emotional support is not just as important as pursuing systemic liberation—it is liberation itself, in an everyday embodied form. “They work tirelessly not only to support those they love, but also to send a message to the criminal justice system and to society more broadly,” Naber, Naser, and Strong testify. “They reject narrowly conceived definitions of family and take collective responsibility for each other’s children, caring and demanding justice all at once.”
In defiance of the scorn and misogyny and violence that surrounds them, the Mamas boldly practice their caregiving in kitchens, courtrooms, and incarceration sites, seeing mothering love as radical work that must be uplifted, sustained, and contended with.
I want my mother and her mother to be okay, that’s all I know enough of. I want to love them enough for both of them to be okay, I want to make something I ain’t never did before happen, but the world hasn’t finished burning yet.
—Hari Zyad, in “Literary Quilt: A Covering for George Floyd,” The Crisis, June 25, 2020
Quilting is an art of improvisation. When clothing is worn, torn, frayed, beyond mending, quilting salvages what can be salvaged to make something new.
This summer, sixteen Black writers came together to create a patchwork essay that served the purposes of a quilt:3 To cover, to remember, to keep warm. To connect, to preserve, to reuse.
Writing for “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and all those who died too soon,” the writers followed the rules of the game “Exquisite Corpse,” each collaborator adding a piece to the narrative in sequence. The exquisite corpse here is each of the murdered bodies being mourned and covered. Each patch of text stitches generations together, just as the grandmothers or great-great-great-grandmothers in the essay connect the past with the present. New Orleans in 1811. Camden in 1971. The summer of 2020, all over the country.
In his patch, Kiese Laymon calls the protesters who stand between Donald Trump and his photo op “fleshy courage,” and this essay testifies to love and courage in the flesh. Love is embodied in the hands that massage a grandchild’s scalp or pull a statue down. It lives in the bated breath of hope: “I want to hold my breath because the long con might be over and it’s almost too good to hope for,” Imani Perry writes. “I hope we breathe long enough to see it.”
Like the gentleness of a hand or a daffodil resting on a body bag, like the tenacity and ferocity of a mama undeterred by the violence of a police state, this literary quilt combines justice and tenderness in its covering love.
The world is still burning, and there may be limits to what love can do to save the ones in danger. But in these acts, in morgues, inside and outside prison cells, in living memory and in the wake, love endures.
Kassie Bracken and Emily Rhyne, “‘Lord Have Mercy’: Inside One of New York’s Deadliest ZIP Codes,” New York Times, video (12:57), May 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000007097093/coronavirus-st-johns-hospital-far-rockaway.html.↩
Michael Wilson, “The Morgue Worker, the Body Bags and the Daffodils,” New York Time, May 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/nyregion/coronavirus-flowers-bodies.html.↩
“Literary Quilt,” June 25, 2020, https://be496286-08a6-4bdf-bb3b-dc8ed5409664.filesusr.com/ugd/f254bb_226906fa7333456bb62b0988a315982e.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1r-NuTu5-UZwroD15o4wnp09xT8zIm4iSU3TdGktR-dKENzC9X1eCmb5Q&fbclid=IwAR0lIDhb1yrYcjvVv7NiNECZcwfh3r8bmqgnkbobyxPOWqgY0WihOaiVxHM; https://www.thecrisismagazine.com/single-post/2020/06/25/Literary-Quilt-A-Covering-for-George-Floyd.↩
Introduction: The Seven Deadly Sins
The Seven Deadly Sins emerged out of a chaotic era. Pope Gregory the Great generated the first official list of seven sins in the sixth century, after famine, pestilence, and war had ravaged the Italian peninsula. It went on to become a mainstay of medieval thought and culture, featuring in Dante’s Purgatorio, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. In more recent times, it has continued to exert cultural influence through art,1 cinema,2 and literature.3
The perennial appeal of the Seven Deadly Sins lies in their usefulness for deciphering human motivation and behavior. Aquinas referred to them as “capital vices” that identify the basic dispositions at the root of other forms of vice (I–II:84.4). What all vices have in common is that they distort human appetites in ways that rupture the individual’s relationship to God and fellow human beings. This damages both the individual and the communities that they inhabit. While the damage might manifest quite differently in contemporary America than it did in Pope Gregory’s Italy or Chaucer’s England, the explanatory power of the Seven Deadly Sins remains. As our authors ably demonstrate, they render insight into even the most complicated problems in our public life, such as climate change and prison reform.
This section features contributions from David Cloutier, Stanley Hauerwas, Christopher Jones, Jennifer Knapp, Vincent Lloyd, Jamie Pitts, Bharat Ranganathan, Sean Sabella, and Daniel Schultz. Their work reveals the ongoing value of the Seven Deadly Sins for diagnosing and understanding our own era of pandemic and political unrest.