Symposium Introduction

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.


  1. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.03.0078%3Atext%3DCor.

Jeremy Sabella

Response

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.


  1. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!?q=Paul%20Cadmus%20seven%20deadly%20sins&perPage=20&offset=0&pageSize=0&sortBy=Relevance&sortOrder=asc&searchField=All.

  2. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114369/.

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Deadly_Sins_(ballet_chant%C3%A9).

Bharat Ranganathan

Response

Pride and Our Public Life

In memory of George Gatta

 

1. Preface

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


  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. See Evagrius of Pontus, Talking Back: A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons, trans. David Brakke (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2009), esp. 159–73.

  4. The City of God, trans. William Babcock (Hyde Park: New City, 2014), bk. XIV, ch. 13.

  5. Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Allen: Christian Classics / Thomas More, 1981), II–II, q. 162, a. 1, resp.

  6. Mere Christianity, in Lewis, Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2017), 103, 104–5.

  7. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 104.

  8. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 105.

  9. 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.

  10. Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2.

  11. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958).

  12. 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.

  13. 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).

  14. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 522–23.

  15. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §185.

  16. See Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

  17. 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.”

  18. 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.

  19. Mere Christianity, 108.

  20. 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.

Daniel Schultz

Response

Sloth

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.


  1. https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Next-Time-James-Baldwin/dp/067974472X.

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Block.

Chris Jones

Response

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.


  1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), 104.

  2. Aquinas, ST II-II q. 35.

  3. Barth, CD IV.2, 458.

  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schliefer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 884.

  5. 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.

  6. CD IV.2, 405.

  7. CD IV.2, 420–21, 436–37, 441–43, 468–69, 476–78.

  8. CD IV.2: 420–21.

  9. CD IV.2, 410.

  10. “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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

Vincent Lloyd

Response

Wrath

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.

Stanley Hauerwas

Response

Envy

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.


  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominicans (Westminster, Maryland, 1981), II-II, 36, 1.

  2. Anne Perry, One Fatal Flaw (New York: Ballentine, 2019), 191.

  3. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973); paginations in text.

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