Love, Justice, and the Coronavirus Pandemic (Part 1)

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By Michael J. DeBoer

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has shined a spotlight on the many people who serve us, especially health care providers who are courageously caring for the sick and government actors who are responding to the pandemic that has swept the globe. The pandemic is placing health care providers in the distressing situation of treating patients even while exposing themselves to grave peril. Government officials and public servants throughout the country are taking decisive action, executing a wide array of laws and policies, and responding quickly to the growing challenges. Private citizens are staying at home, and businesses, churches, and other organizations have scaled back their activities and even closed temporarily for the sake of their neighbors and communities.

As this crisis unfolds, we do what we as human beings created in God’s image are uniquely equipped to do—we try to interpret our situation and understand what this pandemic means for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation but also for other people and the cause of Christ around the globe. Of course, an array of perspectives (e.g., medical, economic, sociological, and psychological) offer insight into our current situation. But we also gain insight by considering this pandemic and the actions of private individuals and public servants from a moral theological perspective.

This article offers a Christian moral theological perspective on the care provided by private individuals and institutions and the protection provided by public servants and governments. This perspective will help us to see how Christians and non-Christians, private citizens and organizations, as well as public servants and governments are loving us and our neighbors in the midst of a pandemic.

Justice in Love and Love Beyond Justice

Love and justice form the core of the moral life for both Christians and non-Christians, and they are integral to the perspective offered here. God is a God of love and justice, and His character sets the standard for all of His image bearers. Love and justice are central to His purposes in the world, and they are woven into the very fabric of human moral reality. This is reflected in both the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18) and the New Testament (Luke 10:27-28; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), which express duties to love God and neighbor. Jesus Christ Himself stated that the law and the prophets (the entire Old Testament) hang on these two love commands. (Matthew 22:37-40) Justice, which God loves (Isaiah 61:8) and which Jesus highlighted as a weightier matter of the law (Matthew 23:23), is also commanded (Psalm 82:2-4; Isaiah 1:17), and Amos instructed rulers and judges not to pervert but rather to maintain justice (Amos 5:7, 12, 15). Because love and justice are a part of God’s character and because love and justice are duties required of all human beings, they provide the two primary standards for evaluating the actions of individuals and organizations in the context of this pandemic.

Love and justice have a complementary nature—they are intertwined and compatible.

Although the Bible clearly states the duties of love and justice, there is more complexity to both than we may initially think. For instance, the English word “love” is used for different kinds of love, and one of these (agapic love, which is committed devotion to the other that is directed by the will and revealed in service to the other) itself has various dimensions. As Gene Outka has argued, the Christian’s love for God includes fidelity to Him in loving those whom He loves, and thus love includes love of God, one’s neighbors, and one’s self. The duty to love our neighbors includes those with whom we have close relationships, and such particular loves include family members (Ephesians 5:25; 1 Timothy 5:8) and fellow believers (1 John 4:20). But the duty to love our neighbors also extends to those with whom we do not have such special relationships. In His parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus illustrated the universal dimension of neighbor love through the Good Samaritan’s care for the injured man whom he did not know but inadvertently encountered in a particular time and place. (Luke 10:25-37)

The complexity of love, especially the particular and universal dimensions, invites us to consider how our various loves relate and how they should be ordered, and over the centuries a number of theologians, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, have contemplated the relationships among and the proper ordering of our various loves. More recently, Gilbert Meilaender has explained four ways of relating the universal and the particular in our loves:

  • disregarding the tension between them;
  • “building down” from universal love for God and all human beings to particular loves;
  • using universal love to limit and “build” a fence “around” particular loves; and
  • “building up” from particular loves to universal love.

Meilaender finds the fourth way the most helpful. On this account, particular loves play a formative role in shaping us into people who love God with all of our being and who love our neighbors (near and remote) as ourselves. Thus, we “build up” from particular loves to universal love for God and all people, and we accept our particular loves as divinely designed means by which God providentially forms people and shapes Christians for eternity.

Justice too is concerned with how people relate to and treat each other. As a principle or duty, justice means giving a person that to which she has a legitimate claim, and this principle guides humans and societies in ordering relationships. Because justice concerns what a person is due based upon his conduct or membership in a particular group, society has a great interest in ensuring justice in relationships. When a person deprives another person of that to which the other person is entitled, the actor has wronged the other person and treated her unjustly, and there are both private and public implications of such wrongdoing.

For civil government, justice is the principal concern. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul instructed Christians to respect civil government, which God has established as His servant to govern and ensure justice by commending those who do good and punishing those who do wrong. Government carries out its primary function of securing justice and protecting people from wrongdoing by doing a number of things. It makes laws that specify conduct that is prohibited as well as penalties and remedies for wrongful conduct, and it institutes law enforcement to apprehend wrongdoers and deter violations. It establishes judges to determine wrongdoing and impose punishments and remedies, and it maintains a military to defend against international wrongdoing. This is part of God’s gracious ordering of the world, for He ordained governments to care for the people providentially situated within their boundaries. (Acts 17:26)

In filling its divinely established role of protecting people within its jurisdiction and preventing and punishing wrongdoing, civil government secures justice and demonstrates love for its people. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued, love and justice have a complementary nature—they are intertwined and compatible. God demands justice because He is love, and in the divine order of things, agapic love incorporates seeking justice. Accordingly, in the words of Wolterstorff, “supporting a just system of laws justly enforced is an exercise of agapic love for one’s fellow citizens.” This, in part, may be why Paul spoke about love’s fulfillment of the law in Romans 13:8-10 immediately after he addressed the topic of civil government and justice in Romans 13:1-7.

Because agapic love incorporates seeking justice, justice (like love) is properly ordered from the bottom up, that is, from the particularity of closer relationships to the universality of more remote relationships. Although philosophers have framed their discussion of justice differently, their recognition that justice always concerns interpersonal relations and that particular justice is of two types (commutative justice, which concerns reciprocal dealings between individuals in voluntary transactions, and distributive justice, which concerns proportional distribution of common goods) seems to harmonize with this point.

Furthermore, the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions have given us two ways of thinking about structures within society that seem to be premised upon this understanding of ordering justice. Thus, in Roman Catholic thought, the principle of subsidiarity teaches that individuals, smaller communities, and lesser organizations are responsible for their own functioning and that larger communities and organizations (including nation states) may encourage, support, and regulate but must not interfere with or absorb the smaller communities and lesser organizations. In Reformed thought, sphere sovereignty teaches that each sphere of society (e.g., churches and civil governments) has a God-given nature and reason for existence, and no sphere should seek totalitarian control. Additionally, it understands civil government to exist for the purposes of keeping the various spheres within the limits of justice and defining justice for the mutual relations among the spheres. Federalism, a key constitutional doctrine in our republic, also reflects this understanding of justice ordering, for it affirms a fundamental division of power between two levels of government that grants limited power to the general or federal government and recognizes plenary power in the people and the states.

Come back next week for part 2 of this series.

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  • coronavirus
  • current events
  • public square
Michael J. DeBoer

Michael J. DeBoer is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. He holds degrees from Liberty University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Valparaiso University, and Indiana University. He is currently pursuing a ThM in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Seminary.

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