Christianity is a religion of seemingly impossible paradoxes, and the Christian life is a series of decisions made within a set of difficult, often excruciating tensions. The simplest paradoxes are the purely theological ones: Jesus is fully God and man; God is one essence in three persons; we are justified by faith alone but faith without works is dead; it is by grace but through faith that we are saved. Moving outwards to the practice of our faith, we continue to find vexing challenges, most of which one might describe as competing obligations towards different people.
One might describe most of the questions of practical ethics in the Christian life as existing in a continuum between Creation, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming. We recognize that we were created by God with a certain nature and a set of laws that we ought to follow for our own flourishing, yet in the Fall both our ability to reason about ethics and inclinations we have towards specific actions are now corrupted. The Resurrection of Christ redeems and transforms the created order towards its telos, giving us an augmented set of ethical directives (many of which we derive from the teaching of Christ Himself), all of which rely on the power of Christ over death and some of which appear downright contradictory to our created nature and its laws. Finally, as we anticipate the Second Coming of Christ, we gain a glimpse into the perfect world to come and its beautiful transformation of the world we know into the one that we long for. In the words of Oliver O’Donovan, Christ’s death and Resurrection are the “central evangelical point of reference” from which we “look back to what is reaffirmed there, the order of creation, and forward to what is anticipated there, the kingdom of God.” (Resurrection and Moral Order, 26.)
Take, for example, sexual relations. We were created as sexual beings and meant to partner together as male and female to bring forth offspring into the world through sexual intercourse. The Fall brought about many different sinful expressions of sexual desire, but the most common Biblical examples of life under the curse of sin are adultery and infertility. The former is paradigmatic for our understanding of idolatry in the Old Testament, reversed in the eschaton when we celebrate the wedding supper of the Lamb. The latter is universally regarded as a curse under a natural schema, but as redemptive history progresses this changes. Those without children are given blessings “better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:5), our Savior Himself does not take a wife, and He points us towards a time in the future when marriage shall be no more, when we are celebrating that great future wedding supper. Those who are childless or celibate now are a sign and a seal of that future to come. (Matthew 19:12)
Just like cults find their footing by eliminating one theological tension or another and making the difficult far easier to swallow, so too ethical error abounds when one side of a moral paradox is cut free from its counterweight. Allowing the emphasis on “in Christ there is neither male or female” (Galatians 3:28) to overtake “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:28) leads to the current sexual madness that gives teenagers barely old enough to drive hormones that alter their entire bodies. Overdo it the other way, and you end up marginalizing the infertile in the Church or even walking backwards into heresy.
Between Created Order and the Coming Kingdom
So in this time between the times, living between the Resurrection and the Second Coming, we find ourselves honoring competing obligations and moral centers of gravity. Some laws, like not committing adultery, remain ironclad as their ethical justification has not changed and their purpose only develops more comprehensively as we celebrate the Resurrection and anticipate the Second Coming. Others are less clear: how do we “honor our father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), a moral obligation clearly reinforced by the created order as the effects of a single sexual encounter resonate for decades, while also honoring Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:26 that we cannot be His disciples unless we hate our family members? The latter is only the most dramatic stitch in an ethical strand woven throughout the New Testament that prioritizes our relationships in Christ, however distant or strange, over the familial and the familiar.
That tension lies at the heart of many difficult problems that the Church faces today. We recognize that simply being born at a specific time in a specific place to a specific pair of people places you into a web of unchosen obligations to family, friends, and neighbors. We are all born dependent, we all die dependent, and no other reaches independence without the love and care of those who honor these unchosen obligations. This is clearly part of the created order, reaffirmed by Christ in Mark 7:9-13, looking ahead to the future glory when all of us will stand before God together. We honor God by honoring our natural bonds of dependence.
On the other hand, Christians have a different set of obligations. In Romans 15:27, Paul speaks of what the wealthier churches of Macedonia and Achaia owe to their poorer brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, and similarly in Galatians 6:9-10 he urges us to do good to everyone, but especially to fellow Christians. In some way, then, a hungry brother or sister in Christ who lives in Africa has a greater claim to your charity than your atheist neighbor next door, or perhaps even your family members if they are not believers. This looks to the created order in a different way: the universal brotherhood of man before God recognizes that the need of a fellow human being creates an obligation on the part of those who are able to help. Concentrated wealth is not only spiritually dangerous, but also, according to Thomas Aquinas, “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” (ST II-II A7.)
Our modern age, unfortunately, has its own perverse take on the universal, worldwide nature of human relations. In this very popular schema, natural resources and animals are ours to exploit as we wish and one attachment to a place and its people are mere sentimentalities. Individuals are interchangeable cogs in a great economic machine and should move across the country or across the world to wherever their labor is needed. Love for one’s neighbor is abstract, depersonalized, and ideally delivered by a faceless bureaucracy using tax dollars. Liberal modernity also sacralizes a life free of unchosen obligations; this creates chaos and suffering as it rejects the created order.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 15 only complicates things further, as Jesus is very clearly teaching both that I must help the person in need closest to me and that I must help people that I would consider my enemy according to the natural bonds of family, kin, and religion. The former tugs us towards the natural bonds of created order and proximity, the latter pushes us ahead towards an eschaton where all peoples are gathered together to worship God and marriage is no more. The only moral stance that is excluded is an unfortunately popular one, which is to take the lawyer’s side and say “Who is my neighbor?” on the way to whatever it was you were already planning to do.
O’Donovan puts it this way:
[T]he parable of the Merciful Samaritan forces us to make a distinction between two opposed types of universalism. Universalism may be abstract, achieved by diverting attention from the place where we encounter the truth that interests us, by canceling place out as we grasp the truth. Alternatively, it may be concrete, achieved by denying the status of privileged places in order to concert are on the actual place of encounter, wherever it may be.
One of the most troubling aspects of liberal modernity is the fact that many people have hitherto unimagined power to physically distance themselves from those in need, secure their wealth and privilege, and enjoy the benefits of unjust labor without ever having to see or think about the victims of that injustice. In former times one could not live a decadent life without regularly encountering the poor whose labor made that life possible; today even the sight of a homeless person in a privileged space inspires calls for more state force. The lawyer in Luke 11 would probably salivate at the thought of a world where he could simply ensure he would never encounter a bleeding man in need on the road.
Paul, on the other hand, would rejoice at the thought of a world where he could travel from Jerusalem to Spain in a few hours and the church in Achaia could wire money to their brothers in Jerusalem overnight. The authors of the New Testament were mostly celibate itinerants, men who leaned hard into the world to come as they spread the Gospel despite suffering and martyrdom. For us not to use the power we have in order to preach the Word and help those in need would be dishonoring to their legacy.
Talking about using the power we have been given to love others necessarily leads us to think about politics, but translating these principles into something resembling political order is even more difficult. The authors of Scripture left us with little more than a tale of an unfaithful kingdom, a couple of potshots at the ruling powers and principalities, an exhortation to punish the evil and praise the good, and a vision of the future under a perfect King ruling all the nations. We can neither import Christian ethics wholesale into a political authority, nor presume that we can abstract some kind of political ethics from non-Biblical natural law that consigns Christian ethical principles to an optional accessory or dangerous hindrance in public life.
No, this too is a tension that comes from belonging to two different cities: a tension between the moral duties that individual believers face and the moral imperatives that come from securing the common good with all other men, which include the exercise of violence. (Oliver O’Donovan’s work turning these scraps of Scripture into a beautiful, if threadbare, quilt is my personal favorite.) Luke 15 is a call to love those in need closest to us, but its implications push us to ask, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, how we might secure the Jericho Road from robbers.
Nowadays virtually all (official) political authority is vested in the modern nation-state, which is not part of the created order and bears only a passing resemblance to it. It is both inappropriate and credulous to make the nation-state the guarantor of the common good. Alasdair MacIntyre is worth quoting at length here:
[T]he shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both. For the counterpart to the nation-state thus misconceived as itself a community is a misconception of its citizens as constituting a Volk, a type of collectivity whose bonds are simultaneously to extend to the entire body of citizens and yet to be as binding as the ties of kinship and loyalty. In a modern, large scale nation-state no such collectivity is possible and the pretense that it is is always an ideological disguise for sinister realities.
There are other kinds of power, perhaps more so than ever before in history thanks to technology, exercised by various institutions and powers we must wrestle with. There are, sadly, few solid Christian reflections on the challenges these powers pose to the Church and a great amount of shadowboxing against them. How to best secure the common goods of a political community using both state and non-state powers is another tension that many would eagerly fall to one side or the other one, urging the state to do as little or as much as possible. In the end, though, formal policies of the nation-state must be set and in democratic societies Christian citizens have some power to influence them.
Centripetal Created Order and Centrifugal Kingdom Fulfillment
Christians, then, find ourselves caught between the centripetal force of created order that pulls us inward to honor our natural bonds and the centrifugal force of the Gospel that pushes us outward to all the world to love all that are in need. So too does Christian ethics, and likewise Christian political ethics. Christians understand that political authority must reflect God’s judgments but the state at best creates the conditions in which the common good flourishes.
Our best help in sorting this out is Augustine’s ordo amoris, the order of love. This subject has been covered at Mere Orthodoxy previously, but I would like to emphasize that the order of loves places overlapping spheres of moral obligations on us that apply both individually and corporately to singular Christians and the Church universal. Each believer must order their loves in such a way that honors his or her unique calling from God, but this calling will inevitably tend to consume their time, energy, and money in a way that corresponds to natural bonds and proximity. Those of us with spouses, children, and other dependent family members must prioritize them, but beyond that our love to others will mostly go to the people that happen to be proximate to us.
Given the natural limits of any human being who must sleep 8 hours a day and can at most intentionally love a handful of people, our greatest choice is to decide who will be proximate to us. Nowadays there is a highway with guardrails running alongside the Jericho Road, and to exclusively use that highway is to deliberately close ourselves off from people God wants us to love. While our obligations to our families and kin are critical, the aforementioned passages from the New Testament indicate that they are not absolute: we must hold our children’s hands and bring them along on the road to Jericho.
The Church universal also has a set of overlapping responsibilities, but how these responsibilities are translated into the work of individual churches is a tension of its own. Local churches are first obligated to their own members, to preach, worship, disciple, and administer the sacraments. Adding anything beyond this to any individual church is tying on a burden too great to bear. Yet the Body of Christ spread across the world is also responsible for sending messengers of the Gospel to places that have not yet heard it, meeting the needs of the poor (local and distant), and advocating for justice in whatever society they find themselves in. (I would draw primarily from Isaiah 58 as the source of the lattermost impetus.) The Body of Christ also has an obligation to be in communication with itself such that the hand can know if the eye is suffering and then do something about it.
This task might seem impossible, but the power of the Holy Spirit among God’s people allows us to order ourselves according to the moral obligations we have to one another and to the world. We seek in prayer to know which people in need we ought to be in proximity to, and we obey accordingly as we embark on whichever road to Jericho we are called to. Some may physically remain wherever they are; others may move across town, across the country, or across the world. The wealth of believers, once yielded to the direction of the Holy Spirit, also has centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it but should in general go to where there is the greatest need and the least knowledge of the Gospel.
Citizens of Two Cities, Lovers of God and Man
Applying the order of love to politics is still more difficult, but not impossible. Christians are citizens of both the heavenly city and the earthly city, but in day-to-day life they are most often members of a particular local community while also being citizens of a particular nation-state. To make matters even more complicated, they are citizens of a particular nation-state while also being inhabitants of the world as a whole. Each of these different memberships brings a set of moral obligations that are (you guessed it) in tension with one another.
Perhaps the first application would be to stop taking ourselves and politics seriously. A persistent reader might be able to find this author’s youthful idealism which expressed itself in blatant disregard for the tensions inherent to Christian ethics. One can advocate for the criminalization of particular sinful acts or the legalization of other acts (good, bad, or neutral), but in the end the vast majority of these are questions of prudence in how to best achieve the common good and giving priority to different loves. Politics may be a key way of loving the vulnerable, but the vast majority of our love for our neighbors won’t happen through political advocacy or state power. Issues don’t lose their moral urgency, but we can loose ourselves of the existential terror and smug superiority that often characterize political discourse.
Next, the order of love points us towards creating societies in which we are better able to care for those our natural bonds obligate us to. Unchosen obligations and the families that they spring from must be celebrated and secured in political discourse and law. Leah Libresco’s Other Feminisms and The Institute for Family Studies are some of the best forums in which these questions are being discussed, although there are many others. At the same time, the highways to Jericho are not at all conducive to the created order or the redemptive community, and they must be torn down or modified in order that all members of a political community can enjoy the benefits they deserve.
There are many calls nowadays to sharply differentiate between our moral obligations to our fellow citizens of the nation-state and the obligations to those outside, just as there are calls to eliminate this distinction entirely. As the nation-state is a construct of modernity and thus neither a feature of the created order nor a sign of the kingdom to come, I am not convinced that this is not a particularly strong ethical obligation. In the specific case of the United States of America, which can be categorized as more of an empire than a nation, this is even less so. Citizenship in the same political community, even if it is an imperial citizenship, confers a duty to love a fellow citizen as one’s neighbor, but in the order of love this only outranks the love to a non-citizen in need who happens to be within that political community’s borders by the slightest degree.
Prudence suggests that a political community needs a certain degree of shared ideals and mutual care to be at all stable. Thus, it is all the more imperative for people who wish for the US to focus its moral obligations inward to its own citizens to discuss how they intend to overcome the inequalities within the nation that bring disproportionate suffering to people of certain races, classes, or locales. Prudence would also suggest that there must be limits to the amount of new immigrants who come to the US every year, particularly refugees or people who would have greater difficulties assimilating to shared American cultural values. I would suggest that a number of refugees equivalent to 0.5% of the current US citizen population, a number of highly skilled immigrants equivalent to 1% of the current US citizen population, and a number of less skilled immigrants equivalent to 1% of the current US citizen population would be appropriate for maintaining appropriate cultural cohesion. Similar targets should be proffered by all sides of the immigration debate in order to have a robust and coherent discussion.
Does Christian political ethics have anything to say about illegal immigration? I would argue that it absolutely does. Illegal immigration is dangerous, even deadly, for both the person attempting to migrate and the citizens of the host country. It should be discouraged by whatever means possible out of love of both neighbors. Simultaneously, however, we must recognize that every child of God deserves to flourish according to the created order, which means that they should be able to care for their families and those proximate to them in whatever locality they happen to be born in. The fact that many people feel the need to migrate in order to feed their children or escape violence is an injustice, and it is an injustice which wealthier countries help to perpetuate through a variety of means.
I will close with an example that I am familiar with that draws many of these different ideas together: healthcare in Africa. Most African countries suffer from postcolonial political dysfunction and there is no clear path for either citizens or non-citizens of those countries to work for meaningful change within them. This dysfunction entrenches inequality and injustice in the healthcare systems most Africans can access, and the free market in healthcare in these countries only serves the rich (and then often has its own major problems with fraud).
Therefore, for the foreseeable future most healthcare institutions in Africa serving the poor will require donations of some kind. More and more middle-class Africans who have the power and wealth are donating to their kindred in need, which is a very good thing. However, there is still a great deal that Westerners owe to Africans. Reflecting on Aquinas’ teaching mentioned previously, which has been described as the universal destination of goods, we can say that Africans deserve to enjoy the basic goods that sustain life like the healthcare necessary to prevent a premature death or excessive preventable suffering. This is simply owed to them on the basis that they are children of God like us. However, the wealth that other countries extract from Africa exceeds the aid given to Africa; Westerners benefit immensely from African goods and labor that they get at unfair prices.
Finally, many of the healthcare institutions in Africa that serve the poor are extensions of local churches. Here are the hands and feet of the Body of Christ that need help from fellow believers in order to preach and heal as Jesus did. In many cases, the work is not so much about giving people stuff (although that is very important!) as it is about training, equipping, and partnering for good work. Western Christians who give their money or themselves go to serve alongside their brothers and sisters are relieving themselves of toxic accumulations of spiritually dangerous wealth and opening themselves up to perhaps unexpected spiritual gifts. We don’t exclusively help Christians, either: donating our time and money to serve nonbelievers gives Christians many opportunities to proclaim the Gospel where it needs to be heard.
Healthcare in Africa, though, is a more distant priority in the order of loves for most Western Christians — and it should be. A believer in Nebraska who abandons his children to help African doctors is sinning by perverting his order of love; many Western Christians have moral obligations that outrank African healthcare institutions. There are other needs that the Body of Christ has and (despite what this author might have said when he was a teenager) just because those needs are not matters of life, death, and eternal destiny does not mean that they ought to be priorities for every Christian just after feeding their children.
Creating and enjoying beautiful things, studying and teaching the wonderful works of God, meeting other needs, and many more objects of love are worth loving. For a while American expenditures on golf were the stereotypical foil in appeals for the needy, then it became Halloween costumes for dogs, and now it’s moving towards video game cosmetics. Trivial as golf, dog costumes, or Fortnite skins may be, legalistic condemnation of their purchase is not the way to think about the order of love. Even those who give their lives in missionary service still buy their children nice toys for Christmas, go on expensive vacations, and even occasionally dress up their dogs for Halloween.
Rather, we must look at the Body of Christ as a whole and ask: are the needs of African healthcare or similar moral obligations that are not immediately apparent to us exerting the appropriate centrifugal forces in our lives? For those who are engrossed in far-flung causes, are we honoring the centripetal forces of natural bonds or are we letting an abstract love for “the world” overpower the calling to help our neighbor on the road next to us? Do we live our lives on the highway that insulates us from people in need, or are we asking God to show us which road to Jericho we ought to walk on?
Christian ethics loves the created order in the world as it has been created, relies on the transformative power of Christ’s death and Resurrection in the world as it is, and aims toward the redemption of all things in the world to come. This framework introduces more tensions than it resolves, which means that Christians must recognize an order of love that directs their energies and activities. Christian political ethics likewise will neither content itself with the bare minimum necessary to prevent anarchy nor attempt to bring about the Kingdom in its fullness prematurely. Each of us, constrained by the limits of a human life and its centripetal needs, can only do a little with the love we have for whoever we pass by on the road. But as the Body of Christ, drawing our power from our Head and the source of all love, we can be the Good Samaritan in countless situations where the centrifugal force of God’s love draws us out.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org