Thursday, April 2, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter,  

       Again, we ask, what’s the Christian thing to do during a pandemic? We began this series by saying: we live in Christ and through Christ with the goal of becoming like Christ. Jesus was inspired and guided by qualities of character called “virtues,”  “habits of the heart” – things we do as a discipline until they become second nature, until they become our characters. 
         The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. Those ways of being generatefour cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance. They are “cardinal” because they are the foundations for all the other qualities of character, the trunk from which other virtues are branches. The cardinal virtues are the backbone of our morality. In the previous pastoral letters, we considered how the cardinal virtues of prudence (facing the facts/ living in the real world) and fortitude (courage infused with strength and endurance) can be practiced in the context of covid-19. Remember the virtues are connected. Each depends on the practice of the other three. A virtuous character has to be balanced and inter-related. 
     This week we turn to the cardinal virtue of justice. This virtue is crucial right now not only for what we do but for why we do it. In the previous pastoral letter, we compared our present experience to the solitude of 4th Century desert hermits. This could be a transformative spiritual experience. But we could also compare our experience to solitary confinement imposed as a punishment on prisoners. To be deprived of in-person human interaction is a loss. How we handle this isolation, how we interpret it makes all the difference for our spiritual experience. We will get through this. But we will be marked by it. The question is: what kind of mark will it leave? Whether we come through this pandemic better or worse depends on how we interpret it. Part of the interpretation could be that we are offering a personal sacrifice for the sake of justice. 

To catch a glimpse of what Christians mean by justice we have to clear the field of a huge cultural construct that defines justice quite differently. We are inundated with literature, film, tv, music, and political speeches that equate justice with vengeance. The late Biblical scholar Walter Wink called this view “the myth of redemptive violence.”[i] The prototype is that the Victim has been killed by the Perpetrator, so the Victim’s ghost wanders the earth tormented until the Perpetrator gets his comeuppance. If you pick the right verses you can make a case for that from the Bible, but Wink argues that if we read the Bible as a whole, that understanding is rejected. When Jesus says, “love your enemies” and “forgive those who sin against you,” that’s the flower on a stalk that goes right back to the first Chapter of Genesis. 

     So what do Christians mean by justice? Since St. Thomas Aquinas we have said justice consists in giving people what is due to them. In other words, recognizing (prudence) that people matter and having the fortitude (courage, strength) to treat them accordingly. What is “due” is based on right relationship, what the Bible calls “righteousness.” In our tradition (St. Thomas), justice happens in three settings: relationships of individuals to each other; relationships of individuals to the community or social order; relations of the community or social order to individuals.

As Christians, what we owe each other arises out of our common status as children of God. That is not limited to fellow Christians or fellow Americans. One of the most common commandments of the Bible is to show justice for “foreigners” or “aliens.”[ii] In Baptism we vow to respect the dignity “of every human being.” We recognize all people as creatures made in God’s image, as icons of the holy. Justice is acting toward each other with care, even reverence. As I was working on this letter, I asked a group of self-styled St. Thomas scholars what was “due” – what justice meant – in the case of the Syrian seeking asylum or the refugee on the Isle of Lesbos where a corona virus catastrophe seems imminent. One said, this had nothing to do with justice because we have no relationship with them; so it would simply be a matter of charity. The Bible repeatedly and insistently says otherwise. We have a relationship with each other by virtue of our creation. If that weren’t enough, Jesus shed his blood for that refugee every bit as much as for me. We have a relationship in Jesus. Justice is acting out of that relationship. 

So what does all this have to do with covid 19, social distancing, and all the disruption of life we are experiencing? First, it changes our motive in an important way. We do not isolate out of fear. That would run counter to the virtue of fortitude. We do not isolate because separation is imposed on us by the authorities. But, if we act in Christ out of Christian virtue, we avoid corona virus for the sake of others. It’s a sacrifice we make to keep others safe. Every person who contracts corona virus passes it on the average to three or four more people. So when we contract corona virus, we are two steps away from spreading it nine to 16 people and it goes on multiplying from there. Yes, social distancing is hard. It brings up all sorts of feelings and deprivations. But we owe it to our brothers and sisters, the children of God, icons of the holy, sinners of Christ’s own redeeming to keep them safe. Some disapprove of speaking of the “merit” of an action. But if you will allow me to borrow from our Jewish brothers and sisters: they say to do a good thing just because you want to deserves some merit; but to do a good thing because of a “mitzvoth,” an obligation, is twice as good. Then you have done a good thing and you have also fulfilled an obligation. We have an obligation to keep each other safe, even when it imposes a hardship on us. 

But can we go behind that? Remember virtue ethics isn’t about meeting some minimum standard of behavior prescribed by a rule. It is an exercise of our character. Some people in our congregation have brought out their sewing machines to manufacture surgical masks for health care providers to keep them safe. Some are running errands for at-risk shut-ins, such as picking up and delivering their prescription medications. Others are calling people to brighten their day with just a few minutes of human interaction. Others write letters or attend zoom meetings. These actions are not just being nice or charitable. They are living out of the virtue of justice. 
Justice is also something the social order (the government) owes the individuals. I won’t presume to prescribe what that is in this case. I don’t know what is possible. But there are issues around the availability of covid 19 tests and ventilators. The Bible shows us justice when prophets like Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah demand that kings show justice to the poor. People who hold the government accountable are also exercising the virtue of justice. 

There are several kinds of justice. To go into them all would be a book, not a letter. But one kind is especially relevant to our present situation – distributive justice – allowing each person their due of the things we need to live. Price-gouging and hoarding are expressions of injustice. Bot arise out of fear, a failure of fortitude, and are often expressions of imprudence, seeing the world through our emotions instead of rationality. Justice does not constrict life into self, but expands it compassionately to care for others because they matter. Setting reasonable, even generous prices, and taking only what we need while leaving the rest for others who need the same things – these are acts of justice.

Acts of justice almost always cost us something. Whether we pass up a package of toilet tissue or a chance to socialize in person with other people, we are sacrificing something. We are acting at odds with our natural inclinations. Why would we do these things? Why put ourselves out for people we don’t even know like the next person in the grocery store or the refugee on Lesbos?

One of my favorite scraps of literature is at the end of J. D. Salinger’s Franny And Zooey. For those who don’t know the book, it’s about the Glass family, a group of children who starred on a 1940s radio show. Franny and Zooey are the youngest. At this point in the saga, the child stars have grown up. Franny has dropped out of college to be a mystical Christian. Zooey feels she’s onto something but also missing something. Their wise older siblings are unavailable to mentor them as when they were younger. Seymour the true sage is dead. Buddy is in Europe. Zooey is scrambling to find a word of wisdom for his little sister. Finally, he tells Franny that when he did not want to shine his shoes before the show because the producers were morons and the audience couldn’t see his shoes anyway, Seymour told him to “do it for the fat lady.” Franny remembered Buddy telling her the same thing and how she had imagined the fat lady. She had cancer and was sitting on her porch listening to the radio. 

Then Zooey says, “I’ll tell you a terrible secret – are you listening? – there isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s fat lady . . . . Don’t you know that (expletive) secret yet? And don’t you know – listen to me now – don’t you know who the fat lady really is? Listen to me now. Ah buddy, ah buddy, it’s Christ himself, Christ himself, ah buddy.” You can hear this (and how such justice leads into mystical union) by scrolling 35 minutes into this Yale University lecture.[iii]

     So when you act justly -- and you are acting justly every day -- when you act justly in this hard time -- and justice is best practiced in hard times – brothers and sisters, do it for the fat lady.  

[ii] For example, Deuteronomy 10: 18Deuteronomy 24: 17; Deuteronomy 27: 19; Ezekiel 22: 29; Malachi 3:9; the example of Jesus in his relationship with such people as the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Roman centurion.