Monday, January 25, 2021



In the tv series, The Good Place, four young people 

    live faulty lives, die young, and are consigned 

        to the bad place.

But they negotiate for a 2nd chance, are returned to life, 

    and behave impeccably.

But again, they are sentenced to the bad place, because 

    the motive for all their good behavior was selfish.

They were doing it for themselves to get into the good place.

So they negotiate for a third run at it.

There is no way to deliberately get the external good 

    of the good place.

Their only possibility is the internal good 

    of becoming good people.


Ethics is about what we do. Virtue is about the reason we do it.

Virtue ethics is the point where action and motive connect.

The Christian way is to grow into the likeness of Christ 

    through the disciplined practice of Christlike virtues 

        over the course of a lifetime.

It isn’t about external goods or rewards. 

It’s about who we become.


Christian virtue ethics holds that the core of the Christian life 

           – not all of it; but the core tradition – 

            consists of 7 primary virtues 

            – 3 theological virtues: faith, hope, and love; 

and 4 cardinal virtues: 

    prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.


First we considered Prudence, the mother of all virtues.

Prudence is wisdom in practical affairs, 

    seeing things clearly as they are and acting sensibly. 

The 1st Commandment of Prudence is:  Deal with the real.

Next, we considered Fortitude, mental and emotional strength 

     in facing difficulty, adversity, (or) danger . . .  courageously.


Today we take up the cardinal virtue of Justice.

So much has been written about justice 

    from different perspectives 

– philosophical, theological, sociological, psychological, political.

Much of it has been tendentious and there has often been 

    a failure to see that the writers are coming 

        from different disciplines and are not so much disagreeing

             as talking past each other. 

The classical sense of justice as a virtue has gotten lost.

The word virtue still gets used and abused in justice talk 

       – but what they mean by virtue is something quite obscure. 


I do not intend to go down the rabbit hole

     of competing theories of justice.

I’ll just focus on the Christian virtue.

Even that isn’t going to yield anything neat and simple.


Justice can be understood as a set of principles 

         defining right and wrong.

Justice can also be understood as a social value, 

            something we care about.

But in virtue ethics, we are looking for a quality of character, 

            something we can practice and grow.

The virtue of justice is individual  

         – a quality of a person’s character.

It’s also social -- a quality of the community,  

            an attitude and pattern of behavior that a people share.

Social virtue can be expressed by the state as laws 

          but it isn’t limited to laws. It’s broader, more cultural.


Old Testament morality is more about rules than virtues.

But the Old Testament is nonetheless 

    profoundly interested in justice.


      Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue  . . . .  

      Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, 

                   orphan, and widow. 


            Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness 

            like an ever flowing stream.


            What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, 

            love mercy, and walk humbly with your god.



Two rival visions of justice carry on a sustained argument 

         throughout the Old Testament.

First, there is the Moses view, 

           a freedom and equality kind of morality.

It demands lending generously to those in need, 

                but don’t count on getting repaid.

All debt was cancelled every 7 years 

            and all land was to go back 

            to the family of its original owner every 50 years.

Aliens were to be welcomed, supported, 

          and included in the community.

There were no kings, only local spiritual leaders.

People didn’t need the law enforced top down. 

Law enforcement was vigilante style. 

The mob was assumed to be moral.

Better than having oppressive police like the Egyptians, 

             they thought.


The other side was the King David view, 

        a hierarchical nationalism.

The king was the adoptive son, the beloved of God.  

To love, honor, and obey the king was 

            to love, honor, and obey God.

The kings liked to build palaces and temples,

            to keep standing armies, and to wage wars 

            of imperialistic conquest.

This meant heavy taxes, forced labor, and the draft 

             -- but also law and order

            with more due process than the supposedly moral mob.


Moses’s view was taken up by the Prophets 

            – Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah 

            – who defied the kings to their faces.

Two rival senses of justice argued their way 

         through the Old Testament.

But the contest was played out on the same field.

That field is the word both sides used, sedeq. 

We translate it justice or righteousness.

It means to be in right relationship.


The Ancient Israelites didn’t agree 

             on the political structure for their relationships,

            but they persisted in a conversation about it 

             for over a thousand years.

Contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas, 

            who wrote about discourse ethics and intersubjectivity,

            would say the point of the Old Testament 

            may not be who was right,

            but the fact of the persistent conversation.

Habermas says,

            We all live in a world surrounded by people of different 

             background and personality. 

            Relating with one another and settling our differences 

             is not always an easy task

            but it is a task we must embrace . . . . 

            Trust or suspicion, authentic communication or lies . . . , 

            unconditional love or self-interest

            are just some of the causes of strengthening 

            or breaking human relationship.


Persistence in relationship enriches our souls 

          and is necessary to our survival.

He believed Martin Buber’s attitude of I And Thou, 

          viewing the other person as a subject in their own right,

            not just an object to be persuaded into our view,

            is the foundation for authentic conversation. 


Turning to Jesus, the best place to start is the Beatitudes.

Matthew 5: 6 reads,

          Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for (Greek word) 

         “dikaisune” for you shall be satisfied.

We usually translate dikaisune as “righteousness” 

         but it could as easily be translated “justice.”

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice . . . .  

Either way, it means right relationship.


Jesus told stories of relationship, often relationships 

             that crossed conventional boundaries

            -- the Good Samaritan, the Unforgiving Servant,

           the Prodigal Son.

And he gave specific examples:

            If you bring your gift to the altar and remember that your

           brother holds something against you, 

           leave your gift there and go be reconciled to your brother,

          and then come    back and offer your gift.


            Judge not that you may not be judged; 

            for by whatever judgment you pass you shall be 

           judged and whatever measure you measure 

           shall be meted out to you.


            Let the one among you who is without sin cast 

           the first stone.

            Be like your Father in heaven who causes the rain 

            to fall and the sun to shine

            on the good and the evil alike. 


Jesus’ disciples included a Roman collaborator 

           and a Zealot insurrectionist,

            the moralistic Pharisee Nicodemus 

            and the prostitute who washed his feet,

            the cynical skeptic Nathaniel 

           and the madwoman Mary Magdalene.

He not only befriended these diverse people, 

           he wove them into community with each other. 


Jesus envisioned a Moses kind of justice. 

He explained his mission by quoting Isaiah,

                    The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 

                    because he has anointed me to proclaim 

                    good news to the poor, . . . freedom for the prisoners

                 and recovery of sight for the blind,

                   to set the oppressed free . . . .

Jesus wasn’t neutral on power and wealth. 

But, having staked out his position, 

         he engaged people of all stripes in conversation. 


He resisted the idea that a merely political revolution 

            could create a virtuous society

            in which people could flourish.

Judah had done that before when the Maccabees 

            threw out the Greeks,

            but then their rule was so bad 

            that Judeans actually invited Rome

            to liberate them from their Jewish oppressors.         

Changing the state may help. 

But it is never enough to create a just society.


The definitive view Christian view of the social order 

             is from Augustine,

            but we need a bridge between Jesus and Augustine.

That bridge is Plato. 

What he said about justice is certainly flawed.

But there’s still something in it that is essential 

         to understanding justice as a virtue.

Plato taught that justice in the state 

           was merely individual justice writ large.

A just state was the product of just individuals. 


Let’s start with the state and work backwards.

Plato said there were three basic kinds of people: 

            rational philosophers, passionate warriors,

            and responsible workers.

The state was just when each fulfilled their proper purpose 

            -- the right person for the right job.


Likewise, each individual has three corresponding parts.

We have a mind to think, a spirit with the bravery for life, 

         and a body with its appetites.

Individual justice is an inner balance 

             of the three parts of the person,

just as justice in the state is each kind of person doing their job.


That’s obviously simplistic. 

There are more than three kinds of people 

         and our individual selves are more complicated.

But we do each have parts. 

Freud gave us Id, Ego, and Super-ego.

Transactional Analysis gave Child, Parent, Adult.

Norse mythology divided the individual into 4 parts.

Jung gave us Persona, Shadow, Animus, and Self.

Psychosynthesis gives each of us a whole inner community 

            of sub-personalities competing for space 

            in the same body.


But these psychologists all agree with Plato: 

We need to work things out inside.

What Plato called justice, 

          psychologists call inner harmony or integration.


That requires the different parts of our personalities 

            to stay in conversation with each other,

            respecting each other’s right to exist, 

            making room for each other.

We need the different parts of ourselves playing the role 

            for which they are suited, like keeping the passions 

            in the passenger seat and Mother Prudence 

            in the driver’s seat.

A just individual is self-aware and well-balanced.


The second gem from Plato is that just individuals 

       actively shape their community.

By bringing our internal balance into the community process,

            we lend sanity, dignity, and order to the common life.

The justice of the community is an outer network of relationships 

            that arises from the inner network of relationships 

            in individuals.


That brings us to St. Augustine.

Augustine wrote The City of God 

               as the Roman Empire was crumbling.

He might well have preempted Dickens 

        and titled it A Tale of Two Cities,

        because he described the world as inhabited 

         by two metaphorical cities,

         the Earthly City and the Heavenly City. 


Because the world is fallen 

            and sin isn’t about to disappear anytime soon,

            the Earthly City is governed by arbitrary, amoral, 

            dominating power.

The Heavenly City is God’s realm in which the virtues reign.

But we cannot escape the one to live in the other. 

We all have a foot in each city.

Augustine’s overarching metaphor for earthly life 

           is Jesus’ parable of the field sown 

            with a mix of wheat and weeds.

We cannot root out the weeds now 

           without destroying the wheat.

So the wheat and weeds grow together 

           until God sorts them out in the end.

The virtues sometimes manifest in the state, 

            just as the vices manifest in the Church.


Augustine taught that Christian participate in the world 

         -- the state, the market, and the social community -- 

        both as Christians as responsible citizens, 

       but with our ultimate allegiance not to any institution 

       or ideology but to God, and under God, to each other.


For Augustine, the virtue of justice is relational. He said,

            Justice is found where…the soul rules the body in all  

          (people) who belong to this City and obey God, and

           reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system 

           of  subordination … the association . . . of  righteous 

          (people) lives on the same basis of faith, active in love,   

          the love with which a (person) loves God as God ought to

          be loved, and loves his neighbor as himself.


Some years ago, I was wandering about the City of Jerusalem

            and found myself in a highly politicized 

            Palestinian neighborhood.

I stepped into a political bookstore 

        where every book was a diatribe against Israeli occupation.

I am not criticizing that, just describing it.

But then, I came upon a book that didn’t fit, 

            The New Religious Intolerance: 

            Overcoming The Politics Of Fear In An Anxious Age

            by the Jewish philosopher, Martha Nusbaum.


Nusbaum said our fear-based experience of the world 

            narrows, shrinks, and rigidifies

            when we fail to practice participatory imagination.

Participatory imagination is empathy,

            imagining our way into someone else’s experience 

            to see things their way.

It doesn’t mean we agree with them. 

But we understand them as if from the inside.


Jesus said, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, 

             echoed Jesus in his rationalist language.

            Never treat another person as a means to an end, 

            but always as an end in himself.

We can treat others as ends themselves, 

            we can love them as we love ourselves, 

            only if we know them, 

           if we see the world as our neighbor see it.

That’s in line with Martin Buber and Jurgen Habermas.


But it’s even more in line with Emanuel Levinas.

Having lost loved ones in the holocaust, 

         he asked how that happened 

         and concluded Western philosophy, 

         including utilitarianism. was immoral.

So Levinas called us back to relationship 

          with those who differ from us.


Levinas wrote about the encounter with the other

            the discovery that we aren’t the only ones here.

We are not even the center of the universe.

The very existence of other people gives rise 

         to an ethical demand. 

Nigel Zimmerman sums Levinas up this way:

            The Other – the suffering other – the poor one, 

             the widow, the orphan – is a subjective presence 

            who appears before the self .  . .  .(T)he other person 

            . . . . issues an ethical demand to one’s own self. . . .


Levinas saw justice as something that happens face to face.

But that kind of encounter is in a chicken and egg relationship 

       with a larger social context he called 

        the fraternal community.

It takes face to face encounters, one on one meetings, 

           to form a fraternal community.

But it takes a fraternal community to form us as people 

         capable of face to face encounters.

The fraternal community acknowledges we are each unique

            but we all share the same ethical duty 

           -- to see each other as selves,

            to acknowledge each other’s perspective.


That’s why Martha Nusbaum challenges us

            to adopt the moral practice of seeing things 

            from the other side.

Or as Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw put it 

            in their song Undivided,

            When we gonna learn to try on someone else’s shoes?

            When we gonna see through someone else’s eyes?


We can contrast Nusbaum’s approach to life with a passage 

            in Marcel Proust’s epic novel In Search Of Lost Time.

The protagonist, when he’s a teenage boy, 

           is obsessed with girls at this stage of life.


As he rides along the beach, 

            he sees each girl and wants to possess her,

            but it isn’t about sex.

He later explains that sex doesn’t work for his purpose.

What he wants to possess is her mind. 

He wants her to notice him, then think about him.

He wants to invade her consciousness with his own image 

             and turn her into a mirror for his ego. 


Contrast that to participatory imagination.

What if instead of trying to change her thoughts, 

              he had tried to see them,

            understand her experience as it was, 

                  uninvaded by his agenda.

The prayer of St. Francis seeks the grace, to seek

            not so much to be understood, but to understand.


The moral practice of a virtue grows us spiritually.

Instead of imposing ourselves on others, 

            Justice, right relationship, truly sees them, as they are, 

           an image of God -- a distorted image, but still an image.

The Vision of God enlightens our souls, 

            and it’s right there waiting for us 

            if we just practice participatory imagination.

If we see the world through many perspectives 

            instead of just our own,

            it becomes a vastly larger, more interesting place

            and we multiply many times over our capacity 

           to apprehend and appreciate reality.


Christian justice isn’t neat, but it includes unexpected elements.

From the Old Testament, we see that justice may reside

            not so much in rival visions of the social order

            as in our process of working with our differences.

Jesus gives us a picture of non-judgmental relationship 

        with people who are different from his.

Love your neighbor, he said, 

            then gave an example of a neighbor

            as a person of a different race, different religion, 

            different nationality.

Plato shows us to start by harmonizing our psychological parts,

            because whatever we have not integrated, 

           we will project on someone else.

Levinas shows us justice as recognizing 

            the other’s moral claim on us,

            and Nusbaum says that recognition begins 

            with empathy, seeing the world through the eyes 

                        of someone as different from us as possible.