Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
This year I’ve used the short essay “I Cannot Speak of Love to You Today” by Regina Shands Stoltzfus in my Introduction to Christian Ethics class when I teach the unit on virtue ethics, pairing it with Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 1980s” on which Kathy Lilla Cox has already so wonderfully written for this blog and Ilsup Ahn’s “Virtue Ethics” in Asian American Christian Ethics: Voices, Methods, Issues. “I Cannot Speak” responds to the shooting death of 32-year old Philando Castile by Minneapolis police on July 6, 2016. Believing that Castile and the passenger in his car, girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, “just look like people that were involved in a robbery,” the officer pulled over Castile under the pretext of driving a vehicle with a broken tail light. When stopped, Castile disclosed to the officer that he had a gun permit and was carrying a weapon. He was reaching for his ID when the officer shot him—seven times, to be exact.
Today in America not only can a burned out tail light “be a death sentence for a black man” like Shands Stoltzfus’s 20-year old son, so too can failure (real or alleged) to signal a lane change be fatal for a black woman. It is from the standpoint of this terrorizing reality that Shands Stoltzfus challenges the popular and widely held idea that the key to eradicating racism is a process of developing interracial relationships that cultivate in white people love for black and brown-skinned people. The central point of her critique is that “the systemic nature of oppression means that oppression functions despite the good will, intentions and yes, love, of many, many people.”
Love is frequently identified as the pinnacle of Christian theological virtue, complete in itself while also encapsulating the best and most important parts of all the other virtues. Consequently, speaking honestly about love’s strengths and weaknesses isn’t popular. Of all the virtues one can practice and the values one can hold, love seems to stand above critique. But the truth is that human beings are notoriously fickle in loving. We are selective, partial, and inconsistent rather than generous, indiscriminate, and extravagant. Moreover, while it is possible to grow in love, such growth takes concerted effort and time. Herein lies the heart of the issue: “if my son gets stopped for a traffic violation, I can’t hope that the officer who stops him loves someone who looks like him,” Shands Stoltzfus writes. This is honest talk about the actual, documented performance history of the virtue of love in the struggle for racial justice as applied to black and brown people’s lives. In a word, it’s dismal.
Love has a ghosting problem. In situations where it is needed the most, love tends to arrive late. Repeatedly, it has failed to show up at all.
Ghosted by love (at least) one too many times, Shands Stoltzfus proposes that the struggle against racist oppression can be advanced in a more reliable manner by the value of justice. Justice is premised on a recognition of others’ “humanity and…right to exist,” quite apart from any particular feelings. She explains the pragmatic value of the virtue of justice in the context of America’s volatile and violent racialized climate in which people of color fundamentally are not safe like this: “Those of you who don’t yet love me or just don’t—you don’t have to. But you can still co-create a world with me that reeks of justice instead of despair.” In other words, love does not need to show up for justice to pertain.
Of course, the biblical command to love is more profound than the way it’s been sentimentalized in dominant U.S.-American culture to mean warm feelings expressed through kindness to others—Shands Stoltzfus acknowledges this. However, justice is also a biblical command. Moreover, unlike love, justice has not been subject to such intense and thorough sentimentalization. Framing the struggle against racist oppression as a process of justice makes an end run around the repeatedly demonstrated tendency of love-based models of social change to capitulate to racist oppression whenever the feelings associated with love show up late on the scene. Justice issues a non-sentimentalized moral mandate to participate in the work, starting with the directive, “Learn our racialized history.”
The value I find in this essay for teaching virtue ethics is, first, the frank acknowledgement that love is neither the only, nor only important, Christian virtue; and, second, the clarity that the goals of the struggle against racist oppression—recognition, respect as equal citizens, basic safety, the opportunity to live with dignity—don’t actually require love. It is not necessary to wait for a dramatic infusion of love to engage meaningfully in this work that defines the present time.
Yvonne C. Zimmerman is author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking.