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Religious Studies scholar defends priority of love

STANFORD -- And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. --First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 13:13

Using examples ranging from writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Juan Segundo, Timothy Jackson, assistant professor of religious studies, explores the primacy of love in his just-completed book, Love's Priority: A Defense of Charity as First Virtue.

In a chapter on love and sacrifice, Jackson compares Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night to Hemingway's The Garden of Eden (published posthumously).

The novels, Jackson said, raise a similar question: How do you cope with a loved one whose suffering causes them to fall?

Fitzgerald's book contains autobiographical elements from his life with his wife, Zelda, who spent many years in a mental institution. Garden of Eden, Jackson said, draws on a similar scenario of “an American marriage breaking down on French beaches.”

If the books raise similar questions, they provide very different answers, Jackson said. “Fitzgerald is an advocate of a tenderness that doesn't flee from the pain, a tenderness that accepts the pain and tries to move through it. On the other hand, I think that for much of his life, Hemingway's model of virtue was a kind of return to the garden, a rejection of pain, and a quest for forgetfulness, for deliverance, release and peace.”

Jackson argues that Fitzgerald has a deeper understanding of what charity requires, in particular with respect to sacrifice. “He saw that love gives of its very self to overcome suffering.”

On a different but related topic, Jackson devotes a chapter to Christian love and political violence, focusing on the debate between just-war theorists - those who argue that conducting war is compatible with Christian love, at least in cases where the innocent are being defended - and pacifists who insist that a true love of neighbor means that one never uses lethal force.

Jackson considers four theologians: Stanley Hauerwas, a pacifist; Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey, both defenders of the just-war theory; and Juan Segundo, a Catholic liberation theologian.

Jackson argues that Ramsey has outlined the “happiest mean between the extremes of an in-principle pacifism like Hauerwas's, which would say never use violent force, and a kind of unbridled bellicism where anything goes in war.”

Ramsey, said Jackson, tries to bring the just-war theory under the governance of charity, “saying there are some things you should never do, even in war, like directly killing innocents.”

Segundo, the liberation theologian, is certainly an advocate of charity, Jackson said, and sees liberation and charity as closely linked, “but he's so concerned not to give the forces of reaction in the Third World any foundation, any succor, that he's unwilling to say there are limits even to just revolution.

“I fear he's so reluctant to say what you shouldn't do even in a just cause that he opens the door to a situation where the oppressed can do anything in the name of liberation. That doesn't seem to me to be wise.”

Jackson rejects any sense of fatalism that leads to an acceptance of evil as inevitable, the attitude that says “it's a hellish world and we all have to dirty our hands.”

He disagrees with contemporary philosopher Michael Walzer, who has written that when, during World War II, Hitler started bombing British cities, Churchill was faced with a “supreme emergency” where he had to “dirty his hands” by bombing German civilian population centers.

Jackson would argue that Churchill did not have to move against civilian targets and that Truman did not have to order atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Directly killing innocents in war is wrong, Jackson said, “yet when you embrace a 'dirty hands' theory, it's all too easy to see [the killing] as simply a tragedy of war. The 'dirty hands' theory sounds plausible, even humane and realistic, but I think it opens you up to being more complicit in evil than you should be.”

Jackson devotes a chapter to linking rejection of the “dirty hands” theory to an appreciation of moral sainthood. Although some see moral saints as dour, hyper-dutiful, rather impoverished figures, Jackson cites Mother Teresa as a moral saint who is “beaming with joy and highly cultivated as a personality.”

Mother Teresa of all people certainly knows about human misery, about the inevitability of pain and loss, Jackson said, “but I would submit that she finds deep human fulfillment precisely in knowing that even in the midst of pain and suffering, love is the first virtue and is always possible with God's grace.”



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