The Priority of Love (Jackson)

Priority of Love

Timothy P. Jackson, The Priority of Love: Christian Charity and Social Justice

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

This book took me a while to finish, perhaps providentially. This book is about the centrality and primacy of love in Christian ethics. The goal here, however, is not to displace other ideals that sometimes replace love’s priority (e.g., justice, therapeutic wellness, or autonomy), but to put love into conversation with these other values. In this respect Timothy Jackson asks us to wonder what relationship love might have to things that sometimes seem unloving. Is radical, deep love compatible with the punishment required of justice? Is radical, deep love compatible with the violence that protection of others requires? And is a radically and deeply loving God tied in any way to these less romantic notions of justice, prudence, or autonomy?

I suggested the length of time this book took to read was providential because in the last week we faced a set of issues that seem to require us to think along the same lines. Is a deep, radical love compatible with an (albeit partially) socialized healthcare system? Is a deep, radical love compatible with a heritage haunted by racism and slavery? Is a deep, radical love compatible with embracing or excluding homosexual marriage—or indeed, homosexuals in the Church? I offer no answers here, and I’m not interested in hosting or sparking political debates. What I do suggest is that this book offers a great methodological starting-point for thinking through these questions. My suspicion is that, if we follow Jackson’s example of charitable thought, that our answers will resemble love in better and truer ways than they did before–no matter which side one lands on any given issue.

The Gist

1 John 4:8 declares that “God is love,” and the two greatest, summary commandments fixate upon the centrality of love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On the one hand, obviously love must have priority in Christian ethics given the scriptural testimony. On the other hand, a prevailing view of Christian ethics for some time can be summed up in the immortal words of the J. Geils Band: “Love stinks.” More accurately, other ideals like justice, prudence, and autonomy have guided the practical wisdom of Christian ethicists, and love becomes a subordinate concept. Jackson’s book tries to navigate these tensions. Love is central, and no diminished concept of love will do. Jackson calls his position “strong agapism” to reinforce the radical, transcendent concept of love he employs. Yet love is not divorced from these other ideals and values. Jackson wants to think about how and in what ways love is compatible with the very things that make some abandon the primacy love; things like a justice that demands punishment or a concern for enemies that requires violent resistance.

Jackson begins the book by defining the kind of love that he wants to defend. The remainder of the chapters place this concept in dialogue with the other values and issues I’ve mentioned. At the end of the day Jackson develops authentic concepts of love that are compatible, nevertheless, with justice, violence, and autonomy. Jackson goes to great lengths to preserve the deep, radical dynamics of agapic (self-emptying) love while showing its compatibility with the realities of our broken world.

What Stuck

One of the most interesting arguments Jackson offers in discussing both violence (chapter 3) and forgiveness (chapter 4) is that love transforms justice, and this means that grittier things like punishment or retribution are still compatible with love precisely because they give others the ability to be loving agents in turn. We have a tendency to think that radical love means that we are always nice and amenable to others, while Jackson shows us that this is not the best assumption. Of course, radical love is not compatible with paternalism or condescension, but it also does not mean that something like violent resistance of an attacker is not also in important ways a loving act to the attacker himself (although there are limits to this as well).

Another intriguing argument that Jackson surfaces in his discussion of forgiveness is the nature of unforgivable sins. Forgiveness is a two-way street. Love always offers forgiveness, but the offender has to receive it, or rather, has to be able to receive it. Jackson writes,

To mock the Paraclete is to deny that God is just and that one is need of divine forgiveness; it is to refuse, in turn, all mercy that might placate that justice and communicate that forgiveness. Blasphemy makes it impossible, not for God to extend forgiveness, but for us sinners to grasp it. (146)

In this respect, the unforgivable sin isn’t something we can accidentally do, like telling a God-themed joke (three hypostatic persons walk into a bar…). Rather it is to deny the realities of God that make forgiveness both necessary and possible. The only unforgivable thing we can do is to assume we cannot or need not be forgiven.

Memorable Quotes

No end of ink, sweat, tears, and blood has since been spilled in trying to fathom what, concretely, love demands of individuals and groups. Nonetheless, for all this, the distinctive priority of the virtue has not always been clear in the Christian ethical tradition. Hence the two key questions for this book: First, what does it mean to call love of God “the greatest and first commandment” (Matt. 22:38), or to call love simpliciter “the greatest of these” (1 Cor. 13:13)? Second, how does love’s primacy relate to other human values, within and without eh Christian church, often associated with love. (1)

Love itself is the greatest, but not the only good; nor can it obviate all need to choose between goods in cases of scarcity or conflict. . . . Love makes itself the good by enriching whomever it touches, and the egalitarian assumption that this performative capacity is shared by all persons makes love a natural ally of liberal democracy. (15)

The more “doing justice” is associated with faithfully imitating divine goodness and creatively meeting human needs, for example, the less the phrase will carry its preeminent modern connotation of keeping contracts or rewarding merit. (37)

Persons only come to be persons, and continue to act like persons, because they have been shown a care that outstrips standard modern conceptions of justice. (39)

People get to be people and continue to act like people only when they are extended care by others and are schooled in how to extend it to others. Any society that fails to appreciate and act on these facts will inevitably find itself chaotic, confused, and unjust. As important as personal liberty is, one cannot make sense of private choices, much less public cooperation, without reference to the community that grounds these choices. . . . Evidently we need each other. (63-4)

In the name of divine transcendence or necessary goodness or holy indeviance, they deny that God can have obligations of right to creatures. I try to say in this chapter why this view is mistaken. My counterclaim is that, far from God’s essential nature precluding justice, God is just precisely because essentially loving. God’s justice is kenotic, my Athanasian line runs: God suffers himself to be bound to us morally, for our good. (70)

Love may sometimes assert its autonomy and transcend (but not violate) natural categories of merit, but it characteristically informs and transforms (modern) justice by simultaneously altering its motive and placing limits on its means. (107)

The point is that love serves others most profoundly by making them loving in their turn. Agape’s “bestowal” of value—its treating human beings as if fully lovable—contributes to their actually becoming so. (127)

On the one hand, agape may forcefully defend the innocent not simply to sustain their bodily life but to preserve and enhance their potential for just community. . . . On the other hand, agape may embody nonviolence because this attitude can also, in turn, prick the consciences of the unjust, as well as summon potential victims to heroism. In a culture like our own that increasingly glorifies belligerence, traditionally by men and now also by women, nonviolence has its corrective place. (127-28)

More to the point, mercy makes justice possible by extending the gratuitous care (including forgiveness) to the needy that enables them to grow into responsible persons who can deserve both praise and blame. (139)

Forgiveness is a form of self-sacrifice; in letting go of the lex talionis one is, indeed, foregoing various justified retaliations, various wounded self-understandings. Any proper conception of forgiveness must reflect three things, however: (1) openness to sacrifice is not the whole of charity—one must also speak of unconditional willing of the good and of equal regard; (2) even though forgiveness sacrifices some of the claims of justice, it may nonetheless resist injustice and even withdraw from relation to the unjust; and (3) sacrifice is itself premised on its being both constructive and consensual. (143)

To mock the Paraclete is to deny that God is just and that one is need of divine forgiveness; it is to refuse, in turn, all mercy that might placate that justice and communicate that forgiveness. Blasphemy makes it impossible, not for God to extend forgiveness, but for us sinners to grasp it. (146)

The claim that love ought to move me to forgive another is straightforward and plausible, but in a typical deepening of a traditional theme, Jesus also makes the obverse point that forgiving another elicits love in her. (148)

Love only resorts to punishment when there has been a proven offense and when the retributive steps will likely benefit all concerned; punishment is not a proper means of indoctrination or conversion or crowd control. (154)

The one thing needful is the courage to do good to those who spitefully use us, to refuse to return evil for evil. Forgiving others is always incarnating Goodness and the best one can hope for in doing well by them. It may well redound to my benefit, both physically and spiritually, but it will certainly cost. As Kierkegaard notes, “true self-denial. . . . always involves suffering for the good that one does”; indeed, “suffering is the mark of the God-relationship.” (155)

May we, in the end, forgive God? Yes, we might conclude paradoxically, and God will forgive us even this. (166)


Sometimes theology is predictable and bland. We discuss two radical positions on opposite poles, and then put forward our own middle way. So often this results in a yes-and-no that, in reality, is neither a yes or a no. It is just a way of saying there’s good things at the core of both sides and an unwillingness to part with either or think in more nuanced, realistic ways about the compatibility of those goods. Although I felt sometimes Jackson flirted with this tendency, I never felt at the end of the day that this is what he offered the reader. Perhaps that is one of the reasons of the success of this book among the academic community.

I think this book deserves a wider readership outside the academic community. The long chapters and sometimes rushed arguments might be intimidating, but Jackson’s rhetoric and ideas are in no way impenetrable. He writes clearly enough, and it would be good for anyone, anywhere to read and imitate the kind of charitable and sincere thinking that Jackson demonstrates. This is an important time for people to think more critically about their ideologies and find a way to preserve the heart of their values while making room for the best of other perspectives. The Priority of Love does this as well as anything I’ve read.

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