On Emphasizing the Communal Dimension of an Economic Ethic of Neighbor Love

[1] Thank you to Cynthia Moe-Lobeda for this thoughtful reflection on Luther and neighbor love within the context of our current economic systems. I agree wholeheartedly with most of her emphases in this essay, and so my brief response here will highlight a couple of aspects of the essay that I think are particularly salient for this conversation and reflect on ways these foci may be expanded further.

[2] Most crucially, I want to draw attention to Moe-Lobeda’s focus on collective responses to systemic problems. For instance, she mentions several times the importance of the church’s response, and not merely individual Christians’ responses, to economic ills. Similarly, at the end of the essay she notes the need for a new economy, a transfigured system as a whole, rather than focusing solely on Christians’ role within that system. In other words, she recognizes that the economic issues we face cannot be resolved solely by Christians’ participation or non-participation in the prevailing economic system; neither can Christian responsibilities to our neighbors be satisfied by such individual economic choices. Rather, we must take on roles in transforming it.

[3] This is crucial in any discussion about economics and Christian ethics and frequently underarticulated. So often, even when people discuss systems and systemic problems, they still respond with individual solutions. I work in environmental ethics—as does Moe-Lobeda—and there, one can find endless examples of this: someone might end a discussion on the systemic nature of climate change with a suggestion to change one’s lightbulbs, reduce one’s individual carbon footprint, or recycle more.1 These are worthy activities, but are vastly insufficient when thinking about how to respond to systems that exploit. Systemic problems require systemic responses.

[4] In this respect, it seems to me that Moe-Lobeda’s emphasis on justification—which I also think plays an absolutely crucial role in Christian ethics2—can be a double-edged sword and, as such, must be cautiously and carefully wielded. Often the default focus, with respect to Lutheran accounts of justification, is on the individual and her relationships, to God and neighbor, that are righted through God’s forgiveness. This focus on the individual—this subjective emphasis—can become individualistic, where the emphasis is on the transformed individual life, with little attention to questions of structures and corporate existence.

[5] To that end, I suggest that further reflection be given to Moe-Lobeda’s phrase in the second part of her paper: in justification we become the “body of God’s love on earth.”3 This strikes me as particularly vital here, if (and this is left unspecified in the essay itself) by “body of God’s love” we take her to mean not simply our individual bodies and agencies, but the body of the church, the corporate body of Christ that we participate in, not merely spiritually, but physically, with all the infrastructure of our churches, their nonprofits, educational institutions and congregations. In justification, what has occurred—what repairs the breach?—but that God has brought us into the body of Christ, the church? In response to our individual ineptitude, we are brought into collectivity, united by the head of Christ but also united materially, by actual physical realities and infrastructures that unite the church. Recognizing this and working within this collective is what we are called to do. The changed relationships that happen in justification are not solely interpersonal changes—transformed relation to God leading to transformed relation to neighbor—but a move into a collective body with power to respond corporately, even if that response remains, as Moe-Lobeda quoted, “rusty.”4

[6] In part, I emphasize this need for collective response because I worry about limitations to individuals’ power as individuals to respond to these issues, not (or at least not solely) because of lack of moral power or love, but because of the very same systemic problems that harm the neighbor. At the end of the article, Moe-Lobeda suggests that Christians cannot “buy products made cheap by companies’ failure to provide a living wage and health care benefits,” and “cannot condone inadequate wages” or “tax polic[ies] that benefit [solely] the rich.”5 I obviously agree with all of these statements, but I also worry about the ability of individual Christians to effectively undertake these projects and counter these trends. As she notes at the very start of the paper, we live in a world of gross inequity. This is a world where even a relatively well-off citizen in the US can have surprising difficulty in having their voice heard politically, where access to non-exploitative consumer goods is often restricted to those who have significant financial resources (often created via their participation in and benefit from exploitative economies!), and where it can be difficult to near impossible to trace the complex web of economic dependencies that go into buying even a single product.

[7] Given this situation, our focus as a church must not be solely on what justification empowers us to do as individuals, but on what we can do collectively together. As Moe-Lobeda does note, the “moral power [to embody neighbor love] [is] sustained by the presence of Christ dwelling within the Christian community.”6 Focusing on this community empowerment to collective response seems crucial today, for faithful responses to these systemic economic issues.

[8] Thank you again to Cynthia Moe-Lobeda for this wonderful paper and to the Lutheran Ethicists Gathering for convening the conference on this crucial moral problem.


1 See, for examples, the many ‘listicles’ that tell you what ‘you can do about climate change’ that focus almost solely upon personal practices. For a particularly striking instance of this dichotomy, see Josh Katz and Jennifer Daniel, “What You Can Do About Climate Change,” New York Times, December 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/03/upshot/what-you-can-do-about-climate-change.html.

2 Willa Swenson-Lengyel, “Moral Paralysis and Practical Denial: Environmental ethics in light of human failure,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 37:2 (Fall/Winter 2017): 171-187.

3 Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “Luther’s Economic Ethic of Neighbor-love and Its Implications for Economic Life Today – A Gift to the World,” 3. (Presentation to Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering, January 2019)

4 Moe-Lobeda, 3.

5 Moe-Lobeda, 5.

6 Moe-Lobeda, 5.

Willa Swenson-Lengyel

Willa Swenson-Lengyel is a Catherine of Siena postdoctoral fellow in the Ethics Program at Villanova University.