Surely there is enough kindling lying about in the Bible and in subsequent moral theology to fire up love for neighbors and compassion for countless “friends” in foreign parts--and in crisis. And, surely, the momentum of love’s labor for the just redistribution of resources, fueled by activists’ appeals for solidarity, should be sustained by stressing that we are creatures made for affection, not for aggression. Yet experience, plus the history of the Christian traditions, taught Reinhold Niebuhr, who memorably reminded Christian realists, how often love was “defeated,” how a “strategy of brotherhood . . . degenerates from mutuality to a prudent regard for the interests of self and from an impulse towards community to an acceptance of the survival impulse as ethically normative” (Niebuhr 1964, 2:96).

But he was encouraged after reading Augustine. The late antique African bishop nudged Niebuhr to look for the “formula for leavening the city of this world with the love of the city of God” (Niebuhr 1953, 134). The authors of the books before us are still looking. They concede, as did Niebuhr, that Augustine’s monumental City of God explicitly sets limits on love’s effectiveness on the practice of politics. They refuse, nonetheless, as did Niebuhr, to offer any “blanket judgments about the power of the state,” although they acknowledge that politics tends to trick practitioners to overlook limits and to become “idolatrous[ly]” infatuated with what governments can do (Lovin 1995, 180-84; Lovin 2008, 198-99).

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Copyright © 2010 Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc.. This article first appeared in Journal of Religious Ethics 38, no. 4 (December 16, 2010): 699-724. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9795.2010.00460.x.

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