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Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions



Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions is a collection of original essays that address the intersection between contemporary feminist care ethics and religious morality. Feminist care ethics is one of the most dynamic areas in modern theory. This relational approach to morality emphasizes context, emotion, and imagination over consequences, rules, and rights has only been around for about four decades, with its definition still being negotiated. Still, the respect for this approach is demonstrated by its widespread inclusion in moral discourse. Historically, care has been an overlooked concept in philosophy, but religion's ambivalence toward care ethics is even more pronounced. On the one hand, caring is a fundamental value espoused by virtually all religions and spiritual traditions. Yet, on the other hand, deontological principles so essential to many religious moralities create clear categories of adjudication antithetical to feminist care ethics. Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions engages theorists from various disciplines in discussing the continuities, discontinuities, and applications of feminist care ethics, spiritual traditions, and religion. This collection includes contributions from Ruth E. Groenhout, Maurice Hamington, Adriana Jesenková, Luigina Mortari, Sarah Munawar, Inge van Nistelrooij, Kimberley D. Parzuchowski, Jamie Pitts, Martin Robb, Jason Rubenstein, Robert Michael Ruehl, Maureen Sander-Staudt, Steven Steyl, and Sarah Zager. The volume also includes a foreword by Catherine Keller.
ME 1
Care Ethics, Religion,
and Spiritual Traditions
Inge van Nistelrooij, Maureen Sander-Staudt
& Maurice Hamington (eds)
Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions
Ethics of Care
Editorial Board
Helen Kohlen, Vallendar, editor-in-chief
Sophie Bourgault, Ottawa
Sandra Laugier, Paris I – Sorbonne
Inge van Nistelrooij, Utrecht – Nijmegen
Advisory Board
Andries Baart, Utrecht
Flávia Biroli, Brasília
Fabienne Brugère, Paris
Vivienne Bozalek, Cape Town
Elisabeth Conradi, Stuttgart
Maurice Hamington, Portland
Hee-Kang Kim, Seoul
Per Nortvedt, Oslo
Petr Urban, Prague
Linus Vanlaere, Leuven
Cover from a painting by the German Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum (1904-
1944). Nussbaum has—while rmly rooted in the European tradition of mod-
ern art—given the atrocities of Nazism a face. We honor his life and work by
pointing at his artwork on the covers of this series. This painting represents
the fragile intergenerational and embedded relations of care as they intersect
with diverse religions in all of their aspects.
It depicts Nussbaum’s parents, Rahel and Philipp Nussbaum, mourning the loss
of a loved one while seated in a graveyard dominated by Christian iconography.
His parents were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in February, 1944.
Felix Nussbaum
“Friedhofsbank” (“Cemetery Bench”), 1935.
Gouache on cardboard, 61 × 47 cm
Felix-Nussbaum-Haus im Museumsquartier Osnabrück
Loan from the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung
Ethics of Care
Volume 13
Care Ethics, Religion,
and Spiritual Tradition
Inge van Nistelrooij,
Maureen Sander-Staudt
Maurice Hamington
Leuven – Paris – Bristol, CT
A catalogue record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
This is an open access version of the publication distributed under the terms
of the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence (
by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial reproduction and distribution
of the work, in any medium, provided the original work is not altered or
transformed in any way, and that the work is properly cited.
ISBN 978-90-429-4654-5
eISBN 978-90-429-4655-2
Table of Contents
Preface IX
Catherine Keller
Introduction XIII
Maurice Hamington, Inge van Nistelrooij, Maureen Sander-
List of Figures XLIII
1. “Care Ethics and Forgiveness: Lessons and Errors from the
Christian Tradition” 3
Ruth E. Groenhout
2. “Against Moral Certainty and Authority: How Dogmatic
Religious Ethics is Incompatible with Care Ethics” 27
Maurice Hamington
3. “The Pain of Imagining Others: Caring for the Abstract
and the Particular in Jewish Thought” 49
Sarah Zager
4. “Theological Spelunking with Care Ethics: Caring Ethical
Standards for Relational Maintenance across Religious
Pluralities” 89
Maureen Sander-Staudt
5. “Spiritual Care: The Spiritual Side of A Culture of Care” 121
Luigina Mortari
1. “The Fluidity of Becoming. The Maternal Body in Femi-
nist Views of Care, Worship and Theology” 159
Inge van Nistelrooij
2. “‘With Prayer from Your Loving Father’: Men, Masculinity,
Faith and Care” 195
Martin Robb
3. “Theologically Motivated Conversion Therapy and Care
Epistemology” 211
Steven Steyl
4. “To Shelter an Egyptian Firstborn: The Revelatory Poten-
tial of Care Ethics in Jewish Thought” 243
Jason Rubenstein
5. “Care, the Sacred, and Sex Education in Slovakia” 273
Adriana Jesenková
1. “In the Belly of the Whale: Theorizing Disability through
a De-Colonial and Islamic Ethic of Care” 299
Sarah Munawar
2. “Mother Eberly’s Coin: Care Ethics, Democratic Politics,
and North American Mennonite Women’s Movements” 325
Jamie Pitts
3. “Reimagining Justice as Preservative Care for Sustained
Peace: Learning from Ethics of Care and Indigenous
Philosophies” 347
Robert Michael Ruehl
4. “Nature’s Hospitality, Human Prodigality: From Environ-
mental Consumption to a Care Ethical Devotional
Ecology” 379
Kimberley D. Parzuchowski
List of Contributors 403
Index 409
Care: that word says so much with so little drama, works across such
a breadth of daily registers, and stirs affective ripples beneath and
beside language, that we may just take it—like many of the caregivers
of our lives—for granted. We may miss the rigors of its performativity.
Indeed we may think care too vague, soft, nice, affective, personal,
apolitical, familiar, familial and yes (unstatedly) feminine a notion to
do the serious work of ethics. Care seems to fall to the margins of the
work of social justice. So despite the feminist emergence of care ethics
in the 1980’s, the social ethics of progressive religious practice has
done little with care ethics as such. With its emphatic feminist,
LGBTQI+, antiracist, social, interreligious and ecological justice
commitments, liberal/progressive religion may be motivating vast
forcefields of care. But, at least in the work of Christian social and
ecological justice, the language of social ethics seems to take the place
of care ethics. I can hear a voice in my own head say: “We want to
resist systemic injustice, we want to insist on a structural alternative.
Caring is not enough!”
Certainly. But what if there is ethical work that only the concept
of “care” can do? What if the disappointments of a half century of
impressive struggles for justice cannot just be explained in terms
of conservative reaction? What if those setbacks have something to
do with the lack of a robust language of care? Does ethics without an
explicit amplification of care tend toward group moralism? Does inad-
equate care among members of a movement or a community soon
weaken needed solidarity? Does the lack of care for those outside the
community—those just different or those opposed—undermine
the power of transformation? Does democratic agonism harden into
mere antagonism? Does lack of care for the earth and its fragile sys-
tems, human and nonhuman, render environmental crisis danger-
ously abstract?
The voice in my head, that of a feminist theologian situated in
a largely Christian context, might respond: those questions are valid.
But we have already the deep source for any effectual care, the true
motivation for ethical action. We call it love. Love carries the bibli-
cal imperative of respect, indeed care, for the other, not just others
within one’s circle, but strange and difficult others. And again, yes,
certainly. An ethical notion of care may certainly be transcribed
as love.
But beyond circles that tend to its biblical context, its deep roots
in the Abrahamic prophetic ethos, love hardly escapes the problems
of “care”. A love-ethic summons similar doubts—as to its sentimen-
tality, its weakness, its sub-political significance. But it also brings
with it a problem of parochial overstatement. Indeed, any broad insis-
tence on the vocabulary of love seems to impose a Christian vocabu-
lary and its assumptions. And such a presumption violates, however
unintentionally, an ethics of religious multiplicity—a care for the
religious stranger. Moreover, the vocabulary of love, even of “revolu-
tionary love,” may inhibit desired solidarity with secular publics. Care
ethics bears no such traces of Christian triumphalism. Furthermore,
it does not first involve one in the theological tensions of agapic vs
erotic love. Care obtains across the spectrum of love. And when prac-
ticed ethically, attends to the intimacies, needs and distinctions of
sexualities as they pose their ethical questions.
There is another sense in which care entails a more persuasive,
a more practicable rhetoric than love, possibly even for addressing
Christians. To ask that you care for the stranger or for the environ-
ment does not require that you first “love” them. This type of care
may or may not become recognizable as love. It works in freedom
from any religious, or for that matter secularist, exceptionalism. And
in the same vein, care carries a strong practical immediacy, a con-
creteness that is not about just feeling care. The word itself carries
a whole assemblage of care practices and packages, care-givers in and
hugely beyond families. The vast valor of care-giving professionals
has been freshly recognized in the pandemic. Care implies an imme-
diacy of hands-on attention, of the touching of bodies, of material
support. And planetary care, in the immediacies of daily practice, of
ecologically friendly energies, commitments, demonstrations, legisla-
tions, does not sentimentalize or over-personalize an ecological
ethic—it demands it.
Care ethics may prove key to keeping social ethics tuned to the
difficult intersectionality in and as which all of our relations material-
ize. No one of us exists one moment outside of those relations—
which may nurture or traumatize, deaden or transform, work uncon-
sciously or mindfully. Reigning systems of relation operate by
controlling, commodifying and concealing the relations that form us
moment by moment. So many around us and above us couldn’t care
less. Therefore, if care ethics is to resist the stereotypes that melt its
practice into charitable or interpersonal softness, it will show that,
for example, Black Lives Matter is a great exercise of collective care.
Without a perspective that tunes and reveals the width of our
interdependence and the depth of its deformations, care goes numb
to its collectives, and private in its singularities. Therefore, it is high
time to track the perspectives of embodied care across a multiplicity
of religious and spiritual publics—just as this book does. The gravi-
tational force of this volume is perhaps beneath all carried by its root
attention to “the real needs of human beings in the blossoming
of their relational identities.” The brilliant transdisciplinary work of
Care Ethics, Religion and Spiritual Traditions unfolds a stunning multi-
plicity of perspectives within a remarkable coherence of vision. This
work matters—its spirit fosters the care in which we all live and
breathe and have our becoming.
Catherine Keller,
April 30, 2021
Maurice Hamington,
Inge van Nistelrooij,
and Maureen Sander-Staudt
Religion has played a major role in organizing care;
hospitals began as religious institutions. All traditions urge
the practice of compassion, an essential attribute of care.
Secular humanism has incorporated much of this ethical
practice, but religion approaches the task of educating and
instilling ideals with repetitive reinforcement, determina-
tion and organization. Of course, religion is no guarantee of
good care, and religious institutions have demonstrated
appalling abuse of those in their care.
Madeleine Bunting, Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care
Madeleine Bunting eloquently articulates one of the fundamental
tensions that motivate this volume: religion and spirituality can be
a force for effective care as well as an impediment to care, and some-
times, both at the same time. We can recount extraordinary efforts
of kindness and compassion inspired by religious belief. For example,
although precise accounting is challenging to verify, The Church of
Latter-Day Saints has spent over $2US billion on humanitarian aid
from 1985 to 2017 and funded $180US million in humanitarian assis-
tance during 2017 alone (Shamlian 2020). However, we can also
enumerate instances where religion spurs devastating division and
oppression of people. For example, religious organizations still support
conversion therapy to ostensibly suppress homosexuality, which has
caused suffering for over 700,000 LGBTQA+ individuals (The Trevor
Project 2020). Conversion therapy represents the antithesis of care
in the twisted valorization of religious norms over and above the real
needs of human beings in the blossoming of their relational
There is no question that religiosity is an essential element of most
humans’ lives despite this tension. At least 84% of the world’s popu-
lation identifies with a religious group (Sherwood 2018). Further-
more, morality is an element of virtually every religious or spiritual
identification, as is the idea of caring for one another. So why is it
that religious adherents do not always manifest care? The authors
who contributed to this volume address the relationship of care ethics
to religion and spiritual traditions through concrete examples and
theoretical explorations. Sometimes care ethics is viewed as provid-
ing a critique of religion; sometimes, religious experience has some-
thing to offer to the theorizing of care. Sometimes, the two are merely
in dialogue with one another. This introduction sets the analytical
foundation of the book and explicates the terms of analysis used
First, the context of the book is formed by care ethics, for which
it is essential to note that an “ethic of care” is not the same thing as
“care.” Each of the contributors to this collection was asked to frame
their chapter in dialogue with works of feminist care ethics. Because
this book is part of a series devoted to care ethics, the readers are
likely familiar with a definition of care ethics. However, given the
ubiquitous use of the word “care,” it bears repeating that not every
activity given the label “care” meets the moral standards of a caring
act, or at least effective care, under the rubrics of care ethics. Many
an atrocity has been wrought in the name of care, such as the pater-
nalism invoked by colonial manifestations of care (Raghuram 2019,
618). Care ethics offers an ethical ideal (Noddings 1984, 48-51)
which describes a relational approach to morality that is sensitive to
the particularities and context of moral questions. Accordingly, care
describes a practice that includes inquiry, empathetic connections,
and action as essential elements in service of the flourishing and
growth of beings. Care ethics entails a normative element, but
given the longer time horizon of relational thinking, care ethics is
concerned with more than adjudicating individual actions. Instead,
it always considers these actions as embedded in institutions, struc-
tures, and a political context. Actions on all levels done in the name
of “care” that divide, oppress, or disproportionately harm others are
not compatible with the moral striving that care ethicists are describ-
ing (cf. Tronto 1993, 125-137).
Second, a tension that motivates this volume is the lack of intel-
lectual dialogue between religious studies scholars and care ethics
scholars. Care ethics has received a great deal of scholarly attention,
particularly in business ethics, education, health care, philosophy,
and political theory. There are also emerging explorations of care in
anthropology, literature, performance studies, and social work. How-
ever, care ethics is a topic that is practically non-existent among
religious studies scholars. What is surprising about this absence is that
this lacuna is even true in the work of feminist religious studies schol-
ars. For example, in 1996, over a decade after Carol Gilligan’s In
A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development
(1984) first named an ethic of care, the volume Feminist Ethics and
the Catholic Moral Tradition was published. Although it contains
25contributed chapters from a variety of well-respected Catholic
feminist scholars in over 625 pages, there is no consideration of care
ethics, even though the many discussions of feminist ethics contain
resonances such as the valorization of contextualism. As of this writ-
ing, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion which was founded in
1985 and is self-described as “the oldest interdisciplinary, interreli-
gious feminist academic journal in religious studies” (Schüssler
Fiorenza 2020), has only had a few articles on care ethics and none
during the recent burgeoning of care scholarship. By comparison,
a search of the Journal of Business Ethics, which has no explicit
feminist character to its academic aims and scope (Freemand and
Greenwood 2020), reveals well over 50 articles addressing care ethics
since the 1980s. To be fair, in the Netherlands and Belgium, care
ethics has been elaborated from theological perspectives, for instance,
by Annelies van Heijst (2008, 2011), to whose work we will return
below. The majority of feminist care theorists, however, have only
occasionally addressed religion and spirituality themselves. Thus, there
is a notable lack of dialogue between the two fields of study. This
book is an effort to open up that dialogue and provoke further con-
versation regarding the relationship between care and religious stud-
ies. In the following sections, we address the historical relationship
between care, religion, and spiritual traditions and review the histori-
cal forays of feminist care theorists into the subject, as sparse as it is.
Engagements of Care Theorists with Religion and Spirituality
The dearth of writing by care ethicists on religion and spirituality has
been mentioned above. Despite this lack, there are a few care schol-
ars whose work does engage religion, and we explore some examples
in this introduction. This volume is intended to be inclusive, and so
we address both religions and spiritual traditions. In this context,
religion is viewed as organized beliefs and practices that entail insti-
tutional development and history. In this category, we include what
is often referred to as the world’s major religions such as Hinduism,
Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Although the distinction
between religion and spiritual traditions is not always clear cut, for
this project, the latter refers to beliefs and practices that are more
loosely organized in lacking large institutional hierarchies. In this
category, we include indigenous spiritualities, Confucianism, and new
spiritual movements. Of course, Confucianism is often categorized as
one of the world’s major religions, although it lacks a systematic
metaphysics. This leads to a debate about whether Confucianism and
other systems of thought are best understood as religions, spiritual
traditions, or secular humanist philosophies. This confusion is in part
because “spirit” and “spiritual” have rich and diverse meanings. Ulti-
mately, the distinction between religion and spiritual tradition is not
an evaluative one, nor is it significant to a care analysis. We employ
the categories of “religion” and “spiritual tradition” loosely as an
effort at an inclusive approach to the subject and remain neutral on
such metaphysical debates.
A founding mother of care ethics, Nel Noddings, has probably
offered the most volume of commentary regarding the relationship
between care ethics and religion. Writing only two years after Carol
Gilligan coined the term “ethic of care,” Noddings was the first phi-
losopher to offer a book-length exploration of care ethics. In her first
book on the subject, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Caring and Moral
Education, Noddings distinguishes between “natural caring” and “eth-
ical caring” (1984, 79). She contends that humans naturally tend to
care for familiar others—family and friends—with whom we share
proximity and time. Such caring is not always easy, but it is so
expected and routine that it appears to be natural. Noddings gives
natural care an originary position that takes more significant effort
and imagination to extend to unfamiliar others through what she
names ethical caring. Although social institutions often place ethical
caring as a moral ideal, they often fall short because “they demand
loyalty, insist upon the affirmations of certain beliefs, and separate
members from nonmembers on principle” (1984, 117). Noddings
claims that this failure is particularly true of religions because of their
“frequent insistence on obedience to rules and adherence to ritual
contributes to the erosion of genuine caring” (1984, 117). Noddings
goes on to author Women and Evil (1989), where she demonstrates
her knowledge of feminist theology by engaging figures like Mary
Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in
her interrogation of the underlying social narrative that associates
women with evil.
Women and Evil allows Noddings to develop further her theories
of care with a focus on institutions and gender oppression. Again,
religion does not fare well in this analysis. Noddings does not advo-
cate atheism or offer a blanket critique of religion and spiritual tradi-
tions, but she finds much harm in the history of organized religion.
For example, she claims that religion contributes to a form of “other-
ing” that can foment violence and war: “The notion that salvation
rests in our relation to God and not in our relation to other human
beings has often led to a devaluation of persons and a tendency to
place those with whom we differ outside the moral community”
(1989, 204). In 1991, Noddings delivered the annual John Dewey
Lecture on “Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief” (1993). This
work is not usually a significant text for care theorists as it does not
address care ethics at all. Interestingly enough, Noddings recom-
mends that all public schools should teach religion (1993, xv) and
give students the information, both positive and negative, as well as
the tools to assess the teachings of religion in an evidence-based
manner (139-144).
Noddings continues her concern about the connection between
religion and violence as she develops a social and political philosophy
of care in Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (2002a). In par-
ticular, she criticizes Christianity for making certain forms of suffering
acceptable: “Christianity has—in both its theological traditions and
ordinary pulpit preaching—promoted the idea that pain is deserved”
(2002a, 196). The premise of the book is that social policy should
take its cues from the ideal caring relationships associated with home
and family life. Thus, for Noddings, a concept like eternal damnation
does not make sense in the moral relationships found in the home
where, ideally, forgiveness and compassion should reside. Noddings
recognizes that many Christians have jettisoned beliefs such as hell
and damnation, but the legacy of these religious constructs remains
(2002a, 196). Noddings, a professor of philosophy and education,
renews her critique of religion in her writings about moral education.
In Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education
(2002b), Noddings is concerned about modern efforts at character
education in schools which she suggests is too focused on instilling
virtues. Although care ethics is often associated with virtue theory,
given that care is clearly neither deontological or utilitarian, she finds
virtue ethics too individualistic. For Noddings, care’s relational ontol-
ogy distinguishes it from virtue theory. Thus any character education
that emphasizes traditional virtues is missing the significance of the
fundamental relationality of humanity (2002b, xiii). Furthermore, she
suggests that character education of religion is flawed in its implicit
endorsement of problematic masculine virtues. For example, Noddings
criticizes the valorization of a warrior model marked by individualism,
hyper-competitiveness, and hierarchical thinking (2002b, 110).
Although she finds the peace and compassion-oriented teachings of
Jesus compatible with care, there exists an embedded warrior model:
“Jesus, while counseling his followers against violence, promised that
God would mete out justice in destruction of the wicked” (2002b,
104). Despite Noddings’ misgivings, which some care ethicists share,
other writers in this volume see potential in the ways that religion,
spirituality, and care can overlap and enhance one another.
The 1980s was a time when a coalescence of ideas helped form
what would become care ethics. Still, as with any paradigm shift,
rather than a flipping of a switch, there was a groundswell of move-
ment toward a new way of thinking about ethics and humanity. One
significant voice in this trajectory was Catherine Keller. In From
A Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self, Keller does not explicitly
name an ethic of care, but her discussion of ontological relationality
resonates strongly with the work of care theorists, especially in her
use of Carol Gilligan. Keller weaves gender, sexuality, mythology, and
religion into a lament about how the social imagination has valorized
separateness from a variety of sources, including popular conceptions
of god (1986, 35) to the patriarchal differentiation of men and women
(1986, 38). Keller’s analysis is thorough and nuanced; however, it is
not a critique of religion and spirituality per se. Instead, her concern
is with dominant institutional and theological manifestations of reli-
gion. She argues that under different conditions, religion could be
a powerful force for connectedness among people (1986, 225). How-
ever, according to Keller, religious institutions and their theologies
have more often than not reified separateness: “Religion defining
holiness as separation has made itself into the bearer of barriers, of
disconnection, of exclusion” (1986, 219). This separateness runs
counter to our composite identity. Keller declares, “I am many” (1986,
228) in affirming the web metaphor of self as multiplicity: “my many
selves as the fabric of other persons, plants, places—all the actual
entities that have become part of me” (1986, 227). Keller ends her
argument on a hopeful note by integrating the notion of relational
ontology with a process theology in claiming that rather than
a detached and abstract omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity, there
exists the possibility of a god that is always becoming and unfolding
in the web of existence (1986, 248-252). Keller’s work represented
a type of proto-care ethics that recognized the significance of spiritu-
ality in people’s lives.
Relational ontology was also at the center of a discussion in 2007
at a symposium sponsored by The St. Thomas Law Review titled,
“Workplace Restructuring to Accommodate Family Life.” One panel
of the symposium was composed of Roman Catholic feminist legal
scholars as well as Eva Feder Kittay, a prolific and highly regarded
care philosopher. Kittay was invited to represent a secular feminist
position (2007, 468). During the paper presentations, care ethics was
framed as a secular approach over and against religious approaches.
In her presentation, Kittay made it clear that as much as she values
the feminist religious tradition, such as the Catholic feminists men-
tioned earlier, there is a distinction in how she approaches human
dignity. Care plays a central role in that distinction:
I really do welcome the writings of religious feminists who emphasize
love, care, and human vulnerability, an emphasis that stands in contrast
to an often constricting and obsessive valuing of the human capacity for
rationality. Contrast the conception of dignity that predominates in phi-
losophy with the one dominant in religious traditions. Philosophical
treatments of human dignity tend to be based on our ability to reason.
Human dignity as conceived within religious traditions derives from the
idea that we are all created in the divine image, that we are all children
of God. While I feel an affinity to attributions of dignity that are not
based on the capacity for reason, I don’t think that appeal to a personal
deity is the only alternative. In other work, I have argued for a notion of
dignity grounded in the care humans are both able to give and receive,
not, if you will, in the idea that we are all children of God, but a secular
analogue, the idea that we are all “some mother’s child” (2007, 469).
Employing Martin Luther King Jr. as an example, Kittay describes
what she shares with those of religious faith on issues of social and
political importance as an “overlapping consensus” (2007, 471) which
is possible in a pluralist society. Kittay takes issue with the presenta-
tion of Susan J. Stabile (2007), who argues that one of the primary
differences between Catholic and secular feminism is that the latter
is committed to equality and individualism to the point of denigra-
tion of familial care (2007, 435). To support her position, Stabile
quotes the work of Elizabeth Fox Genovese in Feminism and the
Unraveling of the Social Bond (2007, 436), a historian who converted
to Catholicism and became a leading anti-feminist voice in the
United States. Stabile concludes her presentation by delineating
commonalities and differences between feminists and religious schol-
ars. Beyond the shared commitment for better valuation of the work
done in the home between secular and religious feminists, Stabile
claims, “The primacy of the traditional family in Catholic thought,
combined with an acceptance of immutable differences between men
and women, means that there will be points along this road where
the paths of Catholic and secular feminist will part company” (2007,
468). Kittay responds with a review of some of the relational work
done in feminist psychology and philosophy. She clarifies that “secu-
lar feminists are united in fierce commitment to equality, but not to
individualism” (2007, 475). On many fronts, Kittay found resonance
between the two positions but vigilantly criticizes the advocacy
of traditional familial structures and theological positions of exclu-
sions rather than the moral obligations that human dependency
It is hard for this secular feminist to understand why, when religious
feminists want to emphasize relationality, the value of caring labor, equal
dignity of each individual, the importance of raising children and caring
for those who cannot care for themselves, the emphasis is not on the
units of dependency relations rather than the family as understood and
constituted by patriarchy. So here there is a real divide. Predictably,
I would urge the religious feminists to come over to our side, for in my
perspective, it is far more consistent with all their other feminist posi-
tions and attitudes towards care (2007, 484).
This panel occurred well over a decade before this publication, but it
is one of the rarely documented dialogues on care ethics and Chris-
tianity. Given the work of feminist theologians such as the Catholic
feminists mentioned earlier, it is a pressing question whether the
criticisms of Kittay and other care ethicists are justified. Given
the rise of care ethics literature, one might speculate that Christian
feminists and religious feminists of all faiths might have more to say
about comparative moral approaches.
Care as A Lens of Analysis for Historical Religious Practices
Care scholarship is concerned with more than the theoretical inter-
section between religion, spirituality, and care. Care ethics is rooted
in human, embodied experiences which points to the value of phe-
nomenological and ethnographic examinations of particular rela-
tional occurrences. Dutch feminist theologian and path-breaking care
ethicist Annelies van Heijst (2008) offers one such case example.
She sets up a dialogue between care ethical theory and historical
religious practices of care, performed by a congregation of Catholic
Sisters in the Netherlands between 1852 and 2002. The limited scope
of this case study may, according to Van Heijst, still be revealing of
broader practices performed by apostolic nuns, which had a very simi-
lar lifestyle throughout Western Europe, Scandinavia, the US, and
Canada (2008, 2). The congregation studied was the ‘Sisters of “The
Providence,”’ which served the lowest strata of society, founding and
staffing ‘52 institutes for childcare and education, nursing care and
social service’, and their works spread to Indonesia, Brazil and Tan-
zania as well (2008, 1). Looking at their practices now, in 2021, with
knowledge of both post-colonialism and the widespread sexual abuse
in Catholic institutions, could lead to a general rejection and discard-
ing of such caring practices, and of the book. Still, we believe that
this would be unjust to the nuanced work on care ethics and religious
practice that Van Heijst has performed, as well as to the literal life-
saving works of the Sisters, despite obvious and well-argued criticism.
Van Heijst literally raised this criticism before evidence of such prac-
tices in the Netherlands came to light. Two years after her publica-
tions, the accusations of physical and sexual abuse by church officials,
and the structural nature of its cover-up, finally gained public atten-
tion in the Netherlands. The darkest pages of this history were offi-
cially uncovered in a thorough investigation by an independent,
high-profile committee1 starting in 2010, with devastating results
regarding the Church’s record of misconduct. Understandably, the
tide of public opinion has shifted regarding the general image of reli-
gious care and education to one of concern and suspicion. However,
oversimplified visions were voiced as well. Van Heijst’s work can
count as an early and thorough critical analysis and one of the pio-
neering works that published the voices of those entrusted to this
care. This is why we believe it is justified to underscore the impor-
tance of her work.
Van Heijst’s study distinguishes itself in various respects. First, she
analyses the religious practices of care as rooted in religion. She draws
upon theology as a hermeneutical tool to understand the religious
meaning expressed in these particular practices. She describes the
theological concepts that underpinned the religious care visions as
expressed in the normative writings of the congregation (Ch. 7) as
well as in their daily practices (Ch. 8) and how they were remodelled
over time (Ch. 9). Her analysis is far too detailed to do justice to here
but shows an interesting tension between those concepts that put the
Sisters on the track of a referential worthiness of children themselves
as referring to the Divine Child (i.e. Jesus), and those that made
them detach themselves from the natural world and any ‘affectionate
bonding with human individuals’ and instead ‘strive for supernatural
love’, that is the love of God through ascetic mortification (2008,
250). This tension reveals how theology might simultaneously propel
and hinder a caring practice. These opposite and irreconcilable mean-
ings are expressed by both care recipients and Sisters throughout Van
Heijst’s book, as well as their consequences in practice. For instance,
the Sisters themselves expressed how they were forbidden to create
special bonds with the children in their care, which reflects the
1 The committee’s chair was former Minister of Education, President of the
Dutch Parliament and Mayor of The Hague, Wim Deetman. The research committee
consisted of a clinical psychiatrist, a former judge, professors in psychology, (reli-
gious) history, and philosophy of science. Further expertise was offered by a sound
board group, which served as a reading committee, with the task to warrant the
independence and quality of the conducted research.
criticism much expressed by the care recipients that the Sisters
treated them in an emotionally detached way. Also, their own asceti-
cism and bodily disregard often led to ambiguity regarding pain for
themselves, but also for others. This raises questions regarding care
for both themselves and the children in their care. Simultaneously,
however, both some Sisters and care recipients express how, when
nobody witnessed them, there were experiences of connection, being
seen and heard, pleasure and playfulness, which were rare, and (there-
fore) very special.
Second, Van Heijst presents a historical example of care practice
to care ethics, and by doing so, she contributes to the purpose of
making care theory more practice-based (2008, 27). Departing from
the analysis of the historic practices, Van Heijst offers a touchstone
of Tronto’s theory and highlights elements that are downplayed there.
One of the most relevant for the present volume is that Van Heijst’s
case study unambiguously shows that the ethics of care up to that
point had insufficiently recognized the importance of religion. She
argues that Tronto’s phased model of care should particularly include
the recognition that religion is often vital for what motivates people
to care for others in the first place as well as to keep them involved
in these caring practices. Tronto’s third phase that is the phase in
which the actual carework is performed, people’s religious beliefs his-
torically have incited them to build “an impressive praxis of care and
education for the most vulnerable groups in society and for middle-
class Catholics as well. [T]hey transformed social reality […] by prac-
ticing Christian neighbourly love and committing themselves to
needy people and to God” (2008, 372). Literally, tens of thousands
of religious people were involved in these works, also in parts of the
Netherlands where, and particularly for social groups for whom such
provisions were not established by the government.
Thirdly, Van Heijst applies Joan Tronto’s theory for examining this
historical care practice. Tronto’s phased model of care is particularly
adequate, as it helps to evaluate the historical practice on various
levels, such as the political context, the institutional level (organiz-
ing, coordinating, and financing charitable care), and the level of
daily practice of caregiving and care receiving. Van Heijst reinter-
prets Tronto’s model as a standpoint epistemology, a theoretical
approach developed in ethnic and women’s studies, by connecting
the care phases with actual positions that people have (2008, 28-29).
Prompted by the ethics of care, Van Heijst gives specific weight to
the standpoint of recipients of this charity work, who are critical of
the standards of good care that were applied (2008, 361-365). Nev-
ertheless, their evaluations are varied. Some show appreciation for
the care as it entailed an improvement of their previous condition.
For them, this care was lifesaving in situations where their next of kin
were dead, or incapable or unwilling to give care (2008, 361-362).
The negative evaluations concern the aforementioned lack of per-
sonal attention (2008, 362), but also the common practice of splitting
up brothers and sisters in various age and gender groups. The effect
was that children growing up in the orphanages of the Poor Sisters
often did not know of the existence of their siblings (2008, 362).
By including these multiple standpoints, Van Heijst also serves
another goal, that is: filling existing gaps in remarkably one-sided
literature. This onesidedness, for instance, exists in the neglect of the
Catholic tradition in the Netherlands while focusing on Protestant
or socialist care and welfare provisions; or a focus on the male Catho-
lic tradition while neglecting the female religious who were the large
majority; or to an uncritically negative or positive bias regarding
these practices; or the representation of only one perspective (primar-
ily that of the caregivers and especially their institutions). Another
consequence of applying Tronto’s theory is that Van Heijst’s book
includes an analysis of the social and (church-)political context in
the nineteenth and twentieth century in the Netherlands. In this
way, she elaborates care ethics in order to provide a hermeneutic,
political-ethical tool for past religious, caring practices.
In sum, Van Heijst’s book offers a rich analysis of the complex
relations between care, power, and faith in historical care practices.
She also reveals the reality of care practices in the context of religion
and spirituality: the evaluative dichotomies that we gravitate toward,
such as care/not care, are wholly inadequate. Care is sometimes
shadowed by damage. Religion can motivate great efforts of care, and
yet it leverages power and privilege that also can inflict harm. That
tension is an undercurrent throughout this book.
Comparative Spiritual Studies
Interestingly enough, there have been some robust non-Western
interchanges between scholars regarding care and spirituality. Perhaps
the most mature of these has been the dialogue between care ethics
and Confucianism. Chenyang Li (1994) offers a comparative study of
care ethics and Confucian concept of jen, a term that combines both
affection and virtue (1994, 72). Li concludes that Confucianism and
care ethics share an alternative conception of human relations that
eschews a contractarian approach in favor of moral ideals (1994,
71-75), a lack of formulaic rules (1994, 75-79), and a moral partial-
itythat originates with familiar others and extends outward to less-
familiar others (1994, 79-81). Li acknowledges that Confucianism
lacks the gender analysis inherent in care ethics and that recent
manifestations of Confucianism have exhibited sexism and misogyny,
although this oppression is not apparent in the original accounts
(1994, 81-85). In a 2002 response to Li, Lijun Yuan disputes the
notion that Confucianism can be feminist. In particular, she cites
sexist passages in The Analects and finds that the message of jen would
have been directed toward men (2002, 113). Yuan concludes that jen
fails to meet the test of feminism because it was never employed in
“challenging traditional forms of domination in a hierarchy society”
(2002, 125). In that same issue of Hypatia, Daniel Star also critiques
Li by arguing that Confucianism is much more like a virtue ethic
than the relational ethic of care (2002). Star is not making a value
judgment, but, like Noddings’ criticisms of virtue-based character
education, he points out the more individualistic character of Confu-
cian morality. Li is given an opportunity to reply to the rebuttals of
both Yuan and Star. He finds both critiques lacking and reiterates his
position that care ethics has more in common with Confucianism
than other Western forms of ethics. Beyond this dialogue in the pages
of Hypatia, there have been other studies that explore the
relationship between care ethics and Confucianism (Herr 2013;
Sander-Staudt 2015). Li returned to the pages of Hypatia in 2015 to
review care ethics and Confucianism scholarly dialogue. Yuan goes
on to develop a book-length comparative study of care ethics and
Confucianism, where she reconciles care ethics with a reformed ver-
sion of neo-Confucianism (2019). The study is wide-ranging and
addresses relational ontology, methodology, reciprocity, and even
offers a closing case study through an analysis of China’s population
policy. Other spiritual traditions have received far less attention
regarding their relation to care ethics than Confucianism.
Vrinda Dalmiya integrates an Indian epic associated with Hindu-
ism, Mahaˉbhaˉrata to make a point about relational humility in
Caring to Know: Comparative Care Ethics, Feminist Epistemology, and
the Mahaˉbhaˉrata (2016). Dalmiya frames a complex epistemic conclu-
sion by drawing from ancient stories:
The notion of care refracted through the conceptual lens of the
Mahaˉbhaˉrata can… plug some of the lacunae in virtue epistemology that
takes relational humility to be foundational. This interdependence of
caring and knowing—of need fulfilment and of effectively grasping the
world—makes relational humility that underlies both a truly hybrid vir-
tue (2016, 28).
Dalmiya is not offering a spiritual or religious analysis. Still, she is
drawing from texts with spiritual significance to argue that truth-
seeking is linked to caring and being cared for. Similarly, the African
concept of ubuntu, meaning “I am because you are”, describes an
ethos of humanity toward others is more a cultural term than explic-
itly religious or spiritual. Yet, ubuntu and its relational ontology have
had spiritual applications, as in the work of Desmond Tutu (Battle
2009). There have been many favorable comparative explorations of
care and ubuntu (Chisale 2018; Gouws and Van Zyl 2015; Hall et al.
2013; Waghid and Smeyers 2012). Given its role as a moral, social
spirit, ubuntu may provide an intriguing means for better understand-
ing a communal ethos of care.
As care ethics grows in its international theoretical development
and application, further interaction with religion and spirituality is
warranted, given that religion has a history of being a crucial social
harbinger of moral thinking about care and caring. We hope that this
collection is a step toward a richer dialogue.
Chapters in this Book
In what follows, we offer a brief summary of the chapters which make
up this volume.
A significant theme of care ethics is how dominant systems of
thought exclude and marginalize “the different voice” of care. In the
first section, the authors explore how religions and spiritual traditions
can determine who has the authority to speak in religious contexts
and why. A care ethical study of religion raises questions about epis-
temic authority and which religious values are most compatible with
care. Addressing the latter problem, in “Care Ethics and Forgiveness:
Lessons and Errors from the Christian tradition,” philosopher Ruth
Groenhout interrogates the theme of forgiveness in Christianity from
the standpoint of care ethics. In this investigation, Groenhout high-
lights a contrast between religious and philosophical ethics. Whereas
western philosophy has focused on adjudicating the morality of
actions, which gives forgiveness a minimal role, religion often privi-
leges forgiveness by focusing on building a moral community. Given
the fundamental relationality of care, one might assume that forgive-
ness is a topic where some forms of religion and care ethics might
resonate strongly. As Groenhout describes, “Just as forgiveness is cru-
cial to care ethics, it is also crucial to a Christian ethics of love.”
Indeed, while traditional treatments of ethics focus on decision-
making moments, forgiveness is a recognition of the temporal dimen-
sion inherent in a moral relationship. According to Groenhout, “For-
giveness allows the relationship to continue, allows the one harming
to (sometimes) recognize and apologize without fearing harsh retribu-
tion, and allows the one harmed to let go of anger and pain in many
cases.” However, Groenhout details how there have been abuses of
forgiveness in religious formulations. She calls on care theorists to be
vigilant regarding the feminist origins of care ethics, whereby power
and privilege are named and held in check. Religion provides a case
example to motivate that vigilance. Groenhout views forgiveness as
a subject that requires both personal and political elements of care to
separate punishment and accountability issues. For Groenhout, “for-
giveness remains the agent’s to choose, not another’s to demand, that
forgiveness is never allocated to the powerful to control in order to
protect their power, and that forgiveness never is primarily structured
as absolving the wrongdoer from accountability.”
The incompatibility of care ethics with religious dogma is addressed
in the chapter “Against Moral Certainty and Authority: How Dog-
matic Religious Ethics is Incompatible with Care Ethics” by Maurice
Hamington. Hamington focuses on the authority of sacred texts.
Religious leaders can diminish the ability to care when religion is
taken too seriously: “the critique from the standpoint of care ethics
is not with religion per se but with moral ideology and dogmatism
whereby moral authority is not questioned.” Hamington employs the
example of the events surrounding John Allen Chau’s death, a young
and charismatic fundamentalist religious missionary who attempted
to proselytize to a small isolated indigenous community, the Senti-
nelese. Chau believed he was doing good in the form of “God’s will”
for the Sentinelese. Still, the question remains whether he actually
cared about the Sentinelese and whether the fundamentalist religious
communities that supported Chau cared about him. Hamington sug-
gests that care ethics is anti-authoritarian in that authentic caring is
responsive to particular individuals in particular circumstances.
According to Hamington, the certainty and authority that come with
deontological formulations of religious morality can interfere with the
responsiveness to the totality and complexity of the other. Respon-
siveness is an essential element of effective care. Hamington argues
that although many religions teach humility, the certainty and
authority of some religious communities belie that humility. He
claims that the openness to the other in caring responsiveness requires
humility rather than certainty.
In a similar consideration of care ethics’ compatibility with certain
religious conceptual traditions, the compatibility of care ethics with
Jewish abstraction is the focus of philosopher Sarah Zager’s “The Pain
of Imagining Others: Caring for the Abstract and the Particular in
Jewish Thought.” This chapter makes an important theoretical argu-
ment regarding feminist care ethics, and yet is also profoundly per-
sonal. In a careful textual analysis, Zager critiques the underlying
religious assumptions in the work of Virginia Held and Nel Noddings
regarding the eschewing of abstraction in favor of particularism. Zager
opens up the imaginary of caring by addressing the care for abstract
others as revealed in Jewish feminist care ethics. She claims, “Jewish
versions of care ethics take on a distinctive shape and adopt distinc-
tive versions of care ethics’ critique of abstraction.” To argue for more
attention to caring for abstract others, Zager shares her own chal-
lenges with premature ovarian insufficiency, which resulted in her
freezing her eggs as she was not ready to have children. She reflects
on genuinely caring for her eggs. For Zager, these eggs are mere
abstractions of fully formed humans: the people they may become.
She wonders how her care for an abstraction fits into Held and
Noddings’ care theory, which tend to emphasize care for particular
others capable of caring reciprocity. For Zager, the significance of
a frozen egg was, “less as a clump of biological material… than as an
imagined person, someone who made a kind of ethical demand of me,
but who was not yet a full-fledged, embodied person with particular
features.” Zager thoughtfully problematizes the standard feminist care
dichotomy between the particular and the universal and finds balance
in recent Jewish care literature which “rejects abstract philosophical
anthropologies, while retaining a strong emphasis on moral obliga-
tion, and on ritual practices structured by rules.”
Feminist philosopher Maureen Sander-Staudt likewise draws from
her family history in the chapter “Theological Spelunking with Care
Ethics: Caring Ethical Standards for Relational Maintenance across
Religious Pluralities.” Considering the religious-relational trouble
caused by her mother’s conversion from Catholicism to Lutheranism,
Sander-Staudt raises questions about how care ethics can best reach
across religious differences and discontent. Using Plato’s allegory
of the cave to frame the epistemic hazards of such a study as one of
“theological spelunking,” Sander-Staudt establishes care ethical
standards for religious teachings and practices, dialectically examin-
ing Nel Noddings’ claim that care and Christian ethics are “irrecon-
cilable.” After finding cause to accept Noddings’ argument partially,
she qualifies it but concurs that care ethics is incompatible with reli-
gious teachings and practices that inflict wanton relational damage.
She uses the resulting care ethical standards to explore how a care
ethical approach might differ from a liberal justice approach in
responding to religious difference, plurality, and dissidence. She con-
cludes “writ large” with a case study of an ethical response to the
Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (FDLS). FDLS com-
munities practice extremist versions of Mormonism which are explic-
itly condemned by the larger Mormon Church and secular laws, but
as such, pose challenges to the basic tenets of care ethics.
Looking more carefully at the very notion of spirituality, Italian
philosopher Luigina Mortari interrogates the nature of spirituality
regarding an ethic of care in “Spiritual Care: The Spiritual Side Of
A Culture Of Care.” This sweeping analysis takes us on a journey
that includes Ancient Greek philosophy, Continental Philosophy,
ontology, epistemology, empirical research, and poet-philosopher
Maria Zambrano’s work, among others. Mortari argues that there is
an ontological call to care as an essential technique for living.
Accordingly, Mortari finds the examined life a necessity: “To con-
ceive the technique of living means having the knowledge and wis-
dom of care; in other words, knowing what good care is, and how to
put it into practice.” Mortari leverages a Platonic notion of the soul
to frame a spiritual pursuit of care as a quest for the good and not just
an ethical determination of what is right. She states, “the practice of
care teaches me that it is not only necessary to search for a concrete,
immanent idea of good embodied in the daily life (about this, it is
possible to speak of a materialistic spirituality as the generative matrix
of care ethics), but also to cultivate a manner of thinking that is
congruent with both the human limits of thinking and the essence
of care.” Seldom do care theorists present care ethics in the broad-
brush strokes that Mortari’s epic narrative offers. This chapter
may not be a typical philosophical analysis of care, but it suggests
several provocative insights into the relationship between care and
The second grouping of chapters in this volume looks at care eth-
ics and religion in the context of embodiment, gender, and the fam-
ily. This focus considers the roles of the body, femininity and mascu-
linity, and family relations in religions and spiritual traditions, and
how religious norms and institutions can inform sexuality in more or
less caring ways. To begin, care ethicist Inge van Nistelrooij argues
for a new turn in care ethics. After the ‘political turn’ of the 1990s,
when the majority of care ethicists abandoned the focus on mother-
ing practices in which the works of Gilligan, Noddings, and Ruddick
were rooted, Van Nistelrooij argues for a renewed and distinct atten-
tion to the subject of maternity. She argues that the experience of
maternity – i.e., pregnancy, labor, lactation – is of a particular kind
that makes mothers (be they female, male, non-binary, trans- or
intersex, or other) still vulnerable to oppression, exploitation, and
violence. Then, taking two artworks by Louise Bourgeois as heuristic
guides, Van Nistelrooij explores the works of Ruddick (1989), Rich
(1986), and Keller (2003) to give a new impetus to thinking about
the mother’s body in care, worship, and theology. Surprisingly, reli-
gion has not only been detrimental to women’s and mothers’ experi-
ences, but religious representations and (remnants of) texts can also
help reinvigorate the meaning of our coming into life through some-
body else’s body and of the experience of giving life. Particularly, the
elements of fluidity and becoming help explore maternity as politi-
cally and morally relevant today and avoid the pitfalls of the pioneer-
ing care ethics’ works on maternity. Ultimately, Van Nistelrooij con-
cludes by suggesting a reformulation of Fisher and Tronto’s famous
definition of care, one that accounts for maternity in a new way. By
including processes of becoming, caring can be viewed as less anthro-
pocentric and less agentic. As such, it can avoid essentializing, natu-
ralizing, or containing maternity to one gender, the private setting,
and can gain renewed moral and political relevance.
As the next chapter demonstrates, masculinity, religion, and spiri-
tuality are worth equal scrutiny from a care ethical point of view.
Because care ethics developed out of feminist analysis and was rooted
in women’s traditionally under-valued experience, understandably,
there has not been as much written about care and masculinity. This
absence is changing as care ethics grows in popularity across a variety
of disciplines. Martin Robb, who has written extensively about mas-
culinity in the context of care, furthers this vital conversation in
“‘With Prayer from Your Loving Father’: Men, Masculinity, Faith and
Care.” The chapter begins on a personal note, with Robb sharing
excerpts of letters from his great grandfather to his grandfather. He
leverages these letters in the context of Christian Methodism to
argue for a Christian masculinity compatible with care theory. In
particular, Robb challenges the notion that Christian masculinity was
handed down as a monolith. On the one hand, he acknowledges that
one form of Christian manliness was reinforced as “neo-Spartan viril-
ity as exemplified by stoicism, hardiness, and endurance” by Christian
and quasi-Christian social institutions. However, that form of mascu-
linity existed in tension with a narrative that Robb finds revealed in
his great grandfather’s letters where “the emotional spirituality of
Methodism offers him a language in which to openly express his love
for his son” as in closing his letters with kisses. Robb concludes with
a note about the significance of imagination for care. Although the
tendency is to address care theory in the rational and analytic tradi-
tion of Western academic theory, he contends there is a need for an
“imaginative superstructure to inform and motivate care” that reli-
gion can provide.
The third chapter in this section highlights some of the harms that
can be wrought by well-meaning and caringly motivated but mis-
guided applications of religious norms to sexual identities and prac-
tices. In his chapter “Theologically Motivated Conversion Therapy
and Care Epistemology,” Steven Steyl explores how deficiencies in
care ethical, epistemological dispositions misdirect some care-givers
into choosing conversion therapies for themselves or their care recip-
ients on the basis of religious belief. While motivations for conver-
sion therapies are not inherently theological, Steyl focuses his analy-
sis on therapies motivated by spiritual teachings that lead caregivers
to conclude that conversion therapy is morally good or permissible
on theological grounds. After laying out harms associated with these
therapies, he delineates “epistemic missteps” in the attentive, evalu-
ative, and pragmatic phases of care. These missteps lead to harmful
applications of psychotherapeutic conversion therapies designed to
“sexually reorient individuals whose sexual orientation is deemed in
some way undesirable.” Steyl argues that the harms of conversion
therapy admit to “fecundity,” a phrase coined by Utilitarian philoso-
pher Jeremey Bentham to indicate pains/pleasures that compound. To
rectify the missteps of religiously based conversion therapies, Steyl
develops a positive care ethical epistemology that emphasizes epis-
temic virtues and dispositions and denounces the corresponding sub-
vices of inattention.
Family life and parenthood are standard themes of many religions.
As the fourth contribution in this section demonstrates, the promise
of the caring aspects of parent-child relations is not always religiously
explicit, especially for fathers. In his chapter “To Shelter an Egyptian
Firstborn: The Revelatory Potential of Care Ethics in Jewish Thought,”
Jason Rubenstein considers a seeming gap on parenthood in Talmudic
teaching, evident in Rabbinic alienation from their own children in
favor of students. Rubenstein’s chapter is a self-defined “search for
spiritual ancestors” and “attempt… to realize some of the liberatory
potential feminism offers to men…defined by our caring work, and
to Torah itself”. Rubenstein uses his experiences as a Jewish scholar
and father to explore the value of feminism for the Torah and Jewish
people, traditionally bifurcated into women who exclusively care for
others and men who only study. Rubenstein notes that what is at
stake “is not whether the rabbis performed childrearing work, but
how they appraised the value of childrearing work.” Drawing inspira-
tion from the poetry of Merle Felde, Talmudic stories such as that of
Rabbi Akiva visiting his ailing student, and Nancy Hartsock’s Marx-
ian feminist standpoint theory, Rubenstein extracts the liberational
possibility of caring work in Rabbinic thought. Against masculinities
rooted in hierarchical dualisms and abstractions, Rubenstein uses
Rabbinic texts to highlight the Torah’s most prominent reflections on
care. They include retellings of the story of Exodus, which recount
God’s care for vulnerable babies birthed in the fields by Israelite
women enslaved in Egypt, and the efforts of these same Israelite moth-
ers, in defiance of God, to save first born Egyptian sons doomed by
God’s final plague. Such stories “point the way to a more humane and
more Divine future, to the recreation of holy time”, but also to the
“irreducible ambivalence held by parents whose children are the ben-
eficiaries of injustice.” Rubenstein affirms that the potential of such
stories is to show that human caring and the memory of caring and
being cared for might be understood as the foundation of the Torah,
such that “the fundamental nature of the Torah, its alpha and omega,
is a type of caring work.”
The final chapter in this section considers religious influences on
the educational aspects of care ethics, especially as pertaining to sex
education. In her chapter, “Care, the Sacred, and Sex Education in
Slovakia,” feminist philosopher Adriana Jesenková discusses the
Christian church’s exclusive grip on sex education in post-communist
Slovakia. After the Fall of Communism (1989), a strict separation
between the public and private sphere allowed the (particularly
Roman-Catholic) Church to gain exclusive control over questions
concerning sexual morality, to focus upon the sacredness of the family
and the home, and to keep this sphere out of reach of human rights
claims and sexual health issues. Misinformation, lack of information,
and discriminatory attitudes have led to detrimental outcomes for the
most vulnerable, particularly women and gender minorities. Looking
from a care ethics perspective, Jesenková finds the concept of the
sacred crucial for bridging the respective gaps between religious and
ethics education and the public and the private sphere. Building
upon the work of Tronto (2013) and Sevenhuijsen (1998), Jesenková
argues for equal opportunities for all in a democratic society, for
which proper sex education is vital to cultivate healthy sexuality and
to develop young people as relational social beings. For this, it is
important to reconceptualize the sacred as that which does not
revolve around rigid religiosity but rather around care and identity
formation as an inextricable part of building a democratic society of
equals that protects and develops the vulnerable. Jesenková turns to
Noddings (2002) and Young (2010) for this. Noddings offers a view
of the sacred home as a place of creatively and adequately responding
to the needs of every member of that home, as well as where the
ability to create such homes is cultivated. Young describes caring for
bodies, home, and environment as a variable practice of identity for-
mation in a critical reflection on value and (spiritual) meaning. This
reconceptualization contests the home as sacred and helps overcome
the dichotomy of private and public sphere. For if the sacred lies not
in rigid religion but in a caring approach to all, sex education can no
longer be considered as a privilege of religion but as a democratic
right for all.
The third and final section of this volume contains chapters
exploring care ethics, religion, and spiritual traditions in the context
of justice. These chapters’ common theme is how justice can be best
achieved through religiously infused versions of democratic commu-
nity building and relational preservation as associated with an ethics
of care. The first chapter of this section, “In the Desert with Hajar:
An Islamic and Care-Based Approach to Disability Justice,” by Sarah
Munawar, explores the care ethical, medical, and religious limitations
that became evident after her father suffered a debilitating stroke and
cardiac arrest. Munawar traces the de-colonial potential of a care-
based and Islamic approach to disability justice that enables Muslims
to interpret disability differently as a source of ongoing revelation.
Rather than interpreting her family’s experiences as the tragic destruc-
tion of her father’s body or her and her mother’s requisite shift to
invisible care-giving, Munawar explores the revelatory potential of
these transformations embedded as they are in relational networks
of secondary dependency through the story of the exile of the slave
Hajar and her infant into the desert. Critical of standard Islamic
medical discourses about care and disability within Islamic legal
scholarship, as well as the multiple colonialisms that influence the
treatment of disabled Muslims within medical-industrial complexes,
Munawar finds in both “imperial attitudes” that locate the Muslim
disabled as bodies without being and located outside of time. Munawar
uses the story of Hajar to challenge the ideas that disability is to be
understood as divine punishment, misfortune, test, or noble pain that
makes one more proximate to Allah, asking why it cannot lead
instead to richer and more substantial networks of care based on
doula. She posits that because a care-based epistemology of Islam is
inherently relational, it can partner with feminist care ethics to
reveal how multiple colonialisms interlock to disenfranchise disabled
Muslims and Muslim caregivers.
Similarly, in “Mother Eberly’s Coin: Care Ethics, Democratic Poli-
tics, and North American Mennonite Women’s Movements,” reli-
gion scholar Jamie Pitts interrogates how religious movements and
discourses can contribute to and expand the democratic work of care
ethics. As he explains, what Pitts is proposing runs counter to stan-
dard framings of justice, which view religious discourse as antithetical
to democracy. Pitts contends that caring religious discourse can have
a democratizing effect on religious communities and their influence
in society. In particular, Pitts addresses the historical experience of
Mennonite women and the Anabaptist tradition. Pitts recognizes
that not all religious care discourse supports democratic caring, but
he wants to demonstrate a particular counterexample to resist a blan-
ket stereotype of religiosity as undemocratic. Pitts offers a careful and
balanced history of Mennonite women in Europe and the United
States and how their commitment to social care is a driving force for
the community. He characterizes this history as “women bringing to
voice their experience as carers so that the full scope of their interests
and values might be taken seriously within their communities.” Pitts
finds that within their struggle, Mennonite women politicized their
care work in such a way that democratized their religious communi-
ties. Ultimately, for Pitts, Mennonite women develop a religious
rather than a secular form of democratic caring: “It is care ethics in
a religious voice.”
In the third chapter of this section, “Reimagining Justice as Pre-
servative Care for Sustained Peace,” author Robert Ruehl uses indig-
enous spiritual traditions to enhance care ethics’ ability to rethink
a classic understanding of justice. Ruehl argues that a conception of
justice rooted in desert, based on “getting what one deserves,” is lim-
ited because it overlooks whether rewards and burdens distributed by
desert genuinely benefit the individual or their wider relations. Justice
as it pertains to an excellent, thriving person, such as those accounts
found in Plato and Cicero, make room for caring for particular rela-
tionships and should expand to include non-human relatives, specific
places, and ecosystems because of how they can facilitate sustained
peace. Indigenous philosophies enlarge care to impart justice with
more than the mere avoidance of violence among humans, in part by
reorienting the property and ownership relations of Western tradi-
tion. In Indigenous spiritual traditions, the earth and its resources do
not belong to humans. Rather, humans belong to the places and
things that nurture them. Humans have been given the gift of life
within fragile but sustaining relationships, and a good human being
not only shows gratitude but reciprocally cares for all aspects of their
gifted, sustaining relationships. Such a conception of justice empha-
sizes the vital importance of “a positive peace that seeks to cultivate
and sustain thriving relationships and lives for seven generations to
Finally, addressing the need for spiritual and caring remedies to
environmental degradation, Kimberley Parzuchowski turns to the
urgent ecological question of the ‘fouling of our nest’ by humans in
technologically advanced countries. Despite the abundant proof of
endangered or destroyed ecosystems, the ecological changes that are
required for our survival are not achieved. According to Parzuchowski,
the failure is twofold: we fail to see the need, and we fail to care. To
solve this failure of care, she argues, requires that we understand our
ecological crisis not only as a moral but also as a spiritual crisis. Par-
zuchowski draws upon care ethical notions of dependency, particu-
larly from Noddings (1984) and Kittay (1999). She argues for a recon-
ceptualization of the western dominant and anthropocentric notion
of moral subjectivity, as proposed by Native American theorist
George Tinker (2004) and Martha Nussbaum (1990), among others.
She points out that this anthropocentrism can also be identified
in care ethics and Christian theology. So even though the ideas
of connectedness and entanglement are central to care ethics,
Parzuchowski argues with Bonnie Mann (2002) that we risk getting
caught up in self-referentiality because we have ceased to be won-
dered and revered by this. With the help of Martin Buber’s theologi-
cal view of relationships, she finds that some care ethicists have
retained this idea. Joyful and communal rituals can rekindle our
sense of wonder, cultivate a sense of connectedness to earth as earth-
lings, and contemplate experiences of the providence of nature.
Parzuchowski offers a passionate plea, based on rich insights mixed
with remarkable everyday examples and experiences, for a spiritually
enriched care ethics that might help facilitate an effectively practiced
ecological turn.
In totality, this volume represents new and exciting forays into the
study of the rich interplay of care ethics, religions, and spiritual tradi-
tions. While the ideas here introduced represent cutting-edge inter-
disciplinary research areas, many of these chapters focus on main-
stream world religions, especially Christianity, and thus do not
represent the full potential scope of such an investigation. We hope
that future projects and studies will be able to provide a yet broader
and more enriched consideration of religions and spiritual traditions
in the context of care ethics.
We express our appreciation to series editor Helen Kohlen for her
helpful suggestions on the development of the chapters and to
Madeleine Roelfsema for all her work in preparing the manuscript.
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ton Books.
List of Figures
Section 2:
Inge van Nistelrooij
Fig. 1:
Louise Bourgeois, Ste Sébastienne (1998, ink on Xerox paper mounted
on canvas)
Composition: 77 1/2 × 63 inches (197 × 160 cm)
Collection: Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland
© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS),
NY, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2021
Photo: Ron Amstutz
Fig. 2:
Louise Bourgeois, The Maternal Man (2008, archival dyes on fabric)
Composition: 48 × 32 1/2 inches (122 × 83 cm)
Collection: Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland
© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS),
NY, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2021
Photo: Ron Amstutz
Jason Rubenstein
Fig. 1:
Käthe Kollwitz, The Mothers (Die Mütter) (plate 6) from War (Krieg)
(1923, woodcut from a portfolio of seven woodcuts and one woodcut
Composition (irreg.): 13 1/2 × 15 3/4 inches (34.3 × 40 cm); sheet
(irreg.): 18 9/16 × 26 1/8 inches (47.2 × 66.4 cm)
Collection: Museum of Modern Art, NY. Gift of the Arnhold Family
in memory of Sigrid Edwards
© 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Section I:
Theology, Authority, and Epistemology
Care Ethics and Forgiveness: Lessons
and Errors from the Christian Tradition
Ruth E. Groenhout
Introduction: Does an Ethics of Care need the Concept of
The concept of forgiveness has been controversial since a fairly early
stage of Western philosophy. Any philosophical account of ethics
that addresses the question of how those who experience abuse,
attacks, or mistreatment from another can or should respond must
consider the possibility of forgiveness, but the concept seems to
immediately generate the potential for unfairness (why should the
ones who were wronged now face ethical demands when they did
nothing wrong themselves?), injustice (and why should those who
did evil be set up as deserving of love and forgiveness rather than
being held accountable or punished?), and a general lack of balance
between committing wrongdoing and paying the appropriate price.
At the same time, forgiveness is a crucial part of a moral commu-
nity. Finite, limited, dependent social beings need ways to address
errors, wrong actions, and the choice to mess things up, and one of
the vital aspects of addressing such issues is the possibility of forgive-
ness when wrong has been done. As Margaret Urban Walker argues,
forgiveness is a crucial part of the moral reconstruction necessary for
a process of preserving and restoring relationships (Walker 2006).
It serves to preserve relationships, community, and connections, and
it also allows those who have been wronged to move away from ret-
ribution to experience a relief from anger and resentment. And while
in some cases the harm that may potentially be forgiven is caused by
those who are not in any concrete personal relationship with those
who suffered, as Walker notes, forgiveness “should restore, or return
to a functioning state, the conditions of moral relationship” (Walker,
162). But for it to do this, she goes on, it must restore relationships
of reciprocal trust, maintain certain boundaries, and honor moral val-
ues. The basic point is crucial: forgiveness is important, and human
social interdependence becomes almost impossible without it.
But an important part of relationality, such as forgiveness, comes
with a potential for misuse and abuse. For an ethics of care which
arose from the sense among many feminists that other philosophical
theories erased or elided the experiences and practices of women, this
recognition of abuse is no surprise. The argument for an ethics of care
almost immediately faced deep concerns about the misuse and abuse
of care itself, very often generated by the demand that women
provide care without reciprocity, an assumption on the part of count-
less privileged male theorists that caring work was animalistic and
lacking in rationality, all connected to the assumption that only prac-
tices that (very privileged) men engaged in had any moral weight
( Friedman 1995; Larrabee 1993).
So an adequate account of forgiveness that recognizes its impor-
tant place of moral prominence in an ethics of care while also recog-
nizing the ways that it can be demanded, as care was, of the more
vulnerable in society, while not recognized or supported when it is
provided, is necessary. And one important part of this account should
begin with a clear vision of how exactly that dynamic has occurred
in the historic development of Christian thought about forgiveness
and its relation to love. Just as forgiveness is crucial to care ethics, it
is also crucial to a Christian ethics of love. And just as forgiveness
can easily turn into an abusive demand of the vulnerable in an ethics
of care, it can turn into an abusive demand that the vulnerable sup-
port, enable, even pay for the evil done by the powerful in a Chris-
tian ethic of love. Seeing where the concept goes wrong provides
important considerations and limitations in the way that forgiveness
is understood, developed, and incorporated into the theory overall.
It also structures the connection between care and forgiveness in
ways that avoid turning care into a characteristic that increases the
vulnerability of those who care the most and holds those who are
abusive to account.
Forgiveness and Relationality
The place to begin is the necessity of some notion of forgiveness in
any account of ethics that begins with emotional commitment to the
other, whether that emotional commitment is identified as care, or
love, or compassion. Ethical theories that focus exclusively on ratio-
nal fairness between independent free agents do not find forgiveness
an obvious necessity; almost by definition their account of agential
interaction is a matter of contract, consent, and equal opportunity
interactions, so if one or the other acts badly, the wronged agent
simply needs to demand some adequate form of retribution to even
the score, and interactions can resume in whatever way the agents
prefer. Interestingly enough, many of the philosophical accounts of
forgiveness rely on a Kantian ethical structure, which enables them
to make forgiveness primarily a matter of individual choice, but also
tends to build in assumptions about agents as predominantly equal,
rational, and independent. As Kathryn Norlock notes, this atomism
produces a problematic account of forgiveness in numerous ways. She
writes, “In addition to assuming a view of the moral agent as indi-
vidualistic and rationally self-interested, paradigm and Kantian
accounts of forgiveness tend to demand a robust sort of integrity,
self-respect, and autonomy, which precludes forgiving for reasons that
fall short of what self-respect is taken to require” (Norlock 2018, 18).
But for an ethical theory that begins with emotional commitment
and focuses on relations between unequal, interdependent, social
beings, the picture is significantly divergent.
Unequal beings, first of all, do not stand in relationships of equal
freedom and independence. They are, instead, dependent on each
other in numerous and weighty ways. Among other consequences of
unequal relationships is that one or the other, often both, cannot
walk away from a relationship even when it is not going well. If one
member of the relationship has enormous amounts of privilege and
power, while the other is quite vulnerable and dependent, and if the
powerful one chooses to act badly, the vulnerable one faces deep and
problematic choices no matter how they react. If they walk away from
the relationship, they may lose resources, protection, or needed assis-
tance. If they remain in relationship, they face allowing the other to
continue to act wrongly, and perhaps do worse. Some obvious exam-
ples of this scenario are family relationships of dependence in which
one agent acts wrongly. The difficulty is particularly harsh when the
more vulnerable one is seriously dependent (small children’s relation-
ship to their parents, elderly and medically limited parents and their
adult children, individuals with serious cognitive disabilities and the
family members who provide their care and other similar cases.)
In all of these cases, if the vulnerable and dependent members
lose the relationship they also lose necessary support and care, but if
they remain, the wrong-doing may continue. While some social situ-
ations provide a level of outside relationships that might mitigate the
power to abuse held by those in the more powerful position (other
members of the community, social structures such as legal and social
protective agencies, religious groups), even moving toward claiming
this outside level of support can be dangerous and problematic for
the vulnerable.
At the same time, wrong doing by the more dependent and needy
members of social relationships is also complex. If those with more
power and (as is often the case) more responsibility in the relationship
have been wronged, they also face problematic choices. Walking away
from vulnerable others who are in dependent relationships on one is
not something to do lightly, and may make one hate one’s self more
than allowing the wrong to continue. Moreover, breaking the rela-
tionship could do more harm to the vulnerable than is warranted,
even when maintaining the relationship will result in the continua-
tion of the harm. It is also the case that the vulnerable may be depen-
dent, but may also provide absolutely vital aspects of care for the more
powerful in the relationship, which can, again, generate deep prob-
lems in trying to maintain some reciprocal retribution of any kind.
Again, even moving to thinking about actual human relationships
makes all of this deeply obvious and concerning. We can consider
similar familial relationships (parents with young adolescents face
some of these concerns on a regular basis) or move out into depen-
dent relations of care that exist in so many other contexts (medical
professionals and seriously ill patients; professors and very young, very
vulnerable students) and in all of these cases, when the vulnerable
do wrong, it puts the powerful (if they are caring individuals) into
fairly difficult situations, and into cases where maintaining the rela-
tionship may be important and may also require deciding to not
demand retribution or pay back that addresses the harm.
In deeply relational accounts of ethical connections, one of the
necessary structures that must be in place to address the case of
wrong-doing in the context of dependence and inequality, though it
may seem ironic, is precisely forgiveness. When a child throws insults
on values that are central to the parent’s sense of identity, or when
a physician acts roughly toward a dependent patient, maintaining the
relationship matters, but a real wrong has been done. Forgiveness
allows the relationship to continue, allows the one doing the harm
to (sometimes) recognize and apologize without fearing harsh retribu-
tion, and allows the one harmed to let go of anger and pain in many
cases. There is even a sense of forgiveness that is essential to the
health and happiness of the self. When one has done what one did
not want to, among the appropriate responses on some occasions is
the need to forgive one’s own self and move on.
Recognizing this does not entail that forgiveness cannot be mis-
used and misunderstood. The next section of the paper turns to clear
and deeply problematic examples of exactly that sort of problem with
forgiveness. But before turning to those problems it is important to
begin by seeing how and why forgiveness functions in dependent
relational contexts, and to recognize that it is a practice that is vital
to caring relations. As in so many areas of ethical life, the complexity
in this case comes from the combination of these factors: forgiveness
is vital for healthy relationships, and its importance is one of the fac-
tors that makes the misuse of forgiveness so damaging and harmful.
But also, an issue that will be addressed in the following section,
forgiveness should not be understood as a matter primarily of indi-
vidual morality. How it is structured socially makes enormous differ-
ences in the way it functions, ways it can be abused, and structures
that protect both the importance and the proper structure of forgive-
ness in human communal life.
The Abuse of Forgiveness: Lessons from the Christian Tradition
Forgiveness is a central concept in Christianity, central to the teach-
ings of the Christ of the Gospels and made integral to notions of
divinity and the love of sinful human beings. As Esther McIntosh
notes, “Forgiveness is the bedrock of the Christian tradition; it is at
the centre of the Christian story” (McIntosh 2020, 269). In particular,
the divine willingness to forgive is portrayed as the rationale for
humans to forgive other humans, and the picture of Jesus on the cross
praying for the forgiveness of those who were killing him is held up
as the epitome of righteousness for all humans. This picture represents
a very high standard of gentle response to viciousness and evil, and if
the Christian community were itself a place where victims of such evil
were cared for and protected that standard might be beautiful.
Christianity is clearly not the only religion that places forgiveness
in a central place. Julia Kristeva goes so far as to attribute forgiveness
to most religions as a necessary catharsis or purification of hatred and
evil, and that it is this promise of forgiveness that “gives faith that
forgives its greatest appeal” (Kristeva 2010, 193), though she also
considers this part of the danger of religious tendencies toward fun-
damentalism. In the Christian tradition, which is the focus of this
chapter, forgiveness is closely associated with absolute altruistic love,
directed at the other with no thought or concern at all for one’s own
benefit or needs. And given the identification of God with Love, and
with precisely this type of altruistic love, the expectation that
humans, bearing the image of God, will themselves love and forgive
without demanding punishment or repayment becomes very strong.
As Lewis Smedes states in his explanation of forgiveness, “God is the
original master forgiver” (Smedes 1996, 21), and beings who are
expected to reflect the image of that God must themselves heal the
wrongs of life, among other ways, by forgiveness.
Because of the importance of forgiveness to Christian theology
and philosophical thinking, it has been the focus of some feminist
philosophy of religion, most notably Pamela Sue Anderson, whose
thought developed in thought-provoking ways over time. Anderson’s
earlier work focused on the ways that forgiveness provides freedom
from destructive emotions such as resentment, even when there is no
acknowledgement of harm from the wrong-doer, as well as the ways
in which forgiveness should not be understood as an easy or straight-
forward emotional response, but is instead a struggle that requires
adequate time and space (Anderson 2001). In later work Anderson
moves to weightier consideration of the tension between forgiveness
and justice, particularly in cases where an abuser refuses to move
toward responsibility or reparation, and eventually argues that in
cases of ongoing abuse it may be necessary to withhold forgiveness in
order to protect self-respect for the abused (Anderson 2011; 2016; see
also Fiddes 2020.) The shift in Anderson’s thought was partially con-
nected to recognition that on-going sexual abuse within the Chris-
tian tradition makes the traditional glorification of forgiveness under
any circumstances problematic. And, unfortunately, there have been
numerous cases of sexual abuse followed by the abuse of the concept
of forgiveness, in the context of the Christian tradition.
Both the Catholic church and the Southern Baptist Convention
(SBC) have in recent years been identified as locations where mul-
tiple and egregious sex abuse practices have gone on extensively. In
both contexts, there has been a strong tendency to exclude those who
were abused from the community, while protecting the abusers to
a very high degree, and one of the crucial parts of that process was
demanding forgiveness for the abuser from the abused, from the com-
munity as a whole, and demanding forgiveness without any concern
for changing the abusive practices. As Kristin Kobes Du Mez notes
in her historical study of masculinity in American Christianity:
Since 1998, around 380 perpetrators within the SBC had left a trail of
more than 700 victims….Many victims had been urged to forgive their
abusers, and it was victims, rather than predators, who frequently ended
up shunned by their churches (Du Mez 2020, 291).
Similar events in the Catholic church had been making the news for
years before these events, and like them, involved powerful protec-
tion of the abusers, shunning of the abused, and demands for forgive-
ness without any system of accountability or even remorse.
When those in power demand forgiveness from those who are vul-
nerable, who have suffered severe abuse, and when that demand
arises without any care or protection of those from whom it is
demanded, the misuse of forgiveness is at its peak. And unfortunately
that has been done far too many times in communities who claim to
be structured by love and care for the weak. It is precisely because
forgiveness is important and powerful that it has been used in this
way, usually in order to prevent any actual accountability for the
abusers. The ends sought are not in the least supportive of or healthy
for those who suffered the abuse. Instead, a faux version of forgiveness
is evoked to prevent the abused from bringing any charges against
the abusers, their public statement of forgiveness is demanded by the
powerful rather than freely offered, and they frequently are the only
members of the community who pay a price for the abuse, a horrifi-
cally vicious response to those already wounded. But the demand for
forgiveness is heavily beneficial for the abusers, since it justifies,
for many in the community, maintaining the abusers in their ranks
of power, protecting them from any charges from outside the com-
munity, and providing them with extensive financial and emotional
support so that they pay no price for what they have done.
This sort of abuse of forgiveness involves layers of inappropriate
instantiation of the basic concept. We can begin with the most basic
of misuses—the demand by the powerful, themselves either abusers
or supporters of abusers, that the victims forgive. Within the Chris-
tian religious context this is a particularly awful misuse of power,
because those who have the power and demand forgiveness are stand-
ing in roles of spiritual (righteous) leaders, so their demand (command)
is a particularly powerful one, and one that involves betrayal of the
central commitments they ought to have (Scarsella and Krehbiel
2019). But more generally, any time those with huge amounts of
power use that power to demand forgiveness from the vulnerable who
already are suffering from the abuse for which they are being forced
to ‘forgive’ the basic structure of forgiveness is destroyed.
This first, and obvious case of the use of forgiveness by the power-
ful to undercut the meaning of the harms and abuses caused makes
clear two of the most basic ways that forgiveness should never func-
tion. Forgiveness should not be demanded by the powerful in order
to protect themselves from accountability. In more general terms, this
also identifies one central part of legitimate forgiveness, in that it
identifies the problem of other agents demanding forgiveness rather
than the agent who is truly capable of forgiveness being the one who
decides how to act. Both the misuse of power to protect wrongdoers
and the attempt for people to control how and when other agents
dispense forgiveness are wrongful uses of the concept because both
involve treating the one who forgives as simply an object to be used,
not as a moral agent with the capacity and the right to determine
how forgiveness will be used. And both of these are deeply wrong uses
of the notion of forgiveness.
To forgive starts with the recognition (and being recognized by
others) that one has the right to demand punishment, or even revenge.
There really is no point to public avowals of forgiveness when those
being asked to forgive have already been excised from any moral
standing or power, other than to provide justification for the abusive
power structures that led to the abuse in the first place. Particularly
when the abuse is rampant, systematic, and focused on ethnic or racial
groups in addition to gendered structures, the attempt to force forgive-
ness and deny the righteousness of anger and fighting the abuse and
the abusers demonstrates a problematic perspective on the part of
those endorsing forgiveness (Jaycox 2020; Pearl 2020). This is the
rampant abuse of power to provide even more support for those who
already have used their power to victimize the vulnerable; the mean-
ingless public statements only serve to prevent any other victims from
expecting care or support. As Jean Hampton notes, “how society
reacts to one’s victimization can be seen by one as an indication of
how valuable society takes one to be, which in turn can be viewed as
an indication of how valuable one really is” (Murphy and Hampton
1988, 141). When the powerful force victims to publicly make forgive-
ness statements without any concern for the suffering or abuse that
has occurred, the message is clear: these lives mean nothing.
Further, as numerous analyses of forgiveness have noted, forgive-
ness does not preclude standard legal punishment being nonetheless
applied (Murphy and Hampton 1988, 150; Pope and Geske 2019).
So when it is used for this purpose, again, it seems clear that there is
something deeply wrong with the situation. It is not actual forgive-
ness that is taking place; instead, the agent who suffered harm is
being used to enable the abuser to continue to abuse others, while
being diminished in value by that very use.
A third aspect of the improper use of forgiveness also occurs in
these cases, specifically the denial of the need for some form of
accountability on the part of the wrong doer. The demand for public
statements of forgiveness functions specifically to protect the abuser
from any accountability, again, a deeply problematic demand under
any conditions, and certainly problematic when it is forced on the
one who suffered harm. This harm, in particular, generates a deeply
problematic damage to what Margaret Urban Walker calls the ‘impor-
tant normative boundaries’ that are essential to any sort of healthy
moral community (Walker 2006, p. 96). Practices of absolving the
powerful from responsibility for the wrongs they do splinter the struc-
tures that make social cooperation and trust possible.
Three basic aspects of forgiveness thus can be easily identified: it
should not be demanded by others, it should not be forced by the
powerful on those who are vulnerable, and it should not be exercised
specifically to ensure that those doing deeply harmful things are never
held accountable. These are all central aspects of the proper exis-
tence of forgiveness.
Other ways in which the concept of forgiveness can go wrong are
more a matter of degree than of absolutely destructive of the basic
concept. As several theorists note, the emotions felt by those who
undergo harm or abuse include anger, resentment, the wish for revenge
and the like (Aumann and Cogley 2019; Nussbaum 2016; Blustein,
2014; Norlock 2009; Murphy and Hampton 1988.) These emotions
can make it very difficult for the one who suffered harm to even
consider forgiveness, and depending on the degree of the harm suf-
fered and how the agent holds themself to ethical standards, they can
undercut the very possibility of forgiveness. When the harm is hor-
rific, this seems appropriate in many cases, but if the harm is rela-
tively minor and the victim’s response is far too vindictive, the inabil-
ity to move toward forgiveness can take on a measure of negative
evaluation of character. Likewise, when the harm was not completely
intentional (though perhaps caused by negligence) the responding
anger can be too strong and result in problems. Because forgiveness
is an important part of interrelationality, and because harms that are
relatively minor or unintentional often do require that the one who
caused the harm be considered in many cases for forgiveness, agents
who become obsessed with anger can fail at this aspect. But because
forgiveness is not something that can be demanded by others, agents
who fail to forgive under these circumstances may act within their
rights even while acting in ways that reflect on their character prob-
lematically. Clearly this sort of issue is one that varies with degrees
of harm, intentionality, and, importantly, perspectival recognition of
how harms are weighed differently by the privileged and the vulner-
able, in ways that often ignore true harms and weigh even minor
accountability on the part of the powerful as unacceptable.
And, though it goes beyond the scope of this paper, forgiveness
can generate any number of other issues, from when those harmed
over-emphasize their claims to reconciliation in problematic ways, to
when those who offer forgiveness use the public claims to forgiveness
to attack others who might not be guilty of any serious harm. In this
last category one can think of the many White people who feel so
harmed by groups such as Black Lives Matter that they feel as though
they have the right to demand that the BLM groups apologize, but,
claiming the high road, they offer forgiveness without demanding
legal or public apologies…and are actually using the language of for-
giveness to maintain deeply racist social structures. Joshua Lawson,
for example, the managing editor of The Federalist, in a blog post
describes the BLM movement as a “movement that removes the for-
giveness, hope, and peace of the gospel and replaces those core values
with continual protest, fear, and anger.” But, he goes on, he himself
accepts the teaching of the Bible, when it “reminds us in Romans
12:19. ‘Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous
anger of God’” (Lawson 2020). In his own mind, it is those protesting
racial injustice who are doing evil, but he asserts his own unwilling-
ness to demand punishment, asserting, instead, his moral purity.
Attempting to fairly evaluate where agents fall in considerations of
forgiveness takes on complexity in a world where the agent from
whom forgiveness is demanded is in that position precisely because
they are considered subordinate to a more privileged example of
And as the wrongs addressed by forgiveness are complex and seen
from varying perspectives, it can also be the case that wrong-doer and
forgiving victim may interpret the nature of forgiveness in very dif-
ferent ways, and victims can simply get their response wrong. As
Jeffrie Murphy notes in Forgiveness and Mercy, it is not always clear
that forgiveness is compatible with respect for the other who has
committed the wrong. “Suppose you had wronged someone. How
would you like it if that person assumed that you could not come to
repentance on your own but required the aid of his ministry of for-
giveness? Might you not feel patronized—condescended to? Forgive-
ness can be an act of weakness, but it can also be an act of arrogance.
Seeing it this way, the wrongdoer might well resent the forgiveness.
‘Who do you think you are to forgive me?’ he might respond to such
a well-meaning meddling” (31). Adequate analysis of the many com-
plexities of forgiveness, repentance, the measure of wrong done,
and even the question of self-forgiveness are far beyond the focus of
a single paper.
As with any human social structure, there is no absolute way
to ensure that all moves toward forgiveness are appropriate, that
forgiveness is always the right move forward, or that every claim that
one has forgiven is a positive reflection. But what does need to be
seen is that the potential for abuse of forgiveness is massive, and there
are ways to set it up so that it is not so easily turned into structures
abused by those who already have too much social power and want
to prevent the more vulnerable from holding them accountable. But
to make these structural situations possible it is vital to move beyond
a sense that forgiveness is primarily (or, worse, entirely) an individual
matter, and begin to recognize the structures that make it a largely
functional social structure. This is the issue the rest of this essay will
focus on, motivated by how a care-oriented account of ethics, empha-
sizing the interrelational nature of human life should take on certain
central social accounts of forgiveness that identify ways it should not
be used.
The Move from Individual Forgiveness to Social Structures that Construct
Forgiveness Properly
Analyses of forgiveness sometimes err on the side of focusing too
much on individuals and their relationships, while largely setting
aside a focus on how the structures of forgiveness, whether narrative
structures or actual policies, are formed and function in the broader
community. Charles Griswold’s analysis, for example, explicates
forgiveness as a two-person relationship (Griswold 2007, see also
Konstan 2010). While there are certainly reasons in some cases for
beginning with a two-person relationship, this also runs the risk of
making decisions about forgiveness, as well as the whole structure
of how it is understood more generally in a large community too
focused on individuals, often without adequate concern about the
complexity of various relationships of power and control in the social
Discussions of forgiveness that arise in political theory are impor-
tant here as they bring to light the various ways that narratives
of forgiveness need to incorporate a recognition of the social struc-
tures within which it functions as well as the ways that it can be
misused by groups to prevent adequate responses to various abuses. In
particular the literature on how forgiveness needs to be understood
in the context of Truth and Reconciliation commissions, as well as
analyses of forgiveness that bring Hannah Arendt into the conversa-
tion shift attention across the boundaries between social and indi-
vidual moral thought (Peys 2020; Grey 2019). It is vital to be cogni-
zant of the ways that humans are interrelational, empathetic,
connected beings, as the ethics of care theorists have developed to
a phenomenal degree. As Arendt writes, “even if I shun all company
or am completely isolated while forming an opinion, I am not simply
together only with myself in the solitude of philosophical thought;
I remain in this world of universal interdependence (Arendt 1954,
242).” As members of the interdependent world, and as agents
responsible for the actions we choose to take, we live with a need for
forgiveness, and a need to structure that forgiveness into the social
and political structures within which we live. Arendt’s analysis of the
necessity and complicated nature of forgiveness in the political realm
begins with a conception of action that always generates the predica-
ment that an action, one done, cannot be undone, it is irreversible.
She then goes on to bring in forgiveness:
The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility—of
being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could
not, have known what one was doing—is the faculty of forgiving…
forgiving serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose ‘sins’ hang, like
Damocles’ sword, over every new generation (Arendt 1958, 237).
She goes on to explain that forgiveness as a social practice is crucial
to the very possibility of human freedom and breaks the deterministic
causality that structures so much of the rest of the world.
But because forgiveness is essential for any human life, it becomes
a vital aspect of care of the self, and should be built into social struc-
tures for all humans, not just those with power. And it is necessary
to recognize how without appropriate social structures, ethical
demands on individuals can go very wrong very quickly. We need to
be talking across some of the standard philosophical silos to make
sure that all of these concerns are addressed. And in the context of
a caring account of forgiveness the need is particularly important.
Social accounts of what forgiveness is and the proper structure of
forgiveness in human life need to recognize all of these dimensions.
People are interconnected and dependent continually on the emo-
tional and supportive, caring relationships in which they live, and
forgiveness is important because it plays a crucial role in allowing
those structures to exist. But that picture of forgiveness is improper if
it does not recognize how important it is for individuals to care for
themselves as well as others, especially when the duty to care is struc-
tured in deeply racialized, gendered and class-based ways (Pearl
2020). Imbalances in how care is provided make it essential that
social accounts take unfair structural matters into account. And, even
more than this, accounts of forgiveness need to be structured to
address the abuse of power in the actual world, not ideals of mutual
love that ignore how some who love are abused by the very authority
figures they have been taught to respect and trust.
Given the earlier discussion of the abuse of forgiveness in contexts
where it functions to prevent the vulnerable from holding those in
power accountable, there are clearly a number of aspects of any con-
cept of forgiveness that need to be clearly and deeply structured into
the social understanding of what forgiveness is and when it can legiti-
mately be enacted. And while a complete and absolute account is
well beyond any relatively short essay, basic aspects of any decent
account can be identified and noted.
The first, and most obvious, is a basic principle of who gets to
demand forgiveness, and it must be understood to belong to the
abused or the victim, not those in power. One reason for this is that
there are wrongs that ought not to be forgiven, if they are sufficiently
heinous. As Jeffrey Blustein points out, “If there are wrongs that are
truly unforgivable, then refusing to forgive another for his wrongdo-
ing is not always morally objectionable” (Blustein 2014, 129). More
than this, forgiveness is not something that the harmed have a duty
to offer their oppressors. Committing wrongdoing against someone
else does not carry with it the right to demand that the one harmed
also now owes one forgiveness. A faulty view of forgiveness that
structures it in this way turns it into the demand that those wronged
accept even more burdens and duties as a result of being harmed,
a particularly horrible way of structuring this particular moral concept.
But while the wrongfulness of this approach can be seen relatively
easily in the abstract, in actual practice it is much more complex and
can easily shift into this mode even when those articulating the
importance of forgiveness believe they are presenting it properly.
Consider, for example, the very simple case of two children. Child
A has whacked Child B on the head with a wooden block, and has
now been instructed by a parent to apologize. Once the apology has
been offered, Child B is often informed that now it is their turn to
forgive, because that is the right response to an apology. It seems as
though this is simply a matter of parental teaching of basic moral
responses, what Michael Slote describes as the ‘inductive training’ of
children that is necessary to develop empathy (2007). But the induc-
tive training that Slote describes encourages children to understand
and feel the harm that their action has caused on another, in this case
the pain that A caused to B. The demand that the bruised child
forgive, practical as it may seem, adopts the opposite pose, one that
Slote rejects as authoritarian, that instead of helping the develop-
ment of empathy focuses on the use of power to try to force a child
to obey certain rules. Slote notes that:
Induction contrasts with the ‘power-asserting’ attempt to discipline or
train a child through sheer threats…and with attempts to inculcate
moral thought, motivation, and behavior (merely) by citing, or admon-
ishing with, explicit moral rules or precepts (2007, 15).
The command to forgive imposed on the child who has not caused
harm has already begun the move toward turning forgiveness into
a duty rather than a free decision on the part of the wronged. It is
only a short step from this training to the demand by church leaders
that victims of sexual abuse forgive, and both parties of the event will
have been trained to expect this result. And the religious basis for
this approach, coupled with its use in contemporary political recon-
ciliation attempts, results in leaving the victims of abuse vulnerable
to on-going abuse as noted earlier, a vulnerability that is ramped up
when forgiveness is moved into social and political contexts (Grey
What attention to better accounts of forgiveness in the social and
political context can help with is the capacity to draw attention to
better or worse ways to structure the basic core of forgiveness. Sam
Grey returns to Arendt to restructure this particular aspect of forgive-
ness, and the conclusion is that forgiveness needs to have a focus on
the past injustices of settler colonialism and racial injustice, coupled
with contemporary attempts at reconciliation. Grey argues that an
Arendtian approach to forgiveness calls our attention to the ‘precur-
sors of forgiving’, the need for acknowledgement, reflection on, and
social restructuring of the power dynamics of settler colonialist racial
injustice (Grey 2019, 59). Also drawing on Arendt, Christopher Peys
describes forgiveness as “a powerful act precisely because it cares for
the worldly ‘web of human relationships’ that compromise the ‘world,’
the political space of freedom” (Peys 2020, 67). The worldly space of
freedom explicitly makes it impossible to consider forgiveness a sim-
ple duty or what the wronged person owes. Moving forward in free-
dom requires the precursors of forgiving, the recognition of unjust
structures and events, and the mutual move toward a juxtaposition
of the freedom and equality that Arendt considers essential to the
political realm.
If we begin with this social/political account of forgiveness, then as
we approach individuals with recommendations or support for for-
giveness, we must begin with the acknowledgement that as long as
the harm emerged from and is built into oppressive and evil power
relationships, and as long as those relationships continue to structure
human lives, moves toward forgiveness require active change and
protection of those harmed. Even between the two kids we started
with, if one is bigger, stronger, and devoted to whacking things with
blocks, then forgiveness isn’t appropriate until the structure changes,
which may require putting the blocks out of reach until the whacking
stops. Without this structure being built into forgiveness, it does not
have an ethical presence in human relationships.
This brings us to the second feature that any adequate account of
forgiveness needs to make clear both at the personal level and the
social structural level: forgiveness must never be used by the powerful
to control and increase the vulnerability of those who have been
harmed. This tends to over-lap with the first: when forgiveness is
constructed as the moral duty of the abused, it becomes pervasive
that those with power will use that power to command the vulnerable
to forgive and so exhibit the correct level of performing what duty
requires. Unjust power structures and inappropriate accounts of moral
duty can reinforce each other in extremely problematic ways. But at
the conceptual level the two issues can be recognized as slightly dif-
ferent in that the first is an inappropriate deposition of demands on
the individual while the second involves a serious misuse of power.
Again, this crosses the boundaries of individual and social/cultural
understandings. At the personal level, it is very typical for abusive
partners to use their power in a relationship to demand forgiveness
by those they abuse, and, again in conservative Christian contexts
this demand is often supported by the community as a whole. At the
social and cultural level, the language of forgiveness frequently
emerges from authorities, either legal or religious or cultural authori-
ties, who use their position as the arbiters of what is right to place
enormous pressure on the more vulnerable to forgive. Writing about
the media representations of Black families who lost loved ones when
white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered worshipping members of
Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Church, Andre Johnson and
Earle Fisher note that the broader expectation in society consistently
is that African Americans will forgive the perpetrators of racist vio-
lence, and that this expectation connects heavily with religious nar-
ratives of forgiveness (2019, 10). But they also bring to the surface
narratives of unforgiveness that explicitly reject the pressure on Afri-
can Americans to forgive as a denial of the basic humanity of Black
Americans (14-15). Likewise Myisha Cherry notes that when those
who forgive are held up as moral exemplars in spite of sometimes
horrendous harm, the use of them as exemplars can be emotionally
manipulative when it implies a duty to forgive. The actions of deeply
moral folk who forgive under harsh circumstances are worthy of
respect, and in some cases should be examples we try to emulate, but
their existence does not give those who currently suffer reasons to
think that forgiveness is their duty as well (2017). When forgiveness
functions structurally to deny the true evil of actions, and to demand
and expect those who already pay the cost of racism to provide sup-
port for the racists who harm them, it has become immoral.
Finally, and again, not removed from the two concepts already
identified, but instead frequently interconnected, is the concept that
forgiveness should allow the perpetrator of the harm to walk away
without accountability or restorative commitments. While numerous
philosophical accounts of forgiveness begin with the necessity of
remorse and apology from the perpetrator (for example, Griswold
2007; Murphy and Hampton 1988), the actual function of forgiveness
in hierarchical communities frequently asserts the demand for for-
giveness under conditions when the perpetrator has not expressed
any remorse or recognition of blame. Even worse, there is evidence
that the forgiveness, in some of the cases connected with the Catho-
lic sex abuse scandals, functioned to generate a sense on the part of
authorities within the church that the abuse did not need to be
reported to secular authorities or punished (Gleeson and Zanghellini
2015.) It is vital to separate the notion of forgiveness from the ques-
tion of which crimes and harms justify punishment, and when this
line is blurred, again, forgiveness becomes a problematic structure.
What is needed is a widespread structural commitment to separating
issues of punishment and accountability from issues of whether the
individuals who experienced harm have chosen to forgive or not.
Unless these questions are widely seen as completely separable, for-
giveness again becomes problematic.
Conclusion: Yes, Care Ethics needs Forgiveness, but it also needs
to avoid the Harms the Concept can cause
Forgiveness is not an easy or simple choice, and while the three
aspects identified here are not the final word on the topic, they begin
to shape some of the limits on how the social account of forgiveness
must be structured. And from a care perspective, this is an important
consideration because it is not enough for individuals to care and
support caring relationships. A caring society needs to be structured
to support and protect the provision of care and to limit and destruc-
ture relationships that undercut or destroy care (Held 2006; Tronto
2013, Groenhout 2019). Because care work is so frequently required
of the more vulnerable members of society, and is neither adequately
respected or economically rewarded, if it is treated as the individual’s
choice it becomes something the powerful can demand of those with
less power, and the resulting structures are immoral.
Humans cannot live without care, and to adequately recognize
this, humans also need to recognize that the social structures that
support care are vital to human life. This is particularly clear in cases
such as social and cultural definitions and examples of what forgive-
ness is and how it ought to function in the imperfect world in which
we live. Humans do hurt each other, cause deep injury, and yet even
when that has happened, maintaining caring relationships needs to
find a way to continue. Forgiveness plays a crucial role in this con-
tinued existence even after abuse, and it cannot be discarded. But if
it is not structured properly, and especially if it becomes merely an
individual moral duty, it no longer moves toward maintaining caring,
healthy relationships. Instead, it becomes a tool used by the powerful
to force the abused to pay an even higher price for the evil that the
powerful have already caused. The origins of an ethics of care in
feminist theorizing brings this relationship between privilege and
abuse of power to the forefront, and also makes it clear that it must
be taken seriously. As Virginia Held argued, “The ethics of care must
not, and in my view does not, lose sight of power as the very real
capacity to oppose what morality, even if persuasive, recommends,
nor of the power of the structures that keep oppression in place”
(Held 2006, 150). For forgiveness to function properly in caring
social communities, it needs to be structured in ways that diminish
abusive power.
And as is clear in the religious cases of sexual abuse that took
place in Christian churches which identified themselves with a God
who is Love, in cases such as these the abuse of forgiveness becomes
horrifically damaging to the vulnerable whose need for love and com-
passion was part of what made them both vulnerable to abuse and
then subjected them to the further violation of being forced to for-
give and (frequently) then excluded from the community in which
the abuse occurred. One of the persistent narratives that one hears
from those who were abused is the way that the whole experience
destroyed their faith, undermined their ability to love, and set them
up for profoundly difficult psychological battles to simply function
properly in life.
When the language of love is used to destroy the capacity to love,
it is deeply evil. Care theory needs to take this lesson seriously. Care
is central to human existence, but that does not mean that the lan-
guage of care cannot be misused in ways that destroy the ability of
the vulnerable to experience or respond to care. In bringing the lan-
guage of forgiveness into an ethics of care, it is of highest importance
that the structure of what is understood to be central to forgiveness
makes it much more difficult to use in this way. And that requires
that forgiveness remains the agent’s to choose, not another’s to
demand, that forgiveness is never allocated to the powerful to control
in order to protect their own power, and that forgiveness never is
primarily structured as absolving the wrongdoer from accountability.
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Against Moral Certainty and Authority:
How Dogmatic Religious Ethics
is Incompatible with Care Ethics
Maurice Hamington
“My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.
[spoken from his kayak to the Sentinelese
on the shore of North Sentinel Island].”
John Allen Chau (Conroy 2019)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew 28:19 NSRV
This chapter begins with a tragic story. Like many human tragedies,
there are numerous aspects and ways of interpreting the story. Still,
I focus on the role of moral certainty and authority, and by contrast,
the lack of epistemic responsiveness and humility, that serve to
underwrite this tale. Although the attention here is to a particular
event, the ultimate concern is how dogmatism hinders morality, and
specifically care. I contend that care ethics has a subversive element
in its resistance to authority and certainty that is incompatible with
a strict ideological view in religious morality.
On November 16, 2018, 26-year-old evangelical Christian mis-
sionary John Allen Chau was killed when trying to engage and con-
vert the Sentinelese, a small community of 50 to 100 indigenous
people (Sasikumar 2019, 64) living on North Sentinel Island, part of
the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, India (Conroy 2019).
Described as “the most isolated tribe in the world” (Sasikumar 2019,
56), the Sentinelese have been protected by the Indian government
with a three-mile boundary that includes a prohibition on photogra-
phy. Accordingly, little is known about the Sentinelese language or
culture. However, they are regarded as an ancient community
descended from African migrants who traveled to the island roughly
50,000 years ago (Tharoor 2018, 4). Historically, the Sentinelese
have been intentionally reclusive and violent toward outsiders,
including, for example, attacking a film crew in 1974 with arrows
(Pandya 2006, 174) and killing two poaching fishermen in 2006
(McDougall, 2006).1
Chau’s death culminates a narrative of his life: a faithful believer
who wanted to spread the good news of his religion. The published
articles about Chau, who left behind an extensive biographical foot-
print on social media and in diary form, describe him as having two
passions: Christian evangelizing and outdoor adventures. Chau was
born in Alabama but raised in Vancouver, Washington. Growing up,
he was extensively engaged in the Pentecostal church attending
Christian schools, scouts, and missionary activities (Conroy 2019).
Ultimately, Chau graduated from Oral Roberts University. By all
accounts, he was smart, made friends easily, and had a passion for his
religious beliefs.
Despite his young age, Chau had plenty of missionary and
quasi-missionary experience through international travel (Conroy
2019). He took his mission to the Sentinelese very seriously. For
example, Chau prepared by participating in a three-week missionary
“boot camp” sponsored by All Nations Kansas City2 that included
1 Anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya questions the extent to which the Sentinelese
image as violent and savage is a colonial misrepresentation. For example, they have
been described as cannibals although this claim has never been proven (2006, 175).
2 All Nations Kansas City is a chapter of All Nations International, an organiza-
tion with a mission dedicated “to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church
planting movements among the neglected peoples of the earth” (All Nations). Their
website includes a list of “Priority People Groups” to target for evangelization as well
as training resources such as “Senders University” which helps train for “taking the
good news to the last remaining unengaged people groups on earth.”
missionaries role-playing as indigenous people who could not under-
stand Chau and acted aggressively toward him. Chau was described
as an excellent participant (Gettleman, Schultz, Venkataraman
2018). Chau also undertook linguistic and emergency medical train-
ing to ready himself for the trip (Gettleman, Schultz, Venkataraman
Chau visited the Andaman Islands several times between 2015
and 2018 but only made contact with the Sentinelese on his final
trip. On 14 November 2018, he made his approach at night to avoid
the coast guard and navy patrols. He hired some local fisherman
to take him near the North Sentinel Island, where he used a kayak to
paddle to shore on his own, taking gifts, including fish. The fishermen
waited at a safe distance returning to the island at set times to bring
Chau food. On 16 November, Chau was shot by arrows but escaped
back to the boat for supplies. Perhaps foreshadowing his demise, he
left the fisherman with a journal and went back to the island for
a final time. On 17 November, a burial with the body matching the
description of Chau was spotted from offshore (Sasikumar 2019,
57-58). Some of Chau’s final words recorded in his diary reveal an
ambivalence toward dying yet a conviction to carry on: “I think
I could be more useful alive, but to you, God, I give all the glory of
whatever happens.” He also asked for forgiveness on behalf of “any
of the people on this island who try to kill me” (Conroy 2018).
There is no question that Chau had a desire to do good and
believed he was acting in accordance with religious moral authority,
“God’s will.” However, is certainty and adhering to authority suffi-
cient to constitute care ethical action? Does it demonstrate care? This
chapter seeks to highlight the anti-authoritarian nature of care. To
do so, Chau’s case is examined as an example of how religious norma-
tive assumptions about the good can diminish the humility and
responsiveness necessary for the moral good of care.
Moral Forces: Personal, Political, Religious
There is nothing simple about considering the moral factors in Chau’s
death. It is clear that his death is a tragedy, but as one digs into the
facts of the case, the moral analysis becomes cloudy. Four players are
briefly outlined.
Given his demise, Chau is the central ethical figure. A typical
response found in the media is that his trip was a foolish act by
a reckless individual who took his mission to an extreme level. As
one person on Twitter claimed, “John Allen Chau is not a martyr.
Just a dumb American who thought the tribals needed ‘Jesus’ when
the tribals already lived in harmony with God and nature for years
without outside interference” (Conroy 2019). Indigenous advocacy
groups agree, noting that the Sentinelese just want to be left alone
and have legal protections to do just that (Survival 2018). The gen-
eral conclusion of the popular sectarian analysis is that Chau unnec-
essarily put himself at significant risk in pursuing an illegal and
immoral act. However, placing all the moral culpability on Chau’s
shoulders does not entirely honor the complexity of the circum-
stances. Keep in mind that the goal of this chapter is not to adjudi-
cate who is to blame for Chau’s death but rather how moral certainty
can fund misguided care, which manifested itself in this case by mis-
sionary work. Further discussion of Chau’s actions are addressed later.
There are several other actors in this tragedy, including the Sen-
tinelese. Although the Sentinelese killed Chau, commentators
implicitly offer them moral absolution analogous to when an animal
kills a human. However, part of the process of respecting the Senti-
nelese is to remember their moral agency. They did indeed kill him,
and in most circumstances, the party that committed the murder
would be the central focus of any ethical interrogation of this trag-
edy. One could argue that their actions were a form of self-defense
given the history of death and destruction wrought by unwanted
missionaries. Perhaps Chau’s persistence made violent action inevi-
table. These arguments have some merit, but it does not take much
to imagine that the Sentinelese could have taken a less-lethal action
to communicate their desire to avoid outsiders. One can respect
a culture without falling into an absolute moral relativistic stance
that exonerates all their actions. Indeed, the Sentinelese did not
demonstrate any care for Chau, but neither did they initiate or desire
the encounter.3
The confrontation also had a broader social and political context,
which brings us to another actor in this case: the colonial power of
India. The autonomy and protection of the Sentinelese rely on the
nation-state of India. Clearly, India cannot ensure complete isolation
(as it failed in the case of Chau and others), nor is it immune to
economic issues that threaten the privacy of the Sentinelese. As
recently as 2018, relaxed some of the protection laws as a result of
pressure from the tourist industry (Sasikumar 2019, 66). A few
anthropologists argue that bucolic visions of cultural isolation are
a fiction (Hill quoted in Gettleman 2018). John Bodley points out
the paradox of isolation when he asks how can the outside world
know what the Sentinelese need if there is no contact with them
( Gettleman 2018). Even if they are the most isolated peoples in the
world, the Sentinelese are still subject to decisions made by powerful
others around them, so there is a geopolitical history and context to
consider in this tragedy. The Indian government demonstrates a kind
of care analogous to that witnessed in colonial circumstances with
the one caveat that India is not actively endeavoring to extract any
apparent resources from the Sentinelese. They have complete control
over the fate of this indigenous community. Should the Indian gov-
ernment be doing more to ensure the well-being and flourishing of
the Sentinelese?
Third, and most important for our consideration in the rest of this
chapter, what is the role of dogmatic and authoritative religious
morality in Chau’s death? At least in part, Chau was driven by an
evangelical Christian faith that placed proselytizing as an ultimate
good, so much so that martyrdom is an acceptable subtext. Do the
religious organizations that trained and molded Chau’s commitment
3 The challenge of isolationism is an interesting one for a relational care ethics,
given the vital importance of subjective need expression and care assessment as well
as the ontological claim of relational embeddedness.
to spreading the faith care about the Sentinelese, or about John Chau
for that matter? There are approximately a half-million Christian
missionaries operating in the world today motivated by a conviction
about the truth of their message and their faith.4
Religious Moral Certainty
“There are no more dangerous people on earth than those who believe
they are executing the will of the Almighty. It is this conviction that
drives on terrorists to murder the infidel.”
Arthur Schlesinger (2004, 116)
Certainty has an understandably positive connotation in Western
thinking. It also has a positive psychological impact. We generally
have a feeling of well-being when we are sure about our context, our
future, and what will happen next. Humans save money, buy insur-
ance, live indoors, and create routines, all as part of a quest for greater
certainty in their lives. On the other hand, surprises and unexpected
events can create disequilibrium, sometimes resulting in disconcert-
ing anxiety. Religion can provide a clear and certain cosmological
path by answering big questions of ontology and metaphysics through
an authoritative position of invoking a deity or otherwise powerful
authority. Accordingly, religion can bring calm to existential anxiety
over life’s purpose and the terror of inevitable death. Religion can
also offer moral certainty, answering the fundamental question of the
right thing to do? The compatibility of powerful authority and cer-
tainty with authentic care is what is at question here.
All religions provide some degree of moral teaching. Religion also
supplies one of the few contexts outside of education where ethics
can be discussed on a regular basis. Such opportunities for moral dis-
cussion are ostensibly positive, providing needed engagement and
4 Saba Imitiaz reports that the number of Christian missionaries in the world
reached 440,000 in 2000. She also notes that Christian missionary work is diverse
and changing. Today, more Christian missionaries choose to lead with needed good
works rather than religious conversion, although that remains part of the ultimate
goal (2018).
experience in considering personal and social values. However, reli-
gion is also a realm in which authority, including moral authority, is
emphasized as manifested through sacred texts, dogma, and religious
leaders. Religious authority is often framed as ultimate and unques-
tioned. In endeavoring to achieve an open and honest rational moral
position, the infusion of a powerful authority interjects potential
harm. Appeals to authority, argumentum ad verecundiam, can some-
times be helpful if an appropriate authority is chosen (Woods &
Walton 1974, 135-136). For example, when discussing medical eth-
ics, a hospital’s chief ethicist may bring a critical perspective. How-
ever, even when the authority is sound, if the arguments they use are
not, then a fallacy occurs because that person’s influence can sway
the discussion beyond rational argumentation. In this inquiry, we are
interested in the psychology and implications of argumentum ad
verecundiam. Appeals to powerful authority can limit debate and cre-
ate a potentially false sense of security if the authority is thought to
have the definitive moral position such as that of a deity or the rep-
resentative of a deity. This sense of security can be heightened if the
god is deemed omnipotent and omnibenevolent. This concern about
authority is not intended to universally discount moral expertise, but
rather to favor proportionalism whereby moral expertise is a partici-
pant in moral deliberation but not the end of such deliberation. This
chapter can be characterized as a search for moral proportionalism
whereby the moral agency is not diminished by the presence of
a priori claims to moral authority when deciding on ethical action,
particularly where care is involved. The expression of moral authority
in religion as dogma or unreflective belief diminishes moral agency
by leveraging ultimate authority (god) to preclude careful delibera-
tion regarding how to act.
Psychological factors can play an important role in moral knowl-
edge. One’s disposition toward an underlying deity, and thus a moral
authority, impacts how ethics is approached in practice. Philosophers
such as Wittgenstein recognized the role of psychology by describing
certainty as a mental state instead of a definite knowledge proposition
(1972, 308). However, even Wittgenstein acknowledges that the
distinction between human declarations of “I know” and “I am cer-
tain” are tenuous (1972, 8). Given the epistemic knowledge equa-
tion, x knows P, where x is a believer in religious faith and P is the
moral teaching of any given religion, the variables and relations of
the equation are problematized by the authority or credence that x
gives P. If P provides moral insight that helps x deliberate and act in
a responsive way to a given person or situation, then that moral
teaching can be a helpful ethical tool. However, if x considers P
absolutely authoritative and mandatory, thus ineligible for question-
ing, then the moral authority of the religion is stifling to moral auton-
omy, choice, and subsequent action. Such as, in this case, the impera-
tive to spread god’s word and convert nonbelievers without similar
self-openness to change. I contend that care ethics is anti-authoritar-
ian in general (addressed later in this chapter). Religious ethics can
be one example of an authoritarian morality that care, in its fullest
sense, is often incompatible with.
The moral authority of religion is in many instances tied to the
existence of a deity as well as a cosmology of retributive justice.
Although world religions and spiritualities vary widely, generally, an
authoritative god adds legitimacy to the morality of a religion. Simi-
larly, the fear of punishment, as well as the positive rewards of moral
adherence, can be a factor in the ethical decision-making of a reli-
gious believer. The existential proof of god or retributive cosmology
is spurious, but nonetheless, they are widely held beliefs. For example,
72% of Americans believe in the reality of heaven, and 59% of
Americans believe in hell, according to the 2014 Pew Religious
Landscape survey (Murphy 2015).
Part of the difference between religious and care ethics is nested
in the entanglements of ontology, epistemology, and ethics. This
article is not intended to confront the existence of a deity (the ques-
tion of theism), nor the right of a religion to take a moral position
on a subject, but rather the concern here is how seriously moral authority
is taken. In other words, the critique from the standpoint of care ethics is
not with religion per se but with moral ideology and dogmatism whereby
moral authority is not questioned. Although dogmatism is not inherent
to theology, religious beliefs and teachings are often presented to fol-
lowers as sacrosanct. Therefore, questioning teaching is blasphemy or
a sacrilege resulting in the questioner being labeled “infidel” and pos-
sibly even shunned or excommunicated.
Pervasive Reliance on Moral Authority Creates A Form of Banality
“If we simply defer to a higher, more powerful authority—be it a boss,
a sergeant, a senator, a teacher, a parent, a judge, etc.—when navigating
morally precarious situations, then we are irresponsibly relieving our-
selves of doing the difficult work of moral deliberation”
Phil Zuckerman (2019, 54).
That which is banal is unoriginal and ordinary. Hannah Arendt con-
tends that a lack of critical thinking and engagement can result in
unintentional evil. In her analysis of Adolf Eichmann, the architect
of the Final Solution, she describes, “I was struck by a manifest shal-
lowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontest-
able evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives” (Arendt
1978, 4). Arendt made it clear that he was not unintelligent but
simply unthinking: “it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness” (Arendt
1964). When humans do not question authority, then an unthinking
banality abounds.
Chau was nothing like Eichmann. Eichmann was part of an orga-
nization that killed millions, and Chau tragically died without harm-
ing anyone that we know of. Although Eichmann lacked any “firm
ideological convictions or of specific evil motives” (Arendt 1964).
Chau was convinced that he could do good. What they did share was
an unreflective approach to morality. Eichmann followed the Nazi’s
racist and homophobic propaganda like a bureaucrat who simply
had a job to do. Chau did not question that his Christian faith
made evangelization a moral good. Using Arendt’s approach, a major
difference between Chau and Eichmann has to do with convictions.
According to Arendt, Eichmann exhibited no moral convictions, but
it was clear that Chau held a “good will” toward others according to
prevalent norms of evangelical moral standards. No one can accuse
Chau of behaving in self-interest or with an aim to do harm. Although
his ethical framework had other important elements, Immanuel Kant
indicated, “There is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the
world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be
good without limitation, excepting only a good will” (Kant 2002, 9).
It is hard to argue that Chau did not exhibit a goodwill—from his
narrow perspective, he was endeavoring to do good—but is good
intent a sufficient condition of care? As is addressed later in this
chapter, care requires responsiveness—engagement, attentiveness,
engrossment—with the other that is not exhibited in the Chau’s rela-
tionship with the Sentinelese. However, as earlier stated, this analysis
is not intended as an unmitigated moral adjudication of Chau.
Although Chau must be responsible for his actions, he did not origi-
nate the normative moral narrative for the religious institution he
was a part of and for which his goodwill was based upon. He did,
however, fail to care. Chau abdicated moral reflection in the banality
of his actions.
The statements by religious leaders in the aftermath of Chau’s
death demonstrate a kind of banality in their tolerance of his actions.
The institutions that knew and supported Chau praised him but did
not offer any self-criticism of the religious dogma that motivated him.
The tragedy was not a source of moral reflection or deliberative pause
by these organizations but rather a bump in the road as the dogma
presses on. For example, Richard Albert Mohler Jr., the president of
the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky
stated, “I don’t question his motivation, I question his methods”
(Gettleman, Schultz, Venkataraman 2018). In this manner, Mohler
supports the ethics of evangelizing. A statement by the President
of Oral Roberts University, William M. Wilson also reflects a lack of
introspection regarding religious dogma and its impact on ethics:
I am convinced that John believed God called him to reach the most
isolated people groups in the world. His heart was bursting with love for
them. This overwhelming passion led him outside the normal boundaries
and pushed him to do what others could not and would not do. He pre-
pared himself mentally, physically, and spiritually for years to pursue this
passion. There was no perfect way to do this but I am convinced John
did not want to hurt anyone. I am also sure he never dreamed his mar-
tyrdom would create a global media storm nor did he want to be famous.
He was simply willing to commit his whole life if necessary so these pre-
cious people could know the love of Jesus Christ. Our prayers continue
for John’s family and friends during this time of loss (Oral Roberts
Wilson’s notion of preparation did not go so far as to question whether
evangelization is morally appropriate. Similarly, All Nations, the
evangelical organization that helped Chau train for his mission to
the Sentinelese, was careful to praise Chau and avoid self-critical
analysis while eschewing any official connection between the organi-
zation and his endeavor. According to Mary Ho, International Execu-
tive Director, “As we grieve our friend [Chau], we also know that he
would want us to pray for those who may have been responsible for
his death, the Sentinelese. Throughout church history, the privilege
of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost. We pray that
John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit!” (Ho, 2018).5 The good
of spreading the Christian message is not subject to interrogation.
There is a hint that maybe his death will do some good, perhaps lead
the Sentinelese to reconsider, or maybe Chau’s death inspires other
missionaries to go forth. The belief in the moral good of evangeliza-
tion is left unscathed by these statements.
Chau’s death is a tragedy born of a particular Christian narrative
held with a high degree of certainty that spreading the Good News
is a good above all others. This notion is so pervasive as to achieve
banality among specific populations. When philosophy valorizes the
moral certainty of a “good will” without consideration of grounded
relationships and context, it lacks the resources to directly challenge
such a narrative that a missionary’s actions are good as long as they
mean well. As the next section explores, care ethics is radically
5 When asked, individual missionaries were not so solid in defense of missionary
morality. In a New York Times article that briefly interviewed a dozen missionaries,
the reactions ran from criticizing this kind of missionary work to defending the effort
as part of a greater calling (Moore 2018).
different than a rule-based deontological approach to morality in that
it cannot ignore the need for responsive engagement. In a care frame-
work, the notion of a good will is expanded to entail more than good
intentions and includes responsive engagement with the other.
The Crucial Role of Responsiveness in Care
“Caring is largely reactive and responsive” Nel Noddings (2013, 19)
Care ethics has been characterized in several ways by prominent
scholars such as Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, and oth-
ers. I favor a threefold understanding of care as a moral ideal marked
by inquiry, connection, and action. This framework is not inconsis-
tent with the previous configurations of care, but it does offer a par-
ticular set of emphases. Care begins with knowledge. Understanding
the other—the one cared for—is crucial for the efficacy of care. Care
is thus knowledge work, a kind of active inquiry that involves listen-
ing and attending with a goal of apprehending the context and the
unique particularities of those cared for (Dalmiya 2016). Without
inquiry, care can be superficial or misguided. Entangled in inquiry is
a connection to the target of care. This connection can be framed as
“empathy” (Slote 2007, 4) or “affective displacement” (Noddings
2013, 16). Employing either term, the other is not just an object of
a transaction—an abstract customer or stereotype—but a relational
reality for concern. In this case, people are not just subjects to be
converted without reciprocal openness to the mutuality of ideas and
perspectives. Family and friends can more easily achieve affective
displacement through proximal knowledge but it is challenging to
connect with or care for the distant and relatively unknown other.
Finally, there must be action, broadly construed. Care ethics is more
than dispositional (although disposition is part of the connection).
There must be tangible action or practices (Held 2006, 39) on behalf
of the other. If we take the interplay of inquiry, connection, and
action seriously as the basis for a caring morality, then relational
openness and responsiveness are valorized. To care is to respond
within relationship to the other in a way that promotes growth, flour-
ishing, and well-being.
The depth of responsiveness is both the challenge and effort of care
as well as a prime determinant of its efficacy. To be truly cared for, one
must be listened to and understood. Different theorists have come at
the issue of responsiveness differently. Noddings described care as
engaging “engrossment”: “all caring involves engrossment. The
engrossment need not be intense nor need it be pervasive in the life
of the one-caring, but it must occur” (2013, 17). Fiona Robinson
addresses the central role of listening in care (2011). Klaartje Klaver
and Andries Baart emphasize the role of attentiveness and presence
(2011). Although employing different language and emphases, each
of these approaches values a depth of understanding that takes time
and effort to achieve in order to respond well to the needs of the other.
Responsiveness is a crucial aspect of care ethics. Luigina Mortari,