On March 27, the New York Times reported that although in some respects COVID-19 was uniting Americans in a common experience, it was also exposing fractures in our society: “A kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.”[1]

As a college professor married to a middle-school teacher, I found myself among the marooned. Navigating the challenges involved in moving our courses online while caring for two small children meant squeezing our fulltime jobs into half days while spending the greater part of our “off hours” attempting to give our son a well-rounded kindergarten curriculum.

This unfun experiment has made me more aware than ever of my reliance on numerous others: childcare workers, public-school teachers, grocery store clerks, food service workers, farmers, and meatpackers. Many of these workers are in the lowest of the pandemic social strata, deprived of the very benefits that protect us during a pandemic, such as paid sick leave or decent health insurance, and job security.

The pandemic has brought to light a myriad of ways that our lives are interconnected. And the dependence does not just go one way. At the same time that I rely on each of these neighbors, they are also relying on me, not in matters of goods and services, but in matters of life and death. If we’ve learned anything from public health experts in recent months, it’s that averting a public health disaster depends upon the willingness of millions of Americans to cooperate with social distancing guidelines designed to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of the deadly virus. Stay home, stay uninfected today, and by a few weeks’ time you will have averted thousands of infections, and saved a few lives.

The logic is simple and yet has proved hard for many Americans to swallow. The message that by our many individual actions we have the power—and therefore the responsibility—to avert a public health crisis has repeatedly been translated into mere prudent advice for protecting oneself and ones’ loved ones. And where these individual actions have been made a matter of law, they have met considerable resistance.

Exhibit A: As states began to reopen, a swath of churches clamored to be allowed to assemble, despite the high risk of worship services for transmitting the virus. Some church bodies went so far as to file lawsuits against their state governments, citing their first amendment rights,[2] with no recognition of the ways their noncompliance might infringe upon the rights of others. The concept of the public good was thereby replaced with the consideration of the rights of some.

Exhibit B: Several weeks into the pandemic, the CDC published guidelines requesting that masks be worn in closed public spaces in order to keep asymptomatic carriers from unintentionally transmitting COVID-19. That guidance has frequently morphed into “wear a mask if you feel the need,” as though the primary consideration were the mask-wearer’s own well-being rather than the good of others they will come into contact with. Once again, consideration of the common good has transformed into “taking personal responsibility.”  Each person should look out for their own interests.

Americans seem to have a hard time with the logic of the common good, or the idea that we owe something to those we don’t know, or to the public at large. That the life I save may not be my own. We may be able to understand these extra measures as acts of benevolence, something that we may choose voluntarily out of an overflow of love or compassion, but we balk at the notion that these actions might be owed to our neighbor. We would rather understand our choice to don a mask in a grocery store as a form of altruism than as a demand of justice.

So, then, there are two disconnects: a failure to recognize our reliance on our near and distant neighbors who also rely on us, and a failure to see that mutual reliance as generating mutual obligations. It’s no wonder. The fact that my life is shaped by responsibilities I didn’t sign up for chafes against the American myth of the self-made individual. In this myth, what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours, and our only debts are the ones we’ve knowingly taken on.

The trouble is, this atomization of the world—this separation between my interests and your interests, my rights and your rights—isn’t true to the gospel, and it isn’t true to Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus regularly challenges his hearers’ assumptions regarding who counts as our neighbor—to whom do we owe our care? Is it our family? The members of our tribe or nation? Those who worship like us? Those who are good? In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us that a good neighbor is one who sees and responds to the needs of others just because they are needy. He drives home the point by lifting up the outsider as one who can teach us how to be neighborly. Not only does Jesus expand the table of those whom God treats as insiders to the Kingdom by associating with women, tax-collectors, sinners, and those considered unclean,[3] he explicitly teaches that we ought not assume that our own inner circle has a corner on God’s care and concern.

In the Gospel of Luke, after inaugurating his public ministry with his recitation of Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus goes on to offer scriptural evidence that God’s attention is not centered exclusively or even primarily on God’s covenant people.[4] Jesus provokes a friendly audience to the point of wanting to hurl him over a cliff with the following words:

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’…Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Here, Jesus refers to two miracles whose recipients were non-Israelites.[5] In one case, God sends Elijah to feed a poor Sidonian widow and then raise her son from the dead. In the second, God uses Elisha to heal a Syrian military leader. Jesus makes a special point of contrasting the need of God’s own people with God’s provision for these two outsiders. In each case, Israel was suffering, but God bestowed grace upon a Gentile. Clearly, God is concerned with the wellbeing of those well beyond our ken. Those God is concerned for, we should be concerned for as well.

Some Christians would respond that our obligation to others extends to their spiritual needs but not to their bodily wellbeing. Many who have asserted their right to assemble have argued that the church only fulfills its witness in providing for the world’s spiritual health. But this body-soul dualism goes against scripture’s witness to God’s redemptive intentions for all creation, including human society itself.[6] According to J. Richard Middleton, these two assumptions (that the object of Christian witness is souls and not bodies, and that the needs of the church outweigh the needs of outsiders) combine in a dangerous way:

“What we have in many sectors of the church is the insidious temptation to combine an otherworldly two-realm worldview with the ‘us versus them’ sociological dualism in a most pernicious way. The hybrid worldview allows us piously to affirm the ideal of the equality of all people in the sight of God (as a ‘spiritual’ truth), while continuing with our entrenched and self-serving ‘us versus them’ framework in the ‘real’ world of politics and economics, in matters of the social order and the nation-state. . . In the realm of the ‘sacred,’ we are quite willing to declare the equality of all people and to share the gospel (understood in a minimalist sense, as the way to ‘heaven’); but in the ‘secular’ realm of realpolitik on earth, we horde our wealth and cling to our (national, class, economic) privilege.”[7]

Middleton’s analysis is a damning criticism of much American Christianity in our current moment. Churches assert their prerogative to assemble in large groups by pitting individuals’ ‘spiritual’ wellbeing against their physical wellbeing, thereby asserting the privilege of their membership against the wellbeing of the many they might go on to infect.  

Within his doctrine of the human person, theologian Karl Barth offers a philosophical and theological argument for our obligation to care for our near and distant neighbors. He describes our mutual care for each other as something owed—the language of justice—rather than as something given gratuitously—the language of altruism.

The basis of our duty to care for one another lies in the interdependence upon each other given in our very creation. Barth goes so far as to say that there is no ‘human being’ in the abstract, defined in terms of rationality or other faculties. Relying upon each other is so intrinsic to who we are that to define a person with sole reference to themselves is to create an “empty subject” that has no real meaning.[8] 

This philosophical observation is made concrete when we look to the humanity of the new human being, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we see with clarity that God created us not as self-sufficient individuals, but as creatures who depend upon one another to be the people we are called to be. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection give us the portrait of one whose mission from God for the world was identical with his being. He was from the very beginning what he was for others: 

“There is not in Him a kind of deep, inner, secret recess in which He is alone in Himself or with God, existing in stoical calm or mystic rapture apart from His fellows, untouched by their state or fate. He has no such place of rest. He is immediately and directly affected by the existence of His fellows. His relationship to His neighbours and sympathy with them are original and proper to Him and therefore belong to His innermost being. They are not a new duty and virtue which can begin and end, but He Himself is human, and it is for this reason that He acts as He does.”[9]

Barth’s portrait of Jesus’ humanity parallels his doctrine of God, according to which Jesus Christ, “God with us,” stands at the base of all God’s ways and works, so that to look to Christ is to see the fullness of God. In this section, Barth doubles down on God’s commitment to us by insisting that the Jesus who is given to us in the Gospels exists only as “God with us.” His utter commitment to our “state and fate” goes all the way down.

The human Jesus does not arrive on the scene a fully formed actor, ready to step into our human drama only where and when and in the way he wishes. Rather, from the very beginning, his life is determined from outside—by his Father’s mission, and, precisely under that umbrella, also by the human others who surround him and who make his life what it is:

“We could hardly see the man Jesus as attested in the New Testament if we closed our eyes to the twofold fact that His being is both from and to His fellows, so that He is with them, and in this way man in His distinctive sovereignty. If we see Him alone, we do not see Him at all. If we see Him, we see with and around Him in ever-widening circles His disciples, the people, His enemies and the countless millions who have not yet heard His name. We see Him as theirs, determined by them and for them, belonging to each and every one of them. It is thus that He is Master, Messiah, King, and Lord. ‘Selfless’ is hardly the word to describe this humanity. Jesus is not ‘selfless.’ For in this way He is supremely Himself.”[10]

Barth clearly invokes Jesus’ two-fold determination as a model of our humanity as intended by God. In being determined for others, Jesus is also determined by them. In making our good his own, in becoming entangled in our “state and fate,” Jesus allows himself to be acted upon, to be pressed upon and claimed by his near and distant neighbors. Whether it is his mother pressing him to provide wine for the wedding guests, his hometown folks running him out of town, or finally, his being pinned to a Roman cross, Jesus is completely and constantly caught up in the actions and machinations of others.

We might have expected the case to be different with Jesus. Even if we frail sinners cannot hold ourselves aloof of our fellow humanity, cannot finally separate our actions from the many ways we are acted upon, we might have expected Jesus’ agency to be “pure” of those influences. But no. Barth says just the opposite. It is Jesus who more completely than we is shaped by his fellows. Who he is cannot be known in abstraction from his relationships to others—to his family, friends, community, and to each of us.

The difference between Jesus and us is not that Jesus somehow holds himself aloof of the world, but that he fully identifies with its plight, and so gives himself to it as an offering of love. That is, Jesus so identifies with us in our plight as sinners, that our good is also his good. His sufferings are not a fate but a self-offering, a sacrifice: “It is not merely that he suffers Himself to be offered, but He Himself makes the offering, and triumphs in doing so.”[11]

Unlike us, of course, God consciously wills from the outset to enter into these entanglements. Even so, Barth does not hesitate to describe God’s subsequent commitment to us in terms of obligation: “Without any obligation, God has put Himself under an obligation to man.”[12]

As the new Adam, Christ is the model of our humanity. So our basic form of humanity, the form in which God created us, comprises the many ways, both great and minuscule, that my neighbor’s life impinges on mine, and mine on hers.

What I have been arguing via Barth is not that autonomy is an illusion, and that the meaning of life is to submit to being trampled by others. Submission is a strong theme in Christology since the incarnation is precisely God’s self-humiliation, in whose every aspect we see the character of sacrifice. But sacrifice, properly understood, is always an act of love on the part of a willing agent.[13] When the rights of the weak are cast aside by the powerful, we do not call it sacrifice, but domination.

To use a salient example, when the Texas Lt. Governor, Dan Patrick declared on Fox News that many grandparents like him would be willing to risk death by COVID-19 in order to protect the “the America that America loves,” [14] he framed his appeal as a sacrifice on behalf of the elderly, but in fact something more sinister was implied. Coming from a public servant, whether intended or not, his remarks carried the import of a justification of public policy. It takes little imagination to move from “loving grandparents would rather we salvage the economy than protect them” to “the state has not only a right but a moral imperative to prioritize a vigorous economy over hundreds of thousands of lives.” A government policy that would impose these losses on families across the nation would not qualify as a sacrifice, since these deaths would not be offered freely. The fact that many Americans did not share Patrick’s willingness to hazard the survival of the elderly was made evident in the public backlash that prompted the trending of hashtags such as #DieForTheDow.

One might counter, even if knowingly risking the lives of senior citizens would be no sacrifice, no voluntary offering, might it nonetheless be something the elderly owe to the young—a duty?[15] Contemplating obligation in light of our interdependence helps us to distinguish a genuine duty from a false one by directing us to our shared burdens. We ask, who suffers the losses and who reaps the gains and what are the relative weight of each? Patrick’s statement implies that the wellbeing of our elderly is a good exchange for the thriving of our economy. In the situation Patrick proposes, however, it is inevitably the poor, the black, and the immunocompromised who would suffer the brunt of the losses, while the wealthy, those with the best access to quality healthcare and the most stock investments, would reap the greatest gains. So Patrick’s statement conjures a kind of one-sided “sacrifice”—or, rather, injury—that is out of step with the kind of shared responsibility to one another that Christ commands.

The reflection from Barth is not meant to resolve these questions, but to lead us to a basic underlying truth: our lives are, in a very concrete sense, composed of obligations toward one another, many of which we never consciously signed up for. These obligations exist, in one sense, because of our inevitable entanglement in the lives of even our most distant neighbors, the fact that we give to one another and take from one another in numerous ways that beg to be acknowledged. 

For Christians, the fact that we live within webs of mutual obligation has a further theological basis: In Jesus Christ, God entered into our web of entanglements. Jesus’s glory consisted in none other than his being “fully claimed and clamped by His fellows.”[16] Each person who makes a claim on me is not only someone claimed by God, but someone whom God willed to be claimed by. Who am I, then, to hold myself aloof from the needs and claims of others?


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/business/economy/coronavirus-inequality.html

[2] https://www.startribune.com/in-federal-lawsuit-two-minnesota-churches-ask-judge-to-fully-reopen-places-of-worship/570562572/

[3] Matt. 21:31-31; Luke 5:29-31; 7:34-39;Mark 1:40–45.

[4] For the analysis that follows, I relied upon J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) 263-67.

[5] As told in 1 Kings 17:1-24 and 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[6] Romans 8, Revelation 21.

[7] Middleton, 274.

[8] Church Dogmatics III/2, 243.

[9] Church Dogmatics III/2, 211.

[10] CD III/2, 216

[11] CD III/2, 268

[12] CD II/2, 101.

[13] My understanding of sacrifice has been shaped by the work of Sarah Stewart-Kroeker. In a paper presented to the American Academy of Religion in November 2019, she defined sacrifice as “surrendering a good as an offering for the sake of another good.”

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=a9k-GeCtK9o&feature=emb_title https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/texas-lt-gov-dan-patrick-suggests-he-other-seniors-willing-n1167341

[15] We necessary leave to the side the most problematic assumption about this suggestion: the fact that numerous young people are among those most threatened by COVID-19, including the immuno-compromised. 

[16] CD III/2, 215.

Cambria Janae Kaltwasser

Dr. Kaltwasser earned her doctorate in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she also completed her Master of Divinity. She teaches courses in historical and systematic theology and the Christian life. Dr. Kaltwasser's research interests center on the doctrine of humanity, sanctification, and Christian hope. Her dissertation examines Karl Barth's account of human agency as responsibility before God and neighbor. In 2013–14, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Dr. Kaltwasser is a fellow of the Barth Translators' Seminar through the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).