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What Sort of People do we Want to Be? A Review Article with Reflections on the COVID-19 Crisis

This arrived in my inbox last week: Few could have predicted that we would be reaching Easter this year with more than half the world in either partial or full lockdown. Climate scientists predict that 2020 could see the biggest fall in carbon emissions since World War Two. Yet without structural change, experts warn that these reductions could be short-lived.[1]

This came alongside news reports of people in parts of India being able to see the Himalayas as well as the night sky for the first time in thirty years,[2] and remarkably lower levels of pollutants in the atmosphere in some NZ cities.[3] The drop in industrial activity, the reduction in the use of private cars, and perhaps most significantly, the reduction in the number of aircraft flying across the skies during this rāhui have had a significant effect on pollution levels and probably on global warming.[4]

The email I quoted at the outset implies that when we return to normal after the COVID-19 threat is over, structural changes could lead to a new normal. But how do we achieve that? Over the summer I encountered Steven Bouma-Prediger’s latest book, Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic.[5] I think Bouma-Prediger has something important to say to our current situation, even though he wrote before anybody had heard of COVID-19.[6]

What sort of people do we want to be? That is how virtue ethics are distinguished from other ethical theories. Bouma-Prediger reminds us that two theories have dominated the ethical landscape for the last 250 years: deontology, a technical term for the obligations and duties we recognise we have towards others; and teleology, the term used to describe the ways we act so as to achieve the greatest balance of good over evil. As he notes, “for deontology the good is defined in terms of the right … teleology defines the right in terms of the good.”[7] That is, under deontology if you want to know what is good, then you work out what is right, and under teleology, if you want to know what is right, then you work out what is good.

An example of teleological ethics appears in an opinion piece published by Ananish Chaudhuri, Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland. He writes, “there is a trade-off here: how many lives will be taken by Covid-19 (identified lives) and how many lives will be lost due to our attempts to prevent loss of lives from Covid-19 (statistical lives)?”[8]

Weighed over and against this is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s comment, that a “strategy that sacrifices people in favour of, supposedly, a better economic outcome is a false dichotomy and has been shown to produce the worst of both worlds: loss of life and prolonged economic pain.”[9]

On the other hand, deontological ethics are on display in the Prime Minister’s appeals to us all to “obey the rules,” appeals shown to be inadequate given the need to deploy the police to turn back holiday travellers over Easter weekend.

Both theories are, says Bouma-Prediger, inadequate,

It is simply not the case that most people most of the time, when making an ethical judgment, stop to identify and collect and reflect on all the possible good and bad consequences of each hypothetical action. It is false to assume that most people most of the time, when deciding on whether and how to act, measure the degree to which each of their possible actions meets some philosophically derived principle of obligation. These ethical theories have a highly implausible view of human nature.[10]

In place of these ethical theories, Bouma-Prediger proposes that we work with virtue ethics, that is that we become people of character, and that when it becomes to ethics—“what we do depends on who we are.”[11] Of course, this is not new and there have been repeated calls to reclaim virtue ethics so that it can take its place as the third of the ethical theories that have dominated the Western culture for generations.[12]

Bouma-Prediger’s book applies virtue ethics to ecological concerns—what sort of people are we to be if we are to care for God’s creation as God has charged us to (Gen 2:15)? What sort of people are we to be if we do not revert to the old normal after the rāhui ends?

The book begins with a story,

The day was picture perfect. A brilliant sun was shimmying up a clear blue sky, birds were singing to their hearts’ content, and the temperature was in the low fifties [Fahrenheit]. My group of hikers … on a ten-day canoeing and backpacking expedition in the Adirondacks of upstate New York … hit the trail toward our evening’s destination. As we rounded the bend in the rocky trail, we could not believe what met our eyes. The campsite by the trail was trashed. Litter was everywhere. Half-burned wood from the fire ring was strewn hither and yon. Large pieces of metal, hard to identify, were leaning up against an old log lean-to that was thoroughly inscribed with knife carvings. Birch trees were stripped of their bark all the way round. After a long, astonished silence, one of my students uttered the words in my mind: What sort of person would do such a thing like that? What kind of person would trash such a beautiful place?[13]

Stories like this pepper Bouma-Prediger’s book. Indeed, each chapter begins and ends with a story. This is a negative example, but there are many positive examples drawn from the author’s rich experience of people of character caring for creation. Chapter 1 “Mapping the Territory” gives the theory behind virtue ethics and argues for its primacy in terms of the care of creation. This is followed by four chapters on different aspects of character that need to shape us to become the sort of people who are committed to that. He deals with the virtues of “Wonder and Humility” (chapter 2), “Self-Control and Wisdom” (chapter 3), “Justice and Love” (chapter 4), “Courage and Hope” (chapter 5). “Digging in: Becoming a Person of Character” (Chapter 6) ties it all together. [14]

In what follows I give a brief discussion of Bouma-Prediger’s four central chapters and how the virtues he discusses can be applied in terms of ecology, followed by a glance in the direction of his final chapter. Each chapter follows a regular pattern. Bouma-Prediger starts with a brief discussion of the particular virtues covered in the chapter before turning to the Bible for some insight from the biblical text. Then he applies these insights to ecology and how they relate to the care of creation, before embodying them in another story from own rich experience. Along the way he also delineates the vices that are opposed to the virtues he discusses.

Chapter 2, (“Living with Amazement and Modesty”), deals with the virtues of wonder and humility—wonder at the beauty of the creation and humility that recognises that we are not the centre of the universe. In this chapter,[15] Bouma-Prediger goes to Genesis 1 where he finds wonder in the story of God calling the universe into being, and calls for humility as we recognise that we are not God. There is wonder that we have been given a role to play in caring for the creation, and there is humility in the recognition that our actions have real consequences. There is wonder in the recognition that creation is an ordered cosmos where everything fits together into a harmonious whole, and there is humility in the recognition that we creatures are image-bearers of God (although he doesn’t use that precise language).

After drawing on several other texts, he contrasts the vice of insensibility to the beauty of the creation with the virtue of wonder at that beauty.[16] Over against the virtue of humility he sets the vices of overweening pride (we are too important) and self-deprecation (we are too insignificant).[17] Bouma-Prediger refers to Psalm 8 in this context,[18] where the Psalmist is moved with wonder and awe at the immensity of God’s universe alongside his own smallness as a human “from the humus”, and his great dignity as God’s image-bearer, and earth-keeper. This chapter is a call to cultivate wonder and humility and let that influence the way we act in caring for creation. Living with wonder can lead us to awe at the beauty of all that God has made and inspire us to continue to care for that. Living with humility can lead us to have a realistic assessment of what we are able to do in caring for the creation, and what we cannot do.

Chapter 3, (“Living with Strength of Mind and Discernment”), deals with the virtues of self-control and wisdom.[19] If wonder and humility are related to the beauty of the creation and our proper response to God’s call for us to care for that creation (Gen 2:15), self-control and wisdom are about the recognition that the earth is finite.[20] God has given us all things to enjoy, and has blessed us (along with the non-human creatures) with all the potency of life enabling us to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:21, 28). But that does not mean that we have a licence to consume the earth’s finite resources at will. Rather, we are called to exercise self-control and wisdom in our consumption. Indeed, excessive consumption and harmful ecological impacts seem to go hand in hand. As one study has shown, the richest ten percent of people in the world, the ones whose consumption is the greatest, produce over fifty percent of the world’s carbon emissions.[21] The same article includes a graphic showing in stark detail what this means.

Figure 1: Source: Oxfam, World’s richest 10% produce half of carbon emissions while poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth.

The vices opposed to self-control and wisdom are, on the one hand, self-indulgence (the inability to control what we consume), greed, and austerity (“self-control gone stern and severe”)[22], and on the other hand, foolishness or “the disposition to act as if the earth is endlessly exploitable and expendable.”[23] Decreasing pollution levels in the short space of a few weeks when many cities have gone into lockdown have shown how quickly the planet can benefit from reduced consumption with less cars on the road and fewer aircraft in the sky. I fear that the return to “normal,” whatever that means, will be accompanied by increased calls for uncontrolled economic growth, leading once more to excessive consumption by those of us living in the wealthy West. Living with self-control and wisdom can enable us to resist the urge to over-consumption, with a positive impact on the health of the planet, and also with more equitable distribution of resources.

Talk of more equitable distribution of resources leads nicely into Chapter 4 (“Living with Respect and Care”), dealing with the virtues of justice and love.[24] When we control the level of our consumption with wisdom, then the poor and under-resourced will have more. Tragedy has the capacity to hit such people harder. An example of this is the disproportionate number of African Americans who have died from COVID-19 over against other Americans. A Washington Post article claims that “available data and census demographics shows that counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.”[25]

The article includes statistics such as:

In Milwaukee County, home to Wisconsin’s largest city, African Americans account for about 70 percent of the dead but just 26 percent of the population. The disparity is similar in Louisiana, where 70 percent of the people who have died were black, although African Americans make up just 32 percent of the state’s population.[26]

Mercifully, the statistics are not the same in NZ with Māori and Pacifica peoples, but they could well be.[27] If we return to the old normal, things will not change.

Bouma-Prediger relates justice and love to the non-human creation as well as to our fellow humans. It is the disposition to treat others fairly and with compassion. He shows that the vice opposed to justice is injustice and, in this context, ecological injustice, failing to respect the rights of the non-human creatures, both domestic animals and non-domestic (e.g., polluted waterways leading to the death of freshwater life). The vice opposed to love is ecological malevolence and apathy, with no concern for God’s creation. Becoming people of justice and love will enable us to be alert to the needs of others around us and to the non-human creation as well, and to respond to these needs.

Chapter 5 (“Living with Fortitude and Expectation”) deals with the virtues of courage and hope.[28] I write this the day after Resurrection Sunday, 2020, the day many of us would have worshipped in our homes and celebrated the resurrection of Jesus in our whānau [family] bubbles. This morning I read a blog entitled, “Holy Saturday” by Fred Clark, originally posted in 2010. It is worth quoting at length. Clark writes:

This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know …
There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him.
And now it’s Saturday and Jesus is dead and we’re all going to die and everything I’ve told you about him turns out to be in vain and everything I’ve staked my life on turns out to be in vain. Our faith is futile and we’re still hopeless in our sins. Jesus is dead and we are of all people most to be pitied.

Clark then quotes words from 1 Cor 15:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead [translation unspecified].

followed by,

But that’s Sunday language and Sunday certainty and it doesn’t make much sense here on Saturday. Here on Saturday, we can hope it’s true and we may even try to believe it’s true, but we can’t know “in fact” one way or another. Not now. Not on Saturday.[29]

Today we sit in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic Saturday. Will we emerge from this? Will we return to normal? Resurrection Sunday says that we will. As Jesus himself said to his disciples, “[i]n this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV). We can have hope because Jesus has risen from the dead.

Bouma-Prediger defines ecological courage as: “[s]teadfast endurance in the face of seemingly intractable problems,”[30] and ecological hope as: “the settled disposition to yearn for and act to bring about … God’s good future of shalom for all the earth.”[31] Over and against that he refers to the vice of “ecological despair”, the belief that global warming and all that comes with it will never be overcome. Or the vice of, “ecological presumptuousness,” the reliance on technology and some as yet unforeseen scientific breakthrough to solve all our problems.[32]

Bouma-Prediger does not specifically cite Rev 21:5, but this is the text I instinctively turn to when I am preoccupied with ecological degradation: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (NRSV). Ecological courage and hope are founded on the creative activity of God who is making everything new, and who calls upon us to join our efforts to his to continue to care for his good creation and work for its renewal. Living with courage and hope will strengthen us to continue to work with God for a more just world, a world that God is renewing day by day, and who calls us to join him in his work of redeeming creation.

Bouma-Prediger ties it all together in his last chapter, “Digging In: Becoming a Person of Character.”[33] He gives several examples from his own experience and draws on other writers. One paragraph is worth quoting at length,

Earthkeeping is integral to Christian faith. The Bible begins and ends with rivers and trees. The Bible speaks of humans as earthkeepers. The Bible portrays God's good future as earthly and earthy. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And beyond the Bible, in the Apostles’ Creed, we begin with a confession of God as Maker of heaven and earth. In the Doxology, we sing that all creatures here below praise God. Earthkeeping is woven into the warp and weft of our faith – Scripture, creeds, prayers, songs – if only we had the eyes to see and ears to hear. As the prophetic ecological theologian Joseph Sittler puts it, “When we turn the attention of the church to a definition of the Christian relationship with the natural world, we are not stepping away from grave and proper theological ideas; we are stepping right into the middle of them. There is a deeply rooted, genuinely Christian motivation for attention to God's creation.”[34]

This reminder of the centrality of the care of creation is a salient and important call that has too often been overlooked. If I read Bouma-Prediger rightly he is calling us to develop the virtues he has enumerated, so as to become the sort of people who will heed that call. But how are we to become those sorts of people? The text quoted at the head of the chapter caught my eye, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22, NRSV). While Bouma-Prediger enumerates only some of these virtues, that text is significant for another reason. It shows the ultimate source of any virtue that a Christian believer can cultivate. How do we become people of character? How do we not revert to the old normal at the end of the rāhui? Not by applying ourselves as though it all depended upon us. Rather, it is as we progressively submit to and cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives that we become the people of character that God is calling us to be.[35] Then we will find the “deeply rooted, genuinely Christian motivation for attention to God's creation” that Bouma-Prediger (citing Joseph Sittler) calls us to.[36]

I noted above (endnote 6), that Bouma-Prediger addresses Christian believers, calling us to become people of character who faithfully care for God’s creation. He is not issuing a call to politicians and economists, even if some politicians and economists may also be Christian believers. What “normal” looks like after the pandemic is over is partly down to public policy as well as to Christian believers becoming people of character.

Jesus announced a new reality that he called the Kingdom of God; God coming to put things right in the world. This is the telos of creation. The virtue of humility tells us that the world will not be put right by Christian believers working to become people of character; it will not be put right by politicians and economists, and not even by Directors General of Health. It is something God is bringing in. This is what we long for, praying, “your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). On the other hand the virtues of courage and hope call us to participate in this kingdom in the present, “anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love … [fulfilling our] calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world.”[37] Becoming people of character we anticipate the coming kingdom now as the first-fruits of that kingdom. Bouma-Prediger’s book is a call for us to do that, and to come alongside the God who is making all things new, caring for God’s creation with wonder and humility, self-control and wisdom, justice and love, and courage and hope.

Philip Church originally trained as an accountant and worked in that profession for about sixty percent of his working life. He has had a lifelong interest in biblical studies, which he taught at Laidlaw College from 2002-2016. He was editor of Stimulus from 2012-2014. Now in retirement, he is a Senior Research Fellow with Laidlaw College and spends his days in research and writing, and occasional teaching in majority world contexts. He has taught in Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal and Papua New Guinea. He is married to Dorothy and they have three adult children and four grandchildren.

[1] Fundraising email from A Rocha International, 9 April 2020.

[2] Elias Marat, “Himalayas Visible for First Time in 30 Years From Some Parts of India as Lockdown Sees Drop in Pollution,” The Mind Unleashed, 8 April 2020. Online:

[3] Olivia Wannan, “Coronavirus: Traffic Pollution Plummets across the Country during Lockdown,” Stuff, 2 April 2020. Online:

[4] I use the word rāhui rather than “lockdown.” Another email I received this week said this, “Te Wānanga o Aotearoa have adopted the kupu (word) ‘rāhui’ instead of ‘lockdown’. A community gives power to a rāhui by upholding it and being a part of it. Rāhui is a tikanga [custom] used by our tūpuna [ancestors] to look after us, both physically and spiritually. Rāhui is empowering, it unifies us, it encourages us all to take responsibility for our collective wellbeing” (email to students from Te Wananga o Aotearoa, 9 April 2020).

[5] Steven Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020). Bouma-Prediger is Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology at Hope College (Holland, Michigan). He also has a connection with New Zealand, teaching here for the Creation Care Study Program (

[6] I acknowledge at the outset that Bouma-Prediger addresses Christian believers, rather than the general public, and while Christian believers can work to develop the sorts of virtues he commends in his book so as to become the sorts of people he describes, how this works at a public policy level is another question altogether.

[7] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 10.

[8] Ananish Chaudhuri, “A different perspective on Covid-19,” Newsroom, 8 April 2020. Online:

[9] “Transcript of daily media conference 5 April 2020.” Online: While I agree with this, I am not sure that her claim COVID-19 is “the greatest threat to human health that we have faced in over a century” (“Transcript of daily COVID-19 media conference – 9 April.” Online: Accessed 10 April 2020). As of 10 April 2020 there had been than 100,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Horrifying as this number is, it pales into insignificance with almost twelve million deaths by abortion in the current calendar year (see online: Accessed 10 April 2020).

[10] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 11.

[11] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 15.

[12] See, e.g., Bouma-Prediger’s Appendix, “A Brief Survey of Christian Environmental Virtue Ethics” Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 145-51. See also Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn (London: SPCK, 2010) and Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

[13] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 1.

[14] The book has just 151 pages of text, twenty-four pages of Endnotes and a seventeen page Bibliography. It ends with a Scripture Index and a Subject and Name Index. The Appendix (145–51), “A Brief Survey of Christian Environmental Virtue Ethics,” gives a glance in the direction of about a dozen earlier works also proposing environmental virtue ethics.

[15] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 35–37.

[16] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 43–44.

[17] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 45–46.

[18] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 30.

[19] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 51.

[20] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 59.

[21] Nicholas Beuret, “Emissions inequality: there is a gulf between global rich and poor,” The Conversation, 29 March 2019. Online:

[22] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 65.

[23] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 70.

[24] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 75.

[25] Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran and Vanessa Williams, “The Coronavirus is Infecting and Killing Black Americans at an Alarmingly High Rate,” Washington Post, 7 April 2020. Online:

[26] ibid.

[27] See the demographic breakdown at The data as of 9 April were that out of 1,239 cases, just 100 were Māori and forty-six were Pacific peoples.

[28] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 103.

[29] Fred Clark, “Holy Saturday,” Slacktivist: Test Everything: Hold fast to What is Good, 11 April 2020. Online:

[30] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 117.

[31] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 119.

[32] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 120.

[33] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 127.

[34] Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 131, citing Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace (Minneapolis, MN; Augsburg, 1986), 15.

[35] See Wright, Virtue Reborn, 167–71.

[36] Sittler, Gravity and Grace, 15 (as cited by Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, 131).

[37] Wright, Virtue Reborn, 60.