I’m not a big Facebook user, but this morning I posted a couple items, back-to-back. One of them received plenty of smiles and thumbs-up, but hours later I was quite surprised to discover not a single “Like” or comment or acknowledgement of any kind for the other one. I don’t believe I’ve ever had that happen before now.
What was the post? A news article entitled, “In Scramble for Coronavirus Supplies, Rich Countries Push Poor Aside.”
Right now, in the midst of the crisis, apparently no one wants to read about that; they don’t even wish to acknowledge it.
We know, we know. This is the way the world works. We really DO want to care; but let’s face it – If I die today, I can’t help someone else tomorrow. Right? That’s true, but at what point does this become a mind game, a rationalization, a justification?
And with the probable exception of Pope Francis, we are not likely to hear our faith leaders cry out about this inequity. Each one of them lives in a specific context and feels primary concern for their own congregation, the same as most political leaders. They don’t need the backlash from scared constituents right now. ‘Speak up for the poor and needy’ and ‘What you did for the least’ will be trumped by ‘Feed my sheep.’
Yet this also helps explain why religious leaders as a group have so little moral authority in the public square today. We all, churched or unchurched, have a deep-seated inner sense of right and wrong, and this inequality is plainly wrong. Granted, it’s an exceedingly inconvenient wrong; but it’s still wrong, and we know it.
Moral authority in our day is emerging from unlikely sources: billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, secular ethicist Peter Singer, and Dr. Lin Jenkins. Wait, Doctor Who?
Dr. Jenkins was interviewed this week on BBC Radio. He’s helping launch a movement of “higher-risk” (read: over age 60) individuals who are committing themselves to refuse life-saving hospital care should they contract COVID-19 and those beds and ventilators be in short supply when they need it. These individuals are prioritizing the lives of younger people, unknown strangers, over their own. Those unknown under-60’s may/not have children at home, they might even have flaunted the shelter-in-place warnings and as a result wound up seriously sick and in need of life-saving care. St. Paul may be correct that “most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good” (Rom 5:7 NLT) but Dr. Jenkins requires no litmus test of one’s “worthiness”. In the interview, Dr. Jenkins never mentioned whether a personal faith motivated him; his arguments were moral, not religious—based on the reasoning that he has already been able to enjoy more of life than someone younger and that he therefore has a moral responsibility to forego treatment if there is a shortage of equipment then and younger people are also in need.
In a similar vein, Peter Singer argues convincingly in his book The Life You Can Save a radical principle: that each and every human life has equal value. Few would disagree that we should save as many lives as possible, but Singer argues that therefore if our efforts or our money could save one life in our own city or country, or the same money could save a hundred lives in a less-developed nation (a valid ‘cost’ comparison), then we have a moral authority to use those resources for distant strangers. Of course, we should try to save everyone, and there are far worse expenditures of our time and resources than saving one precious life. But Singer presses on our mechanical assent with his hypothesis and takes it to its logical conclusion in terms of how we should then live.
But few of us live as though every life is equally precious. And there’s the rub.
One person who does live and invest this way is Bill Gates. His foundation has been roundly criticized over the years for using the majority of it funds outside the United States, addressing issues we don’t even face in America. His argument?, that every human life has equal value, and if he save many more lives in one place over another, that’s where he should concentrate his efforts. You can call that utilitarianism or a steely-eyed, tin-hearted calculation of maximizing the return on his philanthropic investment. But it goes deeper than that, or Gates would have long ago succumbed to pressure and criticism from local and national commentators. Rather, his prime motivation comes from a deep-seated moral belief that every human life has equal value.
Of course, every one of us knows that this same mindset is the attitude of any God worth believing in. We often proclaim “God doesn’t play favorites” (while secretly hoping Providence might make a tiny exception for us).
The painful truth is that few if any of us live up to that divine standard. As Martin Luther wrote* in 1527, “it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak.”
The problem here is not that we are imperfect. It’s that when push comes to shove, we want to shove like the rest, and we want those in authority to shove for us. We don’t want to be reminded of how we benefit from the actions of our government in outbidding other needy countries or other needy states for limited supplies. Using our own money and influence for preferential treatment is rooted deep in our American psyche. I’ve watch myself do it! This is “the way of the world” as we’ve always known it.
And, of course, it’s the polar opposite of the Way of Jesus. Nor is it the only way the world could operate. Countries like Germany are showing us that when everyone has basic access to critical medical services, more lives are saved.
More human lives. More precious lives, lives of equal value.
That’s why I applaud the reporting about unequal access for poorer nations, and why I applaud those who dare to read the article. Because until we can face the truth of how things are, we can never dream that they could change, or that we could change.
Easter weekend seems like an excellent time to recall that real change can happen.
April 9, 2020
* From the pamphlet Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.