By Elisabeth Rain Kincaid
In 1958, the great Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, lamenting the loss of common ground in American life and politics, wrote:
“The fact today is not simply that we hold different views but that we have become different types of men, with different styles of interior life. We are therefore uneasy in one another’s presence. We are not, in fact, present to one another at all; we are absent from one another. That is, I am not transparent to the other, nor he to me; our mutual experience is that of an opaqueness. And this reciprocal opaqueness is the root of the hostility that is overcome only with an effort, if at all.”
The onslaught of COVID-19 has revealed that this opaqueness characterizes our relationships today. The trauma of the pandemic has not erased our differences, but has instead revealed how deep-seated our differences are, and how deeply they divide us. We are united in fear, anxiety, and the staleness of being stuck in our homes, but light years apart in our experiences and understanding of what this time means. Old/young, male/female, white/black, children/no children, single/married, employed/unemployed, urban/rural, conservative/liberal: each of us is going through the pandemic differently and each is telling a different story of what this experience means.
Of course, this difference is illuminated most clearly in the stark mortality numbers trailing in the virus’s wake. The difference between being old and young, healthy or with pre-existing conditions, essential worker or non-essential, has become at times a difference of life and death. However, the divisions between us are also illustrated by the stories we are telling and the terms in which public debate is being conducted. Put most crudely, at times it seems as if we are forced to choose between saving lives by keeping the country shut down and saving livelihoods by starting business back up. Although this division does not do justice to the complexity of claims which many are making, it does illustrate how we are as opaque to each other in our understanding of what constitutes the common good and which authorities to trust as we are in our personal experiences. This not only characterizes our political and civil discourse, it also splits our churches. We are opaque to one another and the fact that we are physically apart does nothing to abate our hostility.
What can Christian ethics — and Christians ourselves — contribute to this debate? What story can we tell to remind our broken country so that, in the words of a prayer book collect, “unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair”? To begin with, we should approach these questions with humility. We cannot replace the experts: the scientists and epidemiologists tracking the disease’s spread and searching for cures and solutions; the doctors and nurses laboring on the front lines; the economists seeking to stanch the fiscal bleeding; or even the politicians who (we pray) are using practical wisdom to direct the resources of government towards the common good. We can, however, remind other Christians of the value of their labors. In pointing towards the good of natural knowledge, of techne, and of the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, we should seek to remind other Christians that secular skills and natural virtues do matter and can point us towards the good and the limited peace which both the City of God and the City of Man depend upon.
We can also remind others of the limits of these types of natural knowledge. Science cannot give us all the answers as to how to live and how to die: the heart-rending nature of the debates in bioethics about how to ration scarce life-saving resources has made that all too plain. Economics and business savvy cannot teach us how, as Christians, we are called to care first for those within whom we see the face of the Christ: the weak, the poor, the suffering, the hungry, and those in jail. While the sources of natural knowledge are good and necessary, they do not tell the entire story.
As Christians, we should refuse the dichotomy of life/livelihood which these options present to us. Rather, we should seek to retrieve anew an expanded, shared concept of the common good which can transcend these divisions, illuminate our opacity, and teach us again to see each other as children of God. In one of his encyclicals on economics, Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI rejects the dichotomy between love and justice, reminding us that the common good includes both. “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them.”
Our ability to remove the opacity through which we see each other requires therefore a replacement of the opacity with the solidarity to which Jesus calls us. This solidarity requires us to look beyond our own desires and political preferences and to ask which approach prioritizes caring for and protecting the most vulnerable: both physically and economically. It requires us not to ask “how to get back to where we were before” but rather, how can the tools of science, economics, and politics enable us “whenever we have an opportunity, to work for the good of all” (Gal 6:10).
In some Christian circles, the pandemic has been described as God’s judgment. Instead of engaging in theologically dubious reads of God’s motives, churches, theologians, and all Christians would perhaps be better served by looking at the ways in which the disease has revealed our distance and societal failures, as examples of God’s severe mercies. The many ways in which we fail to love the poor, the old, the weak, the destitute, those in prison, and those suffering from entrenched oppression because of their ethnicity or the color of their skin lie open before us. The opacity which lies between us can now only continue if we choose it. The story we can choose to tell is not “when does this end” but, rather, how should we be part of God’s redemptive action in the world in what happens next.
Dr. Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is assistant professor of ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a Covenant contributor.