Christians Weighing the Price of Life

A campus minister shares his thoughts on faith, economics and social distancing.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” 

The President tweeted this last Sunday night. He was referring, of course, to the drastic measures many states and municipalities have taken to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. These measures, which you are undoubtedly are aware of, have involved a previously unthinkable amount of business closures and the imperative that millions of Americans “shelter in place,” leaving home only for essential reasons. Those measures have quickly gutted the stock market and imperiled businesses small and large across the country. Layoffs are also occurring, and the prospect of massive unemployment looms large. Experts, including an official at the Federal Reserve, have projected that the unemployment rate could reach 20% or even 30%.

Needless to say, the plan to “flatten the curve” in order to slow the spread of the virus to keep our health care system functioning is harming our economy.

Americans are worried, and understandably so. What will the world look like on the other side of this? Will it be as bad as the Great Recession of 2008? As bad as the Great Depression? Worse?

At the core of those questions is legitimate anxiety over what the future holds. Anxiety is a quintessentially human response to uncertainty, and uncertainty surrounding America’s economic future abounds. Some fear that their financial goals are in jeopardy. Others fret that their lifestyle will change dramatically. Still others anticipate the loss of employment. Even people with a high degree of job security worry that their career will stagnate as economic growth declines. For many Americans, especially lower wage earners or those without a substantial savings safety net, the loss of income for more than a few days could be financially devastating. Medical health, food security and housing are on the line for many Americans. There is plenty to be anxious about when it comes to how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our economy. When the overall economy is unhealthy, the future seems bleak.

Potential efforts to preserve our economic hope appear to be at odds with a massive civic effort to save American lives. Credible epidemiological models strongly suggest that social distancing and mandates for millions of people to shelter in place will save hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of lives. That has presented government leaders with the ethical dilemma President Trump alluded to in the tweet mentioned above: Should we save the economy or more lives?

The dilemma is a question of probability, but the stakes are clear. Lowering the risk of a higher mortality rate will hurt our economy, while lowering the risk of a recession will cost additional American lives.

This should not be a serious question for Christians: Human life must take precedence. The reason is straightforward. Imagine the same dilemma was presented in the context of your family alone: If letting a family member die would mean avoiding extreme economic hardship, would you be willing to sacrifice that family member? It is hard to imagine anyone choosing economic stability over the life of a loved one. When it comes to the health of our immediate family, we choose life. Given the love most people have for their family, surely most people would rather live in poverty in order to save the lives of their dearest loved ones.

In Matthew 22:39, Jesus tells his followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We must understand that command in light of the conviction that we would not sacrifice the life of our family members for economic prosperity. If we don’t consider our family members’ lives to be disposable for the sake of a healthier economy, we should not think of anyone’s life as disposable in order to bet on a healthier economy.

Christians must not be fooled into thinking this is a consequentialist dilemma. We aren’t living in the trolley problem. There are currently no credible projections that the coronavirus lockdown would  harm our national economy so much that it would cost more lives than the unmitigated spread of the virus. In fact, mortality rates fell during the Great Depression. 

As it stands now, the idea that the cure could be worse than the problem itself rests on a market-based valuation of human life. There is nothing Christian about this method of calculating the cost of human life. Weighing the value of human life against market value is a modern—and thoroughly secular—way of making policy and business decisions. Christians should not be hoping that someone in the government will do something to save our 401ks if we know the cost is human life.

My prayer is that, in this time of uncertainty, the Church would be united in valuing life over mammon. 

The United States has long been an economic powerhouse—so much so that it has become part of our national identity. We are a country with all the promises and hopes for the future that come with economic riches, and American Christians are de facto heirs to those promises. They indeed are blessings, but we must, perhaps more than ever, remember that our identity and hope is in Christ and Christ alone, and not in our Nation’s economic promises. Our life may not always be certain or comfortable. As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, “we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” 

If coronaviruses drives us into economic poverty, let us find the spiritual riches that come with having shared in His sufferings through this historic time.

Reflection QuestionS

When politicians, commentators and social media contacts talk about economic conditions getting worse, what fears crop up in your mind? Do the gospel’s promises address those fears? If so, how?

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  • Jeff is a Residential Minister at Georgetown University. He teaches philosophy and religious studies at Prince George’s Community College and the Catholic University of America, where he is also a Ph.D. student in the Religion and Culture program.

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