The weeks slide from our fingers as the pandemic’s first wave moderates—whether due to our quarantined culture or the wiles of viral behavior. Pressure mounts to resume some sort of normalcy. On the one hand, normal is impossible as long as a vaccine eludes us. But on the other hand, surviving a sustained shutdown is economically and emotionally infeasible. Thirty million Americans have lost their jobs, nerves are fried, and happiness stays socially distant.
Reopening America comes at a high price. Given what we know about the coronavirus and its effects, there’s a tradeoff to be calculated between economic livelihood and human life. The quarantine’s goal from the outset has been preserving hospital capacity for anticipated surges. America is a country where health care, while expensive and notoriously complicated, is regarded as more a right than a privilege. But if too many people get sick and health care resources deplete, rights give way to privilege. The better off get better while the poor and marginalized suffer.
Such is the way of life, some would say. Nature must run its course. The virus exposes a surplus population, the elderly, and the mortal sin of preexisting conditions. According to a recent Pew survey, a majority of people with no religious affiliation (56%) said ventilators should be saved “for those with the highest chance of recovery in the event that there are not enough resources to go around, even if that means some patients don’t receive the same aggressive treatment because they are older, sicker and less likely to survive.” Economists do the math: A life is worth X, a job is worth Y, toss in actuarial variables, and generate a value on which to base a decision. Risk and price prove as efficient as they are heartless.
But a value and values are not the same thing. Ideally when it comes to health care, the patient does the math based on their own preferences and personal beliefs. Providers then respond with treatment options available. Unavailable resources may press for a recalibration of utility over values, but Christianity resists. One’s personal conviction, prayer, Scripture, community, and trustworthy teachings supervene on ethical decisions. Thus, according to Pew, most evangelicals (60%) said limited ventilators should go to whichever patients “need them most in the moment, which might mean that fewer people survive but no one is denied treatment based on their age or health status” (the US average was 50%). Moreover, religious beliefs evoke suspicion of any human presuming authority over another’s life—God alone holds authority over death and life (Deut. 32:39).
Still, decisions have to be made. Years ago, I served a stint on a hospital ethics committee in Boston where we tackled organ donation after cardiac death. When was it OK to remove a heart for a consented transplant from a child after that heart irreversibly stopped beating? Hospital policy was to wait five minutes rather than the preferred two practiced by most medical centers. The reason was to provide the deceased with “spiritual wiggle room.” The hospital determined that five minutes should suffice for a soul to depart its body.
Nonreligious members of the ethics committee were nonplussed. With hundreds of children desperately awaiting organ donations, why risk organ viability by taking extra time for something that, scientifically speaking, we’re not even sure happens? The ethics committee turned to me (a minister at the time) for advice.
“Reverend,” they asked, “how long does it take for a soul to depart the body?”
All I knew to say was what Christians had always believed. I quoted the Apostles’ Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” by which we mean the whole body. No need for the wiggle room. How does this happen? The Bible says it works something like farming: A natural body gets sown in the ground like a corpse buried, but then gets raised a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). To dust we return, but from the dust we will rise and be recognizable like Jesus, fully healed and made whole and finally our true selves.
Except Jesus still has his scars. You’d think if resurrection gets you a new body, you’d at least lose the nail holes. “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus said (Luke 24:39). His scars were signs of sacrificial love. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3).
Note that Jesus did not say to lay down another’s life. We’re told to take up our own crosses in order to follow Christ (Mark 8:34), not to crucify others. We can love sacrificially unto death for a friend with hope and without fear because Jesus really rose from the dead.
If social distancing fails and resources deplete, the question over who lives and who dies resorts to politicians, economists, and health care administrators. But Christians have another ethical choice. Is our faith sufficient that we would ever give up our own ventilator for the sake of a friend? For a neighbor? For even a stranger? One’s personal conviction, prayer, Scripture, community, and trustworthy teachings challenge us to consider sacrifice over self-preservation. Following Jesus means taking up crosses. Lose ourselves and we find our true selves. Our scars and core wounds reveal our core loves and real faith, not the fruit of our effort but the yield of our yielding to Jesus. Our greatest love and most beautiful virtues do not run, but rather transcend, nature’s course.
John Calvin once wrote:
We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves, and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our goal of life.
Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.