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Gollum’s Coronavirus Lesson

What a 'Lord of the Rings' villain has to teach us about how to think through the pandemic
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Can you stand one more bit about how Christians ought to be reasoning through this pandemic crisis? I hope so, because at Mere Orthodoxy, Brad Littlejohn, a political theory professor, has written the best thing I’ve yet seen about that topic. Excerpts:

The current crisis, in fact, affords Christians an unprecedented opportunity to persuasively articulate our defense of life to a culture that might at last be ready to listen. For the first time in decades, our materialistic society has been put on pause, and people are looking around and asking themselves, “What is this all for? What is the value of human life? Am I willing to sacrifice my freedom to protect my neighbor? Can I sacrifice some comfort to protect life?” As Christians, we can use this opportunity to seize the megaphone and remind those around us of the transcendent value of human life and the frivolity of the kind of “freedom” that our culture so values. Or, we can squander this moment and go down in history as those who stood callously by and said that a few hundred thousand more American deaths is a small price to pay for maintaining our standard of living.

Littlejohn, who is responding to Rusty Reno’s essays objecting to social distancing as a surrender to “death’s dominion,” talks about clearly defining the moral issue in front of us. Here, Littlejohn articulates with great clarity something I’ve been trying to say, but with my usual logorrheic indulgence:

The first thing we must do is get clear on what question exactly is being asked of us. Reno seeks to frame the issue in terms of the Christian duty to be fearless in the face of death, but this, I think, rather misses the point. The call to social distancing is an appeal first and foremost not to self-love, but to love of neighbor. Even if you are young and healthy and more than happy to endanger your life by going about your daily routine, that does not give you a right to endanger others, which is precisely what an invisible, often asymptomatic virus may cause you to do. Christians are called to faith and hope, to be sure, but also to love. Traditionally, Christians have taught that the sixth commandment imposes on us not merely an obligation not to kill but to do whatever we reasonably can to preserve life: “The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others…” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 135). So the proper framing of this question is: “is it more loving to our neighbor to increase the number of people who will get sick and die in the near term, or to decrease our economic well-being in the near-term (thus, presumably, increasing sickness and death in the long run)?”

Littlejohn says that it’s not at all wrong to think about this in terms of tradeoffs — indeed, that’s what moral reasoning is. We really do have to think about how far we should go to try to preserve life, and what the costs of those measures might be to life. Littlejohn offers a powerful way of conceiving the tradeoff:

This is the kind of moral question that social distancing poses. Indeed, to put it in the most concrete possible terms, imagine that you have an older friend who is depressed and suicidal. You can drive over to their house, comfort them, give them a hug, and risk possibly infecting them with Covid-19. Or, you can keep your distance, leave them alone, and risk letting their depression take its dark course? This is in effect the question we are being asked to answer on a society-wide level (and the answer may look very different on that level than when considering an individual friendship): do we choose isolation so as to avoid endangering others here and now? Or do we try and choose normalcy, so as to avoid imperiling livelihoods now—and thus more lives in the long term?

The heart of the essay — I’m not going to quote it here because I want you to read it — is how Littlejohn navigates between “sentimentalism” (the idea that we have to save every life, no matter what the cost) and “utilitarianism,” the idea that human lives can be reduced to figures on a spreadsheet. You’ll want to read his thinking, in part because it involves Gollum. I’m serious.

In his conclusion, Littlejohn makes in a few sharp lines the same point I made meanderingly in my “Of Poverty And Crooked Hearts” post earlier today: that for many of us, our anxiety over fear that economic pain from an extended shutdown might be worse than the disease itself is really fear of losing our way of life. He writes:

Behind the anguished cry, “But the economy!” I suspect, is a futile grasping after the mirage of freedom that is now fast slipping away—the idea that we can and should be free to make our own decisions about our lives without regard to the effects of these decisions on those around us, that you’re welcome to give me advice about when it’s safe to leave my home, but how dare you give me a command? Such freedom—the freedom to live independent from natural constraint, independent from coercive authority, and independent of considerations of the public good—may be the freedom that Olympian gods aspired to, but it was never Christian freedom or a viable political reality.

Christian freedom means love of neighbor, and this begins with the Sixth Commandment.

Read the whole thing. To learn more about Brad Littlejohn, see here. 

I’m afraid that so far, many of the familiar Christian leaders have failed to distinguish themselves in their commentary and actions in the face of this unprecedented crisis. One thing that I hope this crisis does will be to bring to national prominence new voices, like Brad Littlejohn’s. We are in a new era now, though most Christians don’t realize it yet. They will.

Brad Littlejohn


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