Let me be clear, I think social distancing is the right strategy. I don’t think churches should be flouting the rules. It’s important to keep the number of infections at a manageable level. However, something about this situation caught my attention today. A Canadian public health official said this, “We cannot prevent every death, but we must prevent every death we can.” This is odd . . . or worse.
I recognize that I’m picking one sentence out to quibble with. It’s quite likely that within the context of this official’s talk, the statement makes more sense. But the reality is that we never prevent “every death that we can.” I’m not even thinking about the morally disputed deaths, like those involving people on life-support, those who seek medical assistance in dying, or those who die as the result of elective military actions. We do not prevent every death that we can. If that’s the new bar for how we live together, then we’re entering a strange new world indeed.
If we were to prevent every death that we could speed limits would be drastically lower. Countries would spend their entire GDP on the necessities of life and on healthcare. Water parks probably wouldn’t exist and neither would fast food. We don’t prevent every death that we can because we know that other things are important too.
The Canadian official is not alone. Last week a US governor said something to the effect that saving every life is worth any cost. Again, I appreciate the deep respect for life this kind of a statement expresses. However, if this was actually the way we organized our public resources it would represent a drastic change. Adding more lighting to highways would prevent deaths, but we spend it on other things. Surely having additional lifeguards at beaches and pools would save lives, but we still spend money on other things. More first responders would save lives. Having a government-paid health officer in every home would save lives . . . you get the picture.
I am completely willing to give these public officials a pass for not always speaking precisely. They are under a lot of pressure. What I wonder, though, is if these kinds of statements are actually revealing something foundational about our society. Might it be that what we fear more than anything is death? Might it be that what we value more than anything is putting death off as long as possible? What I’m suggesting is that what we value is not life as such: what we value, what is worth any cost is not dying. That’s troubling because fear makes us do strange things. I shudder to think what we might offer up in this case. What might “prevent every death we can” mean?
I’m not sure how people with other approaches to life might respond to this, but for Christians I can say that this should be troubling. Easter is right around the corner. Easter is about many things, but one of those things is the willingness of one person to give up his life for others. Another thing Easter is about is the fact that Christians don’t believe that death is the end.
I know some philosophers suggest that we shouldn’t fear death because not being isn’t something to fear. I think that might be helpful to some folks, but it isn’t a Christian approach.
Christians approach death with hope. Obviously death is a scary thing. So much about it is unknown. And it might be accompanied by suffering. My suggestion is not that we shouldn’t fear death. My suggestion is that we shouldn’t fear death above all else. There are other things to value and there are other things to fear. Christians throughout history have chosen to die or at least to risk death to express care for others. When faced with the choice of death or pledging their allegiance to false truths and false gods, they have chosen death. Professions of preventing every death we can, whether others or our own, are not as morally admirable as they might sound.