A couple years ago, conversations, headlines, and memes focused on the one percent: the elites who held the majority of the world’s wealth, power, and property. These were the individuals and families who controlled business, media, education, religion and politics, and seemingly held immunity from persecution for any crimes or scandals.
In 2020, a new one percent made its way into the public eye: the expendable.
How many of us have heard the argument about the COVID-19 stay-at-home policy framed like this: Why should a virus that leaves 99% of us intact force us to shut down our entire economy?
I’ll leave it to statistical analysts to confirm how accurate that assumption turns out to be; obviously, some communities and groups are hit harder than others, and even those not killed by the virus are often left with lingering respiratory and other health effects.
And central to this argument is that one percent is a negligible number.
One percent is, of course, one out of a hundred, ten out of a thousand, a hundred out of a million and so on. One percent of a good-sized city could easily be several thousand. One percent of the world’s population is a massive number—in fact that number could easily surpass the population of some entire nations.
One percent, as we have seen on too many near constant news reports, could easily overwhelm any community’s health care facilities.
And we are presuming that this one percent, unlike the elite and prominent one percent cohort of celebrities and CEOs, is distant, anonymous, and nameless (if not invisible). In other words, they don’t matter.
“Cull the weak” is a common sign at the “open the economy” protests.
COVID-19 does not just strike the “weak” but the premise is laid bare by signs like this. Some people are disposable, they suggest, and should be disposed of or at least be willing to be sacrificed for the good of us all. Wendell Berry in his poem “Questionnaire” asks a few key questions about what, or who, we are willing (apparently even eager) to sacrifice for our own comfort, freedom, and privilege.
The poem ends with these lines;
State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security;
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.*
Pick out those who should give up their lives for the rest of us. Give us their names. Surely, if we can agree on nothing else, we could all agree on who, exactly, should give their lives for our convenience.
For a faith tradition that has for millennia had a focus on “the least of these,” this is quite a conceptual leap—or betrayal.
This is the precise line between cowardice and courage. Courage steps up and puts it life as a sacrifice for others. Cowardice demands that others sacrifice for it.
You wouldn’t think that Christians would ever need a reminder that we, more than many, are the ones called to sacrifice, the ones literally defined by the compassion and sacrifice of the one we say we believe in and follow.
That cross so many wear and is so prominent in our history and our landscapes is the symbol, the ever-present reminder of who, in any situation, we are. The ones who are willing, even eager, to say to God “Here am I, send me”.
That message is so simple, which may be why we have forgotten it. It is ourselves, not others, that would be sacrificed on that cross we so proudly display. History tells us instead that those we might depend on to sacrifice their lives and their identities for our comfort and convenience—if not our fears and prejudices—just might be those anonymous “others” that don’t look like us. In God’s Creation of course, there are no “others” – there are only those who are called and those who refuse the call.
Many of those urging the “opening” of the economy do so from a religious perspective. Oddly enough, Jesus himself told a parable of exactly what to do with and for a lost or seemingly expendable one percent. The Parable of the Lost Sheep appears twice in the New Testament, once in the Gospel of Matthew (18:12–14) and once in Luke (15:3–7). It is a familiar story about a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one which is lost. The point is simple and reveals the depth, beauty, and compassion inherent in the value system of Jesus for the one who is lost.
The one we would so eagerly dispense is the one Jesus drops everything to seek (and save)—the one he rejoices over. The one who is lost—the one who somehow drifted away when no one noticed, the one that slipped out of sight—is the one that matters most of all precisely because they are lost and in danger.
Our eagerness to sacrifice some anonymous children, neighbors, or fellow citizens reveals just as clearly our own values. And to put it mildly, our cultural values are not demonstrating care. COVID-19 has revealed gaps in our health care system, our economy, and even our faith.
It turns out that one percent is a large number – but it is far more than a number. It is us. One percent is not an abstraction, it is literally one out of a hundred taken from us, each one with a name, an identity, and a destiny. We don’t get to decide which one of us is to be sacrificed. And in God’s economy, the one who is not even noticeable in the eyes of many of us is the one most precious in the sight of eternity—the one worth seeking and saving.
There’s an old Gospel song with the line “His eye is on the sparrow.” Our eyes, if we call ourselves believers, should be focused on what God sees: looking out for others, not on ourselves.