Pandemic protests against lockdowns, vaccination discrimination, vaccine mandates, vaccine pass requirements, immigration restrictions, and isolation demands attract a broad church. Conservative evangelicals, indigenous rights campaigners, libertarians, white supremacists, and anti-vaxxers join against a perceived common enemy – the government and the medical scientists informing their decisions.
These otherwise disparate communities rally under the banner of ‘fair’, ‘free’, and ‘united’ appearing to hold as supreme the values of fairness, freedom, and unity. But are these Jesus’ values?
The fairness being broadcast seems to imply equal opportunity and agency to do what is best for them when it comes to vaccinations, isolation, movement, mask wearing, and distancing. It employs a utilitarian ethic of what is best (or at least good) for the most people using a value of fairness synonymous with equality. But doing what is best or good for most people is always going to be unfair for someone. What’s more, doing what is best or good for most people will always create inequality for those in the least people group.
There is a logical inconsistency in this approach. My application of a value of fairness/equality will be based on what I believe is fair for me and people like me. But other people will have a different belief on what is fair for them and people like them.
I have a range of morbid conditions that require constant surveillance by those who, because of their knowledge, experience, and training, know how to treat and manage my conditions. Is it fair that some health professionals who maintain my health might lose their jobs because they refuse or choose not to be vaccinated? No. Is it fair that I, with compromised health, should be exposed to unvaccinated health professionals and risk catching a virus that could cause irreparable damage to a few organs already susceptible to harm? No.
A utilitarian ethic based on fairness/equality seems illogical and unworkable in this situation.
The cry for freedom seems to be a call for anyone to be allowed to go anywhere they want to do anything they want whenever and however they want. The rhetoric of “Nobody tells me what I can and can’t do” uses an ethic of rights – a right to do what they think is right for them and people like them. Again, there seems to be an internal, logical contradiction in this approach.
Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is mostly about freedoms to be, freedoms to experience – not freedoms to do. Limitless freedom to do anything creates limits on those whose freedom to do what they believe is right is limited by my belief in doing what I think is right. One person’s expression of unlimited liberty is another person’s experience of unwelcome restriction.
In my work, our standard operating procedure is to form communities of staff and clients that meet at least weekly to encourage, inspire, educate, and humanise each other. Right now, our freedom to do this is being denied and, over the past 20 months, has been frequently, abruptly, and seriously disrupted. Are we happy about it? No. Do we accept it as inevitable and incontestable? No. But our freedom to do this is not appropriate currently. We tried to retain this freedom under relaxed lockdown conditions by offering in-person, large group interactions each week. Some colleagues and clients were distressed that their freedom to isolate and maintain distance was taken away by us pursuing our freedom to associate and interact.
So, it seems an ethic of rights approach based on a distorted value of freedom is illogical and unworkable in this situation.
What about the cry for unity? Surely this is valid? However, the unity called for seems to be more about unification than unity. And when used in a virtue ethics approach, being a homogenous, unified whole is promoted as being supremely virtuous. But unity based on unification is a virtuous ideal but a flawed reality. Few attempts at unification produce a neatly, nicely, unified whole. Previously divided countries are unified but differences and divisions linger for years, decades, generations, and centuries, often erupting into racial, political, economic, or social discord.
The current call for unity seems to be against dividing the vaccinated from the unvaccinated – especially when it comes to employment, education, and worship. If we are unified about not making vaccination mandatory, everyone will be happy and we will all be on the same team.
My family and I have been associated with a religious, community youth organisation that came from the USA to my country in the late 1940s. I got involved as a teenager and, in my late twenties, began working full-time in it for 35 years in four countries. I am still a member of the latest iteration of it. Was our organisation united? Yes. We firmly identified ourselves and our projects with the name and image of the brand. Were we unified? No. We held different versions of the same belief system; different ways of delivering the same programmes; different interpretations of why we did what we did and how best to do it.
This united commitment seems to be lacking in the current calls for unity and be side-tracked by a virtuous, illogical, and unworkable appeal for a unified stance on Covid-19 measures and their implications.
Is there another way? Maybe.
Instead of fairness as equality using a utilitarian ethic, we could embrace a value of integrity using principles of justice and equity to see what is good or best for most people. Jesus’ parables of the forgiving dad, trusted servants, and generous vineyard boss have outcomes that are patently unfair and unequal, but they do have integrity in delivering justice and equity.
Jesus challenges us to examine our conscience and ask if we can honestly say we have considered and explored all available justice and equity possibilities when we conclude what is good or best for those disadvantaged by measures that we don’t like or agree with. It also requires that we preserve what is good or best for those advantaged by these measures and accept not everyone will benefit equally. It won’t be fair, but it will have integrity. We won’t have equality, but we will have justice and equity.
Then we could take a duty ethic approach to promote a value of responsibility instead of pursuing freedom as an unlimited right to do what we want. This would mean accepting limitations on our freedom to do what we want so that all of us can enjoy more freedom to be who we are and experience what we should as humans. Jesus didn’t promise Zacchaeus and Matthew, despised outcasts in society, the freedom to do what they wanted. He set them free to become humans who took responsibility for who they were and treat others as humans.
Having the freedom to be who we are and experience the rights of being human creates diversity. No two humans are identical. So instead of trying to unify incredibly complex and unique humans in a crisis, what about accepting, celebrating, and even leveraging diversity? All of us respond differently to the same stimuli – physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual.
Jesus’ story of the Jewish traveller beaten up and left to die has people from the traveller’s race and religion avoiding him. A racial and religious outcast attended to him. Jesus’ point was that people who do things Jesus’ way are included in Jesus’ kingdom. A virtue ethics approach that values inclusiveness as a value could focus on how we can authentically include those with different beliefs, circumstances, needs, and expectations about immigration, lockdowns, vaccination, mandates, passes, and isolation under Covid-19. We won’t be unified, but we might be united in our efforts to virtuously include each other.
Fair, free, and unity offer seemingly neat and tidy approaches. But the human experience is never neat and tidy. And these approaches are illogical and unworkable individually and, even more, collectively – especially in the current situation. Integrity, responsibility, and inclusiveness are messy and untidy, but they seem to offer a more authentically Jesus’ way of pursuing what is best, doing our duty, and being virtuous in the face of a situation with complex issues that we have never faced before. And along the way, we will respect everyone’s right to be, to belong, and to experience being human – to be like Jesus.