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Be Responsible!

Morality and the Coronavirus


As the coronavirus spikes out of control in the United States, I am exhausted by the whiny, self-centered cries of people over how their freedoms are being denied by city or state mandates to wear a mask and social distance.  As of this moment, this self-centeredness is literally killing us in frightening, almost unimaginable numbers.

In embracing this pandemic as a nation, we need a national conversation on the interplay of freedom and responsibility.  We will not defeat this virus by each of us “doing our own thing.”  It is imperative we understand: “we are all in this together.”

Interestingly, most Asian countries and many Scandinavian countries are having significant success in handling the pandemic because of wise national leadership along with the willingness of the public to cooperate.  In other words, in these countries, people understand what is at stake and they each agree to do their share of what is required for a successful national strategy.

The human situation.  In trying to understand our behaviors in this pandemic, let’s first seek some perspective on our human situation.  As human beings, we naturally act in terms of our own self-interest.  Indeed, this is a part of our biology; it is built in to our DNA.

For added perspective, according to Darwin (whose findings, generally, are universally accepted in the academy around the world), human beings have been evolving for 13.8 billion years.  About 3.8 billion years ago, a huge barrier was crossed when life evolved out of lifeless matter.  One billion years ago, consciousness evolved out of these life forms.  Then, some 250,000 years ago, another barrier was crossed when self-consciousness evolved out of consciousness and our human ancestors began to walk the earth.

As self-conscious human beings, we became aware, almost immediately, of our own mortality.  We realized that one day we would die and that we were powerless to do anything about it.  According to Freud, this new self-consciousness gave birth to a fundamental anxiety about our human situation.  Indeed, this anxiety defines our humanity.  It is built into our DNA.  We can strive to transcend it in our efforts to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” but we can never eliminate it.  About this anxiety, the great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Anxiety is the internal precondition of sin.”  (from The Nature and Destiny of Man, volume 1, page 182).

Along with all of life, human beings naturally seek our own self-interest.  Again, it is in

our nature.  We are self-interest oriented.  Untempered by neighbor love, we will naturally seek our own self-interest at the expense of the interests of the wider human community.

Human beings as social creatures.  As human beings, we are also inherently social creatures.  Indeed, ontologically, as process-relational theologians have affirmed, we are the sum of our relationships.  We are the aggregate of what every person we have known has, literally, “put into us” over the years.

The bottom line is we all bear social responsibility.  In this regard, we are always challenged, as individuals, to seek a harmony of the common good.  This common good is a good for the whole of human kind, not just for ourselves.  The assumption is that what is good for the whole is ultimately good for the individual as well.  In this understanding, nationalism (as we see in the Trump administration) is inherently evil, as it looks only to its own self-interest at the expense of other nations.  In contrast, globalism is more virtuous because it seeks the well being of the whole, of all the nations together.  In our foreign relations, always, the United States is stronger when other nations in the global community are strong as well.

As human beings, we are free.  Indeed, our freedoms are famously built into the substance and the language of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

However, along with freedom comes responsibility.  They go hand in hand.  While we are free to act, we are also responsible for the choices we make.

Our moral challenge.  Our moral challenge, always, is to seek to do the right thing.  While that “right” thing is subjective, still, it relates to the “whole” of humankind.  To be a moral person, each of us, as a citizen, must be willing to subordinate our own self-interest to the interests of the whole–the whole family, the whole team, the whole group, the whole community, state, nation, and planet.

Niebuhr offers a definition of evil that is relevant here: “evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole … .”  This understanding of evil could not be more applicable to our times.

The only way out of our current nightmare, is for every American to stand up and take personal responsibility for the choices we make every day.  Indeed, it is our moral responsibility as citizens to do precisely this.

As this pandemic wears on, I am exhausted at the self-centered defiance of mandates to wear a mask.  I don’t want to hear about freedom and “how my freedoms are being violated.”  I want to hear about how people are being responsible.  I want to hear about a caring awareness that we’re all in this together.  I want to hear about a responsibility that understands personal interest in light of the interests of our nation as a whole.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know  You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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