by Pierre Thompson
Pax Christi Northern California Regional Representative
During the season of Lent, Christians are called to imitate Christ by recognizing and resisting temptation. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the greatest temptations of our body politic is to raise our defenses and ignore the suffering of others. President Trump’s declaration this month that the U.S. is “at war” with the coronavirus may someday be considered a historical turning point. Besieged political leaders often invoke the rhetoric of “war” to bolster their domestic support and justify the abuse of power.
Frames inform how people diagnose problems, propose solutions, and summon motivation to take a certain course of action. Terror-inducing events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can arouse strong emotional reactions that enhance the appeal of more dangerous frames. The “war” frame is dangerous because it implies that the stakes have become so high that we must bear any cost to defeat the enemy. While we pray that national and local leaders act for the common good without delay, using the lens of “war” to address a public health and economic crisis is deeply problematic.
As Catholics, we must first acknowledge the beam in our own eye before pointing out the speck in our brother’s. The Catholic Church is no stranger to employing the “war” rhetoric. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul observes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The Catechism rightly teaches that humans are summoned to “spiritual battle,” which is why Christian believers on earth are sometimes called “the Church Militant.” The Church’s confusion with respect to earthly and spiritual wars can be traced to just-war doctrine, which Augustine developed in the fifth century after Christianity became the religion of empire. But Paul’s distinction remains important: our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.
The notion of war, which pits societies against one another, and individuals against one another, is inadequate for a pandemic. Across societies, the human-to-human transmission of an infectious disease is best addressed when national leaders adhere to a global ethic of solidarity and care. Within each society, peacebuilders must find ways to reduce panic, minimize stigmatization, increase connection and repair relationships. As Ken Butigan notes in his essay, the COVID-19 pandemic “opens the possibility for a long-term cultural and planetary shift toward a more just, peaceful and sustainable order.” Nothing could more divert us from this goal than the path of war which leads to distortion of truth, mass dehumanization and political destabilization.
The first casualty of war is truth, as the adage goes. Being “at war” requires us to accept a dualistic and confrontational worldview: winners vs. losers, allies vs. enemies, us vs. them. When the coronavirus was first reported in China, our government gloated over the economic misfortune that would befall our adversary. When the coronavirus arrived on our shores, our government sought to minimize the U.S. case count relative to other countries, favoring travel bans and a lackadaisical approach to testing. When the public health and economic crisis in the U.S. became too large to ignore, President Trump declared “war” and conveniently revised his record. Now we are expected to “fall in line” with our country’s war plan.
In war, a commander makes strategic decisions calculated to bring about military victory; defeating the enemy becomes the telos, while human life becomes the means to achieving victory. As such, war stifles our empathy and compassion for other human beings. Already, people of Asian origin have become the target of hate crimes and racial slurs. People seeking asylum at our southern border have been blocked indefinitely from entry. There is growing concern that medical shortages will force triage decision-making that preferences younger and abler patients. When taken to its logical extreme, mass dehumanization enables killing or the refusal to protect human life. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II warns against the culture of death,
“an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome. These people are very often isolated by their families and by society, which are organized almost exclusively on the basis of criteria of productive efficiency.”
Individually and collectively, the decisions brought about by “wartime” exigencies will cause moral injury to those who close their hearts to the needs of others. Even the search for a coronavirus vaccine, which would be enhanced by the global collaboration of scientists, has given way to national competition. Pope Francis reminds us that “every one for oneself is not a solution.” Nor is that mentality consistent with love of God and love of neighbor.
War greatly destabilizes the political and social fabric. Rather than address the root causes of conflict, war sows the seeds of future conflict. In hindsight, Bush/Obama’s “war on terrorism” caused instability and grievances that spurred the creation of more terrorist networks. Similarly, Reagan/Clinton’s “war on drugs” led to mass incarceration and broken families, resulting in worse social ills. “War is the most barbarous and least effective way of resolving conflict,” notes Pope John Paul II, who was deeply impacted by two of them.
The impending breakdown of international cooperation and dialogue over the coronavirus puts us on an incredibly dangerous road paved by the rise of nationalism, militarism, and inequality.
Humankind can and will survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet if we miss the opportunity from this crisis to develop a global ethic of solidarity and care, then we will not be able to collectively mobilize to prevent the truly existential threats: climate change and nuclear war. Either climate change or nuclear war would bring about the end of civilization as we know it.
In this Lenten season, may Christians resist the usual temptations to “war,” but instead model the “nonviolent energy” that builds the culture of peace our world so desperately needs.