It’s an interesting exercise to ponder this article several days away from its publication. I wrote about it on Tuesday. You can read it all over again but probably best not. It took me 1500 to react to the first paragraph. So let’s see if we can get through the rest in the same number. Mr. Reno posits that the whole world shutting down for the sake of a few is “sentimentalism” and that,
Truth is another casualty of this sentimentalism. The media bombard the public with warnings about the danger posed by coronavirus, when the truth is that only a small percent of the population of New York is at risk. By an unspoken agreement, leaders, public health officials, and media personalities conspire to heighten the atmosphere of crisis in order to get us to comply with their radical measures.
I don’t feel like this paragraph has worn well over the week. I mean, it is absolutely fine to acknowledge and even complain about the fact that the political process is wrapped up in all of this. We are in an election season. Along with trying to stop a disease, a lot of people are also trying to get themselves reelected. So that’s complicated. But this is the way our politics works and has done for far too long. If anything, this crisis is useful to see that in general, in every political cycle, a lot more is at stake than ambitious peoples’ political aspirations. Also, we don’t know how this is going to play out. It doesn’t really look like “only a small percent of the population of New York is at risk.”
Mr. Reno continues:
A number of my friends disagree with me. They support the current measures, insisting that Christians must defend life. But the pro-life cause concerns the battle against killing, not an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.
I wouldn’t characterize the world’s reaction to this current COVID-19 crisis as an “ill-conceived crusade.” It’s not a “crusade.” It’s a lot of world leaders not actually wanting a lot of their population to die. It’s actually more like every election season where the American public yet again has to choose between two terrible candidates for president. The American public every four years has to pick between death by corruption and death by the other corruption. And some people say, “Oh, don’t pick the least evil of the two options, just don’t pick at all!” but even that is making a choice (the one I took because honestly, I couldn’t make up my mind). In the lesser of two evils scenario, both of the choices are evil, so no one wins. That’s what’s going on here. Which is Less bad? Shutting down the economy so that fewer people die? Which it is important to acknowledge, is a terrible terrible decision to make or to have to make because people losing money and jobs is not a good thing and I don’t hear anybody saying that it is. Or, not shutting down the economy and having lots and lots and lots of people die? This is also a bad choice. Really bad. Devastating. Picking either one is terrible, but one has to be picked to one degree or another, or the two have to be held “in tension” which I do think some are trying to do, however badly. But to characterize this moment this way is, how do you call it? Insensitive. Not a reflection of what is really going on.
He goes on:
Others speak as if triage signals moral failure. This is false. We are always doing triage. Only the great wealth of our society allows us to pretend otherwise. We do not spend 100 GDP on healthcare. Even in normal times, we ration healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion. We do not offer organ transplants willy-nilly. Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage. That demand is now more visible, because the potent virus puts great pressure on our immune systems and healthcare systems. But it is always there. Simply put: Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage. We must never do evil that good might come. On this point St. Paul is clear. But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.
I mean, I don’t know what news Mr. Reno is reading, but I haven’t heard anyone say that we shouldn’t do triage. I’m so curious about who, exactly, he thinks is committing the grave sin of sentimentalism. I guess I would counter that it’s not just a matter of triage, it is a matter of the fittingness of things. It is fairly unseemly, when the whole world is facing a scary illness, to come out screaming that wanting to protect weaker members of society is “sentimental.” Especially as it is not just one or two weaker members but potentially thousands and thousands of weaker members. I would say it is not fitting, not seemly, for a woman to abort her baby because she wants to further her career and make more money. That could be called “triage,” she is deciding between two things, and one of them has to be let go of, but when her choice comes down on the side of the career, that is a wicked choice. If she has the baby might she then suffer poverty? Yes, perhaps, and other problems too. But she will have done something beautiful, and not at all sentimental.
Mr. Reno continues:
This is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost. Satan rules a kingdom in which the ultimate power of death is announced morning, noon and night. But Satan cannot rule directly. God alone has the power of life and death, and thus Satan can only rule indirectly. He must rely on our fear of death.
I don’t hear anyone anywhere saying that “we” in the corporate sense of all belonging to the world at this difficult moment, with perhaps the exception of the Chinese government who appears to be constantly saying untrue and ridiculous things, are trying to “save lives at any cost.” Honestly, I don’t know where Mr. Reno is getting his news. Also, is sentimentalism really “satanic?” I know it’s bad, of course, but mainly because it tries to avoid any kind of suffering. It tries to have Jesus come and reign without first dying. It tries to have light come out of every window instead of having a true source. I actually think the kinds of very painful sacrifices that people are making for the sake of others right now are pretty heartening, in some cases even beautiful—the true beauty that only comes when life and death are really in view.
He goes on:
In our simple-minded picture of things, we imagine a powerful fear of death arises because of the brutal deeds of cruel dictators and bloodthirsty executioners. But in truth, Satan prefers sentimental humanists. We resent the hard boot of oppression on our necks, and given a chance, most will resist. How much better, therefore, to spread fear of death under moralistic pretexts.
Incidentally, this is why I really dislike the use of the word “we” which I myself have even used in this very screed. I don’t know who he thinks is “simple-minded,” but it seems a touch wild to characterize the entire world that way. Yes, of course, “we” are giving away a lot and have been for a while—freedom of speech, all of our information to google and facebook, all of our debt to China, etc. I’m not happy about the long slide into “soft” totalitarianism, but this isn’t necessarily that and we won’t know for a while.
I’m going to skip a couple of paragraphs because the news has changed, and I’ve already said what I wanted about the closing of churches. A bit further down Mr. Reno makes some interesting claims about the Spanish Flu which Warren Throckmorton debunks here. Seriously, click that link because he’s very thorough.
Let’s skip to the end. Mr. Reno concludes this way:
Alexander Sozhenitsyn resolutely rejected the materialist principle of “survival at any price.” It strips us of our humanity. This holds true for a judgment about the fate of others as much as it does for ourselves. We must reject the specious moralism that places the fear of death at the center of life. Fear of death and causing death is pervasive—stoked by a materialistic view of survival at any price and unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age. As long as we allow fear to reign, it will cause nearly all believers to fail to do as Christ commands in Matthew 25. It already is.
Actually, I think that fear of death is a good thing, and not felt in any measure by this culture. “We” don’t fear death enough, mostly because we care nothing for what lies beyond it. Being forced to look at the reality of death, which is so often hidden and obscured and passed over, is the only way to come to grips with the deep unchangeable reality that God is King over all the cosmos. “We” are all answerable to him. Christians are absolutely doing what Matthew 25 requires, more even than they were two weeks ago. Mr. Reno should find some new Christians to hang about with. Here’s the thing about that—you have to be willing to die, you can’t demand that others die for you. There is no “we” in this case. “We” cannot demand that all the weak die for “us.” That is the satanic totalitarianism “we” should all be most afraid of. And this is why governments do have to balance carefully in this tragic time, because many more people will die if the whole western world slides into irreversible poverty. One thing has to be weighed against another. It is not sentimentalism to acknowledge this desperate and difficult time and to come down on the side of, dare I say it, life? Which gives Christians yet more time to rush out with the good news of a life that goes on forever.