Jobs or Lives?

Upholding Human Dignity and Fighting Coronavirus


John Stonestreet

Shane Morris

After almost two weeks of government-advised physical distancing, the President has announced a 30-day extension to this part of the fight against the coronavirus. As various numbers associated with this pandemic continue to grow, especially the shocking prediction that U.S. deaths could top 100,000, we must never forget that behind each and every number is a precious life made in the image of God. Numbers are necessary to communicate scale, of course, but they can also obscure that what we’re talking about here are real people.

Speaking of numbers and names, over three million Americans have filed for unemployment in recent weeks. Combine that with the volatile stock market, and the economic toll of this virus is beyond staggering. Still, behind these dollar figures are also real people, many trying to figure out how to keep their homes and feed their kids.

A one-time check from the government won’t be enough for restaurant and small business owners, hotel and shopping center employees, barbers and stylists, bus drivers and substitute teachers, and many others, who face a financial crisis if they practice social distance, potentially as real and damaging as the sickness they could acquire or spread if they do not.

The tension here is real, and I’m not talking about spring breakers who scoffed at the health and well-being of others to have their own fun or those spouting despicable “if they die, they die” sort of rhetoric. I’m talking about my friend Dale who, after contracting a particularly nasty bacteria during a routine surgery several months ago, would be at tremendous risk if he contracted this virus. He needs others to help slow the spread of this disease by staying home.

But I’m also talking about other friends, legal refugees from a war-torn area of Africa, who go to my church and rely on wages now lost because a local hotel closed until Memorial Day and fired its employees. Certainly, unemployment assistance will help for a while, but it’s impossible to know if their long-term security is now in jeopardy.

As more hospitals reach capacity and COVID-19 cases rise, our city, state, and federal leaders are making some of the hardest choices imaginable outside of wartime. While physical distancing is the most important thing we can do right now to slow this virus and save additional lives, the consequences of doing this will be devastating for many.

Now, I’m in no place to offer different policy solutions, of course, but I am convinced that a Christian worldview can help us think through these tensions.

First, the chief value that must ground any and all policy proposals, especially at a critical time as this, is a fundamental commitment to the dignity of each and every person. In fact, every policy question is, at root, one of how best to honor priceless image-bearers, whether what’s being threatened are their lives or their livelihoods.

It’s a false dilemma to assume that if someone is worried about jobs and the economy, they don’t care about people’s lives; or if we’re worried about the threat the virus poses to people’s lives, they’re obviously callous toward anyone in financial straits. In our culture, one that’s worked so hard to untether human dignity from its one and only true source, we will struggle to rightly honor human dignity whether we’re talking about emergency care or employment. As Christians, we must never allow a price tag to be placed on people.

Still, among the painful lessons we are learning right now is that, like hospitals struggling to keep up with an influx of critical patients, we too are finite. So is our government. So is our economy. We can only do so much to stop this virus and prop up a faltering economy.

Our duty as individuals and as a society—just like those doctors and nurses—is to make wise decisions with limited resources and then do our best to alleviate any suffering of those hit hardest. We don’t look to utilitarian calculus for this, as if people were numbers on a spreadsheet or obstacles to our own security and happiness.

While we must always encourage our leaders to do what’s right, we ought never demand they do what’s impossible. We must pray for them instead, fervently and frequently, asking God to give them wisdom. And, we must respond, as Christians have always done in times of crisis, by running toward the suffering we see, as best we can. In fact, tonight at 8 PM Eastern, my friend Ed Stetzer will join me for a free webinar to talk about “How Christians Can Love Their Neighbors During the Coronavirus.” 


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