Choices, values

It has been a while since I wrote here.  Shortly after getting back from holiday, the coronavirus issues started to come to the fore, first as an issue primarily in the People’s Republic of China, but increasingly as threat and then reality almost everywhere.  Including now here in New Zealand.  A great deal of my time and energy in the last couple of months has been taking up with those issues, including lots of writing on my economics and public policy blog (links here).

And now New Zealand itself is passing into a “lockdown”,  I deliberately use the inverted commas, since it is hard to envisage that less than perhaps 10 per cent of employees will not still be at work.   The government appears to have put a great deal of priority on the material aspects of life, and almost none on the more human and religious dimensions.

Thus:

  • gatherings for public worship are prohibited, even outdoors, even with appropriate social distancing.  Xi Jinping must be proud of western governments doing this sort of thing,
  • in particular, any gatherings to mark Holy Week, to celebrate the great feast of Easter are simply prohibited, under threat of who knows quite what penalty (and perhaps the standing army deployed against civilians to enforce these prohibitions)
  • Parliament has been suspended for the duration, apparently with the acquiesence of the main Opposition party,
  • it appears that clergy will no longer be able to offer comfort and care to those in distress, those who are dying (not necessarily of Covid-19, other life and death goes on).  In a Catholic context, I presume this means a prohibition on administering the last rites,
  • funerals are either prohibited, or no material number of people are able to attend (again, even in the open air)
  • any public demonstrations against any actions of the government during this period as also illegal,
  • individuals are unable to care for friends and family (other than those sharing a household) by sitting with them, giving a hug, and so on.

It is an entirely materialist mindset, an entirely individualistic one as well.  It is runs fundamentally counter to almost all that our society and faith have traditional nurtured, valued, and protected.  In various posts over the last few weeks, I’ve asked the government to identify what they regard as more important than public health.  By their actions, we see their views on that matter.

And if you want some specific illustration of the choices, tradeoffs, and values that our political masters choose to live by, and to attempt to force us to live by, consider that

  • the Cookie Time biscuit company will remain open,
  • vineyards and wineries will continue in operation,
  • the aluminium smelter will remain operating,
  • the purveyor of prepared meal ingredients to the affluent middle classes, My Food Bag, will continue to operate.

Liberties shredded, fundamental elements of humanity and society outlawed, all without even a credible hint of a sure strategy.  Without any credible hint as to when, by their grace and favour, our liberties might be restored.  Can they assure us we will be free to gather –  as families and as churches – to celebrate the Incarnation?  Will they assure us? I doubt it.  Instead, all the political energy went into (probably unsustainable) assurances that the supermarkets would remain fully stocked, and lectures against preparing ourselves (including in ways that might limit the need for visits to food outlets during the –  hoped for –  peak of this crisis).

Now don’t get me wrong.   To the extent there is a short-term goal to this partial lockdown, I understand it at the big picture level.    The fewer person to person contacts in aggregate, the fewer the opportunities for the virus to spread.    That should, for a time away, reduce the incidence of cases in New Zealand.    So my quarrel isn’t with that basic point, but with the “which contacts, and with whom”.

There was, for example, no forward planning by the government to (a) encourage households to fill their pantries, and (b) supermarkets to arrange to focus on production and sale/delivery of a narrow range of basic products (rice, potatoes, rolled oats, flour, milk, bread, supplemented by whatever is in the pantry would actually be something people could live on for a few weeks).  People could bake; they don’t need Cookie Time factory workers gathering and dispersing each day.  And we certainly don’t need –  for the essentials of life – an aluminium smelter open.

Now, of course there are arguments for each of these exceptions, but they too reveal the values of the decisionmakers.  The aluminium smelter is kept open solely because it would be very expensive to close.  That is a value. But so is the choice to allow, or not, freedom to gather, outdoors, to worship, to celebrate Easter and the resurrection hope God offers in it.  Keeping up the usual diet is certainly a nice to have, but the ability to grieve with those who grieve, mourn with those who mourn might be thought, by some at least, rather more important –  perhaps especially as the prospect of any unexpectedly early death may loom for many.  Sure, individuals can pray alone, and yet the Christian faith has always been more tangible, collective and gathered than that.

Of course, the clergy are largely no use on these issues. Many rushed to cancel services even before the government forced them to, as if gathered congregational worship were no more than another inessential entertainment –  perhaps on a par with a movie theatre.   I’ve not heard a word from any church leaders standing against this materialist, unhuman, set of choices our government has made.  But then why be surprised, when so much of the mainline church has been conforming itself to the world for so long, more interested often in mantras about (say) climate change than about sin, death, grace and judgement.

I’ve been asked on Twitter whether I would be happy with other exceptions/carveouts. I can’t really answer that without specifics, but as you’ll see above my concerns are not just with the prohibitions on the free exercise of religion, but range more widely.

And, of course, the standard mantra is response in always something about “every unnecessary contact risks more lives”, but (a) as I noted above there are many authorised contacts, simply about material comfort or money, which could be clamped down on instead, and (b) the fundamental point of almost any society ever has been that there are, at times, things more important than this life.   Our Christian hope is the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, first fruits of the resurrection promise in which all Christians share.   But it isn’t just a Christian thing: all serious societies are willing to run risks and pay prices for things, and people, they hold dear.  Our own nation, for example, chose that path on 3 September 1939, at great cost and great risk.

Our leaders act as if they believe that this life is all there is, and that material aspects of life are almost all that matter.  Worse, they insist that the rest of us live, at least for now, by their values.   These, of course, the same leaders –  particularly on the left or libertarian parts of the New Zealand spectrum –  who celebrate liberalising abortion law and seek this year to authorise assisted suicide.  So add incoherence to their materialist unhuman values, revealed in this present crisis.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Choices, values

  1. Wonderfully articulated. I’ve been having these discussions (sometimes full blown arguments) with people for days. Today is a dark day for New Zealand and this month will be one of the darkest in our history. The real virus we face is not COVID-19.

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  2. Minsk

    We had a Zoom service on Sunday, and my parents’ church had a streamed service, courtesy of someone donating AV gear for that purpose several years ago. (Of course that option is now unavailable, but Zoom is.)
    While not perfect, I was still able to see most of my congregation (mostly affluent people with IT infrastructure at home). One downside is the inability to mingle afterwards, which is arguably the most valuable part of the service, but that’s something we can take up individually.
    We haven’t been forbidden to meet as a congregation, just not in person, so our religious freedoms aren’t as curtailed as you suggest. In China we would need to be operating VPNs or something in a virtual church meeting – we can ‘congregate’ freely if we have the technology, and even if we don’t, we can still dial in to be part of the service. I’m grateful this pandemic didn’t occur 10 years ago.

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  3. Fair points to some extent, but Christianity is incarnational, about flesh and blood (Christ himself fully human). What technology offers is better than nothing for a short period, but I still regard the restriction as an illegitimate extension of state power. After all, the goal of the limited lockdown isn’t zero contacts, but a sharp reductions. The government has chosen what it prioritises and those priorities are very much material,

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  4. damoyo

    The decision making behind closures / permissions to trade appear very arbitrary as things progress – supermarkets yes, butchers or green grocers no. But I hadn’t thought about it in the terms you present (churches and religious life being non-essential), which highlights the deep moral divide in our society. This was a very good essay on the same topic:

    https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/say-no-to-deaths-dominion

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  5. Pingback: Churches and Covid | Among Traditions

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