The Good Samaritan: a reason for arguing the Christian response to COVID-19 was correct?

Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain Source wikimedia commons photo credit unknown no copyright
The Good Samaritan, by Aime Morot. Source: Wikimedia Commons; Photo credit unknown.

Studying philosophy means trying to look at questions from every angle, and attempting to test conclusions against everything relevant.  Preferably one stops short of actually going mad, but as most of my friends will tell you, I personally didn’t succeed!  😛

In this case, particularly, when everyone else is telling me my conclusion must be wrong, and I have struggled with it myself (it’s hardly an easy answer), I have kept questioning and considering.

And I still come out with the same answer: that is, that we have got it wrong, and that in locking Churches and denying people the Sacraments, we have betrayed three times: God, the people of the Church, and the people of the world: the former in treating Him as if He was not the primary means of Life; the people of the Church in excluding their part in the work of God, and in showing a lack of reciprocal commitment to them; and the world in not bearing witness to the fact of a more fundamental life than that which a disease can destroy.

The good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) logically comes in for some real scrutiny in this context – something that could be used to argue that I have in fact got the priorities wrong – and I think it is an interesting one to examine, as it may be that it is often read at present by way of putting the second commandment before the first.  (I am referring to Matt. 22:37-40 and its analogues in reference to the first and second commandments, by the way – not to the Old Testament ten).

I should be clear that the case for using it to defend the response of shutting Churches and denying the sacraments is my own, as is my conclusion that this case should be rejected.  I haven’t yet heard anyone try to use this parable to justify what has been done, but, again, considering what might speak against your conclusions by way of testing them is part of doing philosophy well.

I do not find the Good Samaritan convincing as a argument for denying the Sacraments on the grounds that there remains some risk of infection that cannot be negated even from the perspective of receiving an intincted Host at arm’s length through a window while both parties wear a mask.

The argument for saying that it should justify this, is the argument that this indicates that a person should be willing to sacrifice even their worship to the corporeal good of others.  I think it is probably problematic, however, for several reasons – both to do with the parable, to do with what is the truest service to neighbour, and to do with its lack of real analogy to the situation (sacrificing others, as opposed to sacrificing yourself).

The position of the debate in the Gospel can be read against taking even the straightforward reading as a exultation of the second commandment over the first.  That is, both the questioner and Jesus seem to have have agreed about the first commandment “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all our mind” and are debating a particular detail of the second “and your neighbour as yourself.”

Though the subversive overturning of “who is my neighbour?” is probably straightforward in itself – “go and do likewise” – the nature of the text suggests a symbolic reading which actually points to, rather than away from the Sacraments.  The “likewise” may point beyond the original “love your neighbour as yourself” towards “love each other as I have loved you”.

The man who is set on by thieves is going from Jerusalem to Jericho: this probably has a symbolism rather like that of the prodigal son going to a far country and feeding the pigs: i.e. he has sinned, and the result of this sin is disaster.

It is not clear if we are told which direction anyone except the man is going in: however, in the translation I have here, both the man and the priest are said to be going “down” the road, which would suggest the priest would also have been going towards Jericho.  This may be significant, as it suggests that while the notion that too great an emphasis on ritual purity may be relevant (avoiding a possible corpse), the specific priority of the temple worship probably does not come into it if the priest is going towards Jericho (i.e. away from the temple).

The bandages, the oil and the wine may be sacramental images (the Baptismal garment, the oil of anointing, the Precious Blood), the ass may represent Christ’s bearing our sins and their consequences in His Body, the Inn may represent the Church in which Christ’s care (that He has paid for) is received*.

I am never sure what to make of these extremely symbolic readings; however, when it is a matter of considering a deeper meaning (a lot of powerful narratives can be meaningfully read on both a straightforward and a symbolic/allusion level: it is part of their power), and not standing outside the general tenor of the Gospel narrative, I think there is some reason to at least take them seriously.  And if so, it can actually be brought in as much to argue what I have been saying for other reasons: that is, that the Divine Life and care for the Divine Life is more fundamental, as to argue that we should sacrifice the worship of God entirely to care for neighbour (instead of regarding it as part of how we care for our neighbour, accompanied by the corporeal works of mercy.  Both can be distorted into selfishness, but neither are selfish in themselves**).

This in itself, while I think it does matter and is significant, in that it would suggest the reading of the parable may not be as simply focused only on the corporeal works of mercy as it looks at first glance***, seems to only confuse the issue.  This may be partly because I am not a theologian, and cannot write with much confidence when it comes to scriptural interpretation (there’s a lot of difference between knowing about a subject, and understanding how to apply the processes which are used in it).

I’ve written at length already (see quite a lot of previous posts in the same categories) on the second reason: that is, that our primary service to the world should not be adopting its priorities but witnessing to the Life of God.

The final reason I’d suggest that the parable of the Good Samaritan does not justify the decisions made is impossible to put with real tact.  What I would say instead to people is simply: I write as a sinner and conscious of my own failings of faith, and I do not write to accuse, but to seek reconciliation.  That cannot be done except in acknowledging the reality of the situation and the experience as it has actually been for me.  Trying to ask people to understand why their sympathy is upsetting and does not mean much is always difficult, but it is the only way through when it is the reality.

The reason is this: the Good Samaritan sacrifices himself, not other people.  He has compassion, he puts the man on his animal, he takes him to an inn and he pays the innkeeper for his care.  The COVID-19 decisions, involving the refusal of the Sacraments to all but clergy households, has involved one group of people sacrificing another for the purported good of third parties***.  It’s more equivalent to a situation where the Samaritan was journeying with a severely wounded relative on his donkey, and assisting another wounded friend along by foot.  Upon meeting the man set on by thieves, this Samaritan pushes the wounded person off the donkey to abandon them to death and the powers of darkness in the road, puts the person set on by robbers on the donkey, and forces the other wounded person to take them to an inn and pay for their care.  He then carries on alone, missing their company, lamenting their difficulties, and praying for them, but quite confident he has done the right thing in saving the man lying by the roadside at their cost!  It is not surprising that such sympathy is not likely to make much difference to what the person left to die in the road thinks or feels about the situation…

Of course, within Catholic order, which I do still hold despite all this, it is not the priests’ fault that they cannot share the fate of the non-ordained in enforced excommunication, for even if they were to decline to celebrate the Eucharist and receive (which personally, I would not advocate), they have the choice, while we do not.  This is among my reasons for suggesting that we can only be consistent by point-blank refusing to go along with secular orders that people should be actually deprived of the Sacraments (as opposed to changing what we are doing to take a lot of extra precautions).  If the non-ordained are equally the people of God, it follows that the duty of stewardship from the clergy in taking them the Sacraments has to be fairly absolute.

So, for various different reasons, my mind on this point is not changed by the contemplation of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Having talked about the issue with regard to the clergy-laity relationship, however, I would like to finish by re-emphasising that I do believe that our primary betrayal is of God, not of the people.  That is, it is in turning from Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, to seek life chiefly in “professors’ models“.

Cherry Foster

 

*Except for the comment on ritual purity (I’ll find a reference if anyone wants to ask me for one) and the comment on possibly pointing to the New Commandment (which is my own), this all comes from The Orthodox Study Bible; St Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology 2008.

**It could be argued that we have become infected by a tendency to regard religion as a private matter: it would make more sense from the Christian tradition of thought to defend religious freedom by emphasising that all must come freely to God, than by making out that what we do in worship, we do entirely for our own benefit.

*** And our own supposed protection, which I would argue is a worse argument, because (a) the notion that someone can be done good by being denied Christ – the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the one thing necessary – is absurd, and (b) we are grown up.  It should be up to us, as individuals in conjunction with our own spiritual advisors, in our own circumstances, with our own knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses, our particular calling, and the way God works with us, to make decisions as to whether to receive the Sacraments in such a situation or not.  To systematically deny us that capacity to choose on such grounds is to deny our capacity to come to maturity in faith.

 

N.B.  If the use of “we/our” in this text, as in “our primary betrayal” is confusing, given that I am speaking primarily as someone who has suffered the situation rather than being part of doing it, this “we/our” is a collective use, which I feel to be appropriate in context.  I am not ordained.  I have to date been left completely without the Sacraments for more than 14 weeks, despite (to the best of my knowledge) repeated requests to the contrary made on my behalf, so my experience is that of a lay person who was previously a daily communicant.

However, I am part of the whole mess of faithlessness that created the situation where such decisions could be made, and there is a manner in which it is meaningful to use “we” even when there can be no personal responsibility (as in “we [the British] were involved in the slave trade in 1700”).  The question of collective/non-personal responsibility is a very complex one – some linguistic confusion is perhaps accurately reflective of this?!

“Fasting” from the Eucharist: from the Bread of Life… that – perishes?

Is the Eucharist the Bread of Life and Blood of the Covenant – broken and shed that the world might have Life in abundance – or merely a personal emotional indulgence to be set aside in any difficulty out of compassion for our neighbour?

Pelican iconographic picture wikimedia commons copyright to attribution
A pelican wounding its breast to feed its young on its blood: a common image of the Eucharist. Photo source Wikimedia Commons; Photo Credit: Andreas Praefcke

Someone told me today that it’s been suggested that it would be praiseworthy on the part of priests to “fast from the Eucharist in solidarity with the laity,” (who have been completely deprived of the sacraments for the last three months).

If, in this time of crisis, my neighbours’ water is cut off and they are dying of thirst, do I help them by turning my stopcock off and dying of thirst as well?  Or do I help them by filling a water carrier from my still working tap and taking it round to them so they can drink?

Probably the latter.

We have a problem as a church that is much deeper than this crisis and the way we’ve reacted.  Instead of regarding Christ as the source of Life – the one thing actually necessary – we’ve taken to regarding Him as a comforting but expendable indulgence.  Yet this does not make sense.

Labour not for the bread that perishes, we read, but for that which endures to eternal Life.  It would seem reasonable, then, to suggest that the risk we should be prepared to go to to take people the Eucharist, should actually be greater than that which we should be prepared to go to to take someone the food of physical necessity.

If compassion in such circumstances means taking people the means of Life, then the means of the Divine Life is more fundamental than that of Earthly Life, and it is more necessary to take people that, than to do anything else.  (I don’t live up to this – no-where near – but it is worth upholding the principle to aim at and commit to God’s grace and help).  Moreover, I don’t think we’d have any trouble seeing it as presumption to expect God to send angels to nurse the sick, or to sustain the hungry – both of which He could surely do – but for some reason we do not hesitate to demand that He should provide His grace, presence, and salvation by means other than that He set up*.

This is further illustrated by considering that to apply the word “fast” to the Eucharist is highly problematic in terms of the logic of fasting.  That is, we fast, in general, in order to reset our priorities.  We fast from earthly indulgences (good in their right place) in order to commit ourselves more deeply to the inbreaking of heavenly realities into our earthly lives.  We fast to train ourselves to a deeper emphasis on what actually matters.  If this concept of fasting is applied to the Eucharist, it would in practice mean turning from the love and life of God and reapplying ourselves more fully to worldly things – things which are then fallen and distorted by being placed before God.  This cannot be rightly done.  It is the wrong type of paradox.

I think we are making an idol of worldly compassion: putting our neighbour in the place of God rather than loving our neighbour as an image of God.  It seems to me that this distorts the priority of the first commandment, and the way in which the first and second commandments necessarily interact.

Reacting to those who are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use, we have become those who are so earthly minded that they are of no heavenly use**.  The issue at stake is not which way around these two concepts are put*** but the opposition of the two concepts, instead of their co-operation.  We have become Gnostic, separating the spiritual and physical in order to affirm either one or the other, and instead of correcting that separation, we have affirmed it and responded to (just) criticism of it by rejecting the Life to come instead of this one!  The precautions and success of science and human knowledge against disease are a gift of God.  We should care about earthly life; we should do what we can to protect the vulnerable (to COVID-19 or to the consequences of lockdown) from earthly death.  But true compassion for our neighbour witnesses to and serves God first, thus showing the open door to true Life to them.

What the world needs from Christians in this worldwide reminding of the fact of death is not a greater affirmation of the absolute priority of the fear of human death, not further emphasis on the comfortless hope that science and its precautions might limit this disease as a source of death, but a witness to the power and love of God who has overcome death.  This means acting to this belief in the real world, not placing it away from us in some other realm and then being “practical” and “compassionate,” where “practical” means “the right thing to do as judged by the common sense of those who do not believe” – and “compassionate” means tending to physical needs while leaving people to perish spiritually.

I think that we are actually making an idol of worldly compassion: that is, we are placing love of neighbour separated from God in front of love of neighbour as an image of God.  It seems to me that this distorts the priority of the first commandment.  First we should take people Communion – within the secular rules if possible, but in breach of them if not –  and then we should do their shopping.

God is real.  He is the source of Life.  We should cling first to him – we should in the deepest compassion for our neighbour possible bear witness to His Life for their sake – and then do our best to assist those made in his image in their earthly difficulties, again for His sake.  To cast Him and His Life aside in order to affirm the world’s idea that death is absolute is not compassion; to continue to worship in witness of Him and the Life He offers is not selfishness, but true service.

I plead to my clergy as one who believes, as best I can, what they themselves have taught me.  Do not continue to cut off the water, from yourselves or any other.  Rethink, and take the Sacrament to people, and let the grief all bear be turned to joy, and the rediscovery of death become in people an assured knowledge of a truer Life which is not, cannot be, at threat.

Cherry Foster

* See this post: the original idea comes from John Donne writing on Baptism.  I’ll find the precise reference if anyone wants it.

**This is not original: but I hesitate to reference it publicly because I don’t know if the theologian who said it would want their name and work dragged into this argument.

***Though the former seems less bad to me than the latter, because though both are gnostic, at least concentrating first on God keeps the commandments the right way around.  That is, it seems to me that while it is logically a distortion, there is less distance to go to correct it.  To be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use is a failure to live the full Gospel (which tells us that part of living the love of God is to be of earthly use) but it seems closer to living it than being earthly to the exclusion of God’s power and love in human life.  :-s  The (so-called) heavenly minded has disfigured the tree by cutting off a branch that can regrow, the earthly minded is poisoning the very roots in the name of improving the fruit.

 

Receiving Communion in an Epidemic: the practical side

I’ve written at some length in previous posts putting the view that the Church* should never refuse people the Sacraments in response to an epidemic, regardless of the situation, but that we should take a lot of precautions.  To refuse to allow people to receive is to accept a secular view of life and death, placing a risk to earthly life over the Divine Life given to the world in Christ’s Body and Blood, and is to insist that God should provide grace and deification by means other than those He chose to give us.  Not to take precautions is to put God to the test and to disregard His gift of earthly life.  I want to write now on what this might actually look like – firstly with regard to the reception of the Precious Blood, and secondly, with regard to how we might continue to receive when it is reasonable to suggest it might be preferable not to gather.

Firstly, the issue of the congregation receiving both the Broken Body of Christ and His Precious Blood.  The statement that sharing the Chalice in and of itself is dangerous puzzles me, as I’ve always thought they had done research on this point before, and found that it was not.  However, once one is into social distancing, it might be quite hard to receive it without people breathing over each other (in any case, it is probably better to offer an alternative anyway once people have serious concerns, as it is preferable that everyone feels free to receive fully and completely, as Christ Himself gave).

I do think it is preferable to share the Chalice, and I think there should be very good reasons to suppose there is a problem before we stop, but if there are real reasons not to do so, I think it would be a lot more reverent to turn to some other means of receiving in Both Kinds, than to deny the laity full participation in what is their offering as much as it is the priest’s (yes, we have defended Catholic order for certainly as long as I have been involved with the idea that the laity are as much part of the offering as the priest).

There are three ways I am aware of in which the Precious Blood can be reverently received without sharing the Chalice.  That is, intinction by the priest**, the use of individual cups, and the use of spoons.  There may be others.  Intinction by the priest is, I think, probably the best thing to advocate as a solution within the Church of England, but I will briefly discuss the other two methods first.

Receiving from spoons is what is done in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I have in fact never seen it done.  I believe the Consecrated Bread is put into the Chalice, and then both are given by the priest on a spoon.  It is possible to use separate spoons, and boil them between services, but I am not sure how close it is necessary for priest and recipient to get, which may be a problem.  However, the method does have the advantage that it is not necessary for the recipient to touch anything with their hands.  I was quite paranoid, at the start of the epidemic when still in Church, over the issue of receiving the Host from my hands, thus touching my face after touching things like door-handles.  I took to slathering them with hand sanitiser a few minutes before receiving, which probably works ok***.  However, I would have been glad to avoid it if there was a better option.

I’m inclined to feel that receiving on spoons is sufficiently contrary to our tradition and what we are used to that it might be quite hard to adjust – which can disturb people’s worship and their capacity for reverence and spiritual growth.  This adjustment is potentially a concern with any alternative: I think in that case it is necessary for people to listen to each other as they go, and try to work out what people are actually saying – and to weigh the real reasons for doing something unusual with the extent of the problems it is causing – including spiritual difficulties, which should be accepted as real and important if we believe the relationship with God objective.

Receiving from separate cups is forbidden in the Church of England, for reasons that I haven’t yet been into, so I am not going to comment in theoretical terms, except to say that if it is the possibility of irreverence that worries people, it is surely more irreverent to deny people to receive fully than to receive in separate cups.  My main interest in the method is the potential it has for increasing social distancing, as it seems to me that if we used separate cups, which the priest put down on a linen covered table for people to pick up, it would be possible to put the Host down on top of each, and have each recipient drop the cup into a bowl of clean water after reception, lessening the touching of the same surfaces by different people.  On the other hand, most of this can probably be achieved by Intinction via priest as well, so if there are those who seriously disapprove of separate cups for some reason, there isn’t much reason to specifically advocate it.  (I would not, incidentally, encourage anyone to use separate cups while it is forbidden, but, if they wish to do so, to go and argue in synod etc. that it should not be disallowed).

Intinction via priest is, I think, probably the best way to try to go in the C of E.  It is something that is done in the context of hospital reservations, so it is reasonable to suppose it is allowed (though in the C of E, one never really knows)!  I have two comments about this.  The first is: if the fear with intinction by the priest is that it will result in the Precious Blood dripping all over the floor after the Host is dipped in the Chalice**** there is at least one way around this.  There are vessels which are used to give a drop of the Precious Blood to someone who cannot swallow solid food.  Using one of these would allow precise control, so no more is placed on the Host than it can absorb.  Secondly, if people still feel that receiving Communion brings people too close to each other, the Intincted Host could potentially be placed reverently down on an appropriate vessel to be picked up by the laity.  I realise this isn’t ideal, but if the option is excommunicating the vast majority of the people of God, surely it is still better?

This brings me on to the question of receiving when it is not a good idea to gather.  My feeling is that going this far is acceptable, so long as Communion is taken to everyone who requests it.  The logistics of this are obviously going to differ depending on place and what is going on.  There may, for instance, be times when, for example, celebrating Mass in gardens for less than ten people at a time would be realistic.  However, what I’m writing about here is mostly the sort of things that might be done during a more extreme lockdown, in the assumption that the lockdown has at least a reasonable medical justification in regard to infection risk, however much it may ignore other considerations both medical and otherwise.

Firstly, I would suggest that as many people as possible are employed in the task, to reduce the contact of any one person with too many others.  There are quite a few laity deployed normally to take the Sacrament to the sick.  Moreover, it should be possible to divide people into groups so, for instance, a person who goes to people who think they have the infectious illness never goes to anyone else (I believe the medical profession have done this sort of thing).

Secondly, I think the first thing that should be considered is normal home Communion using the same precautions which would be used by a carer who needs to go in to nurse and assist the sick and disabled.  That is, that the priest should do that liturgy as normal, using an Intincted Host (why not?  It matters to many of us who receive to receive the Precious Blood – that people should care about a gift He died to give us is a gain to the Church, not a loss).

However, in the case of certain services such as the Triduum, which are not really amenable to this, I would suggest streaming the service online and then sending people Communion, perhaps while broadcasting relevant music.

If normal home Communion, with the minister reading a short liturgy with the people involved is reasonably deemed a significant risk, I would suggest that people receive instead through a minimally open window or door.  Minister and recipient could both wear a mask until the window is closed.  With COVID-19, it might make sense for people to receive at arm’s length across a garden gate, as it seems to be pretty much non-transmissible outdoors, but this would mean not having the solid screen provided by reaching out to receive around a window or door.

Alternatively, it might be possible for each household to be provided with, or provides themselves with, a corporeal or other way of covering a table such that it is a reverent resting place for a pyx containing the Sacrament.  This table should then be put by an unfastened door or window, which the priest (or other person licensed to take Communion to people) can push open in order to place the pyx down.  The door or window can be closed, and the household can then receive from the pyx (while the minister watches, if necessary – though this might not be possible in every circumstance because it requires either an accessible window or a glazed door).

Either of these ways of doing things could be preceded by an online service or by distributing service sheets to people to use themselves prior to reception (there’s a liturgy called, I think, Communion by extension, which is quite a good one to adapt for this sort of purpose) .

Ultimately, the exact details of what people feel should be done to reverence the Sacrament in the process of unconventional reception of it, or what they feel should be done to try to avoid risk of infection, is likely to be different.  What I am really advocating is an attitude of problem-solving: that is, that instead of giving up, we should regard the worship of God and the reception of what He died to give for the life of the world, as something that should not be stopped or denied to any portion of the people of God.  We are failing in our witness to Christ, by placing earthly life before the Divine Life.  It is possible to do otherwise without resorting to an attitude of reckless disregard for human life.

Cherry Foster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Where I am (at least to the best of my knowledge) it is the Church that has been responsible.  There are (as far as I know) no police blockades outside Church doors, no spies following the clergy about watching for violations of epidemic precautions.  It is their hands that have turned the keys in the locks, they who have declined to carry out their normal ministry in response to orders and threats.  As I write, incidentally, I, having been a daily Communicant for nine years, have been left with no access at all to either Communion or Confession for more than ten weeks – and this looks like it could easily continue for a similar length of time yet.  I am in a state of spiritual agony, to say nothing of struggling with temptations against faith itself (how far the latter is a result of the extent of the spiritual distress, and how much it is to do with the fact that what has been done seems to be a complete denial of everything I have been taught, it is difficult to tell).  There seems no sign of any possibility of this changing at least until I am able to receive the Sacraments in their fullness again – if by then it is possible for me to do so.  There comes a point in starvation where it is impossible to eat again due to the effects of the starvation.  As it matters in theory, in the need to be authentic to our theology, it matters in practice, for the sake of the Life of the individual Christian in Christ, and through that, for the Life of the World.

**Intinction by individual members of the congregation seems to be thought to be more dangerous than simply having everyone drink from it – but for the priest to put a drop of the Precious Blood on the Host from a vessel designed for that purpose cannot carry the same difficulties.

*** I have no strong opinion, incidentally, on the question of whether it is possible to actually pick up infections from the Body and Blood of Christ in their physically real element.  On the whole, I would be inclined to think one probably can: it seems reasonable to suppose that if Our Lord had had a cold during His earthly life, others would have caught it from Him in the normal way, and that seems to me to be as close as one could get to the circumstance.  But it doesn’t seem to me to matter very much because (a) even if one can’t catch anything from the Consecrated elements, one could catch it from one’s unwashed hands or from liturgical vessels, (b) I think any risk that cannot be reasonably negated ought to be taken in faith, knowing God has a much longer range perspective than we do, and has given these gifts for our healing even if it doesn’t look like it in the short term, and (c) thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.

****It would surprise me if this was in fact a problem, but it is a concern I have heard raised over the priest dipping the Host in the chalice for the laity.  It would presumably be possible to do the experiment with unconsecrated elements?!

 

Lockdown, discrimination, and fair play?

Another discussion about civil rights and lockdown: considering prejudice and fair play.

There seems to have been an absolute uproar regarding the possibility that the over seventies should be legally obliged to stay at home, while everyone else is allowed a greater degree of freedom, while there does not seem to be similar uproar about legally obliging everyone to stay at home.

I appreciate that part of this is down to practical issues, such as the notion that people would have to carry identity documents to prove that they were not over seventy, but still, I don’t think that explains the whole of it.  Why should we feel an immense sense of injustice when one group is singled out like that, and not more of a sense of injustice when exactly what we would complain is being done to them is being done to everyone?

This is something that can be noted in other situations as well, for instance, if an employer paid their one white staff member an unjustly low wage, as opposed to a situation where they exploit all their staff members equally.  However, in that situation,  I suspect the implied racism is argued to be more sinister than plain, universal greed.  The injustice when done to more people is greater as an injustice, but this is balanced off by the particular moral depravity of racism.  I am not sure if I am convinced that this actually stands to the extent to which we tend to take it, for it would seem to me that a respect for the humanity of some is more readily extended to the respect for the humanity of all, than respect for no-one’s humanity.

I can also see that a feeling that something which is the same for everyone is different from placing restrictions on one group of people.  For instance, I would tend to argue that if an ID is required for buying age restricted products, it would be fairer to require it from everyone, rather than merely from those who look in the eyes of that particular checkout assistant as if they are under 25.  That everyone should have to put up with this irritation and inconvenience for the sake of protecting children and teenagers seems fairer than to say that only people who look in a certain way should.

I do agree with that argument as far as that sort of situation goes.  However, the lockdown isn’t that sort of situation.  Some children still have access to education while others don’t – on the grounds of what their parents do.  Many people are still working, if hardly as usual.  Those who live alone are confined alone (I did not touch another person for more than three weeks in the early part of the lockdown – indeed, I was not in the same room with another person for a day short of three weeks – I was using Skype video, and it is no alternative); those who live with others are at least not completely deprived of human contact – but are potentially having to live in a close confinement with them in an extremely stressful situation.  I have a house and garden, and can easily exercise without coming into contact with anyone (not necessarily a positive); others can’t come in and out of their homes without using shared lifts or staircases.

I think “fair play” can be brought in when it is the same for everyone (that is, everyone pays the same and everyone has the same access to the advantage gained) but in neither direction is this the case.  There is both the issue of the fact that the lockdown is much severer for some groups than others, in a way that is practically unavoidable, and the fact that, as most people don’t seem to be at serious risk, their gains are much more limited (they won’t be significantly ill, though they would suffer if infrastructure broke down).  As in the case of a lot of others with similar health problems: there was 100% chance I would be made very seriously ill by lockdown.  I am not at risk from COVID-19, as far as anyone knows, though I would be from structural breakdown (having said, does severe lockdown not run the risk of causing such breakdown too?).  Could one suggest therefore, that the policy constitutes indirect discrimination?  I don’t have a clear opinion on that.  But it is interesting.

Anyway, perhaps it would be reasonable to say in this case: if it is wrong to tell the over-seventies that they have to be confined at home, while no-one else is, despite the fact that this policy is probably a very logical one from the economic/illness/protect the NHS point of view, it is presumably wrong to tell everyone who isn’t a keyworker that they have to be similarly confined.  This would actually lead to the conclusion that severe lockdown was never a legitimate policy in the first place.  Given that my other lines of thought have tended to lead me more to “it’s wrong for this length of time,” I am somewhat perplexed by this.

Whatever else can be said, however, I think that considering legitimacy of restriction of normally important freedom in the context of epidemics and other natural disasters is overdue.  Human rights declarations tend to focus on other types of situation.  If these considerations are taken seriously, they cannot be set aside because people might spread disease any more than they can be set aside because someone might start a riot.

Cherry Foster

What do we believe? Questions of a Troubled Churchgoer

Resurrection_(24) Photo credit Surgun source Wikamedia Commons no copyright
Resurrection – this icon shows Christ rescuing Adam and Eve from Death. Photo credit: Surgun; source: Wikimedia Commons

Where is God now?

To be sought in leading the way in trying to preserve earthly life and our infrastructure?

Does this make sense?  What does it suggest we believe?

In the primacy and priority of earthly life, over and above all other considerations, including the Divine Life which does not notice death.  In the notion that lay-participation in the Eucharist, lay Communion, is merely a selfish indulgence and not part of the outflowing of God’s love “for the Life of the World”.

We are not witnessing to God in a crisis, but standing helpless and craven before a threat which is horrible, but which Christ has overcome, not by sparing us death and disaster, but by raising us up through them into his risen life.

This is not all or nothing – a matter of taking reckless risks or a matter of giving up altogether.  I would be inclined to advocate, for instance, within my own Church group, that people should be live-streaming services from their Churches, and then engaging everyone who can to take Communion to people in their homes to do so.  Through an open window with both minister and recipient wearing mask and gloves, if necessary.

I come from a part of the Church that makes a lot of celebrating the Eucharist daily and receiving daily.  But so far, we have been left without any sort of access to the Sacraments for almost six weeks,  during a crisis – when we need it more, and when the world needs it more.  It is an inherent part of what I was taught about the Eucharist that it is Divine inbreaking, the Real Presence.  To set it aside is to set Christ aside.  If the laity say to the clergy in normal times that they don’t need to come to Church, and that they don’t need to receive the Sacraments because God can provide in other ways, then the clergy tend to disagree quite hard.  And rightly so according to our theology and world view.  But now the church seems to be saying exactly that to us – and I’m not sure people are even aware that it wasn’t what they were apparently saying ten weeks ago.

It’s true that I would advocate straightforward disobedience to a state command to stop people participating in Christian worship, for all I would also advocate taking any precautions that don’t involve actually stopping participation.  However, under these circumstances, I do feel able to understand and respect a preference for yielding to the injunction temporarily while making an enormous fuss about being allowed to reassume as soon as possible.  (And I am talking of denying Christian ministry, not of a particular Christian deciding in all conscience that they are right not to seek to receive under particular circumstances.  That is completely different).

But who is speaking for us?  Who is clamouring to be allowed to worship?  To be allowed to return to our prayer and service to a world that is in agony?  That is rediscovering the horror and inevitability of death, and needs so much to hear the news that death won’t have the last word.

I feel that what is happening is rather like being told that 2+2=5.  If we believe in the Divine Life, then given a straight choice, it takes precedence over earthly life.  What is going on?  How is it we seem to preach one set of beliefs, and act upon another?  Why are we supposed to be serving the world by accepting its values and fears?  We speak the creed, and we act as if there was no Resurrection, as if human death was final and as if the ultimate service we can offer is to attempt to preserve it, rather than to witness that it is not, or at least does not have to be, final.

What has happened?  What is happening?  Have we been persuaded to believe, only to be persuaded not to believe if we have to take a risk in order to act in the way that belief would dictate?

Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy upon us all.  I do not see any way forward, personally or as a church, and I am totally bewildered.  But the faith of Christ is enough to supply our lack thereof.

Cherry Foster

Disability Adjustments and Lockdown: a comparison and a question

Suspending freedom to function for the sake of others’ need is a much more complex question than people seem to be allowing.  Here I consider it in comparison with what people are prepared to do to accommodate disability needs – though there are other possible analogies to explore such as what is and isn’t allowed in the criminal justice system.

There is an act in British law requiring institutions such as universities to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students.

However, “reasonable” can be very widely interpreted, and at my first institution it was considered unreasonable to expect lecturers to give me their notes on white paper.

The issues in living accommodation were worse: I had known dyspraxia and CPTSD, the latter in particular being well known to cause serious noise sensitivity problems, and yet it was apparently quite unreasonable to either place me in a student house with housemates prepared to be quiet, or to restrict the freedom of the other students by asking them to turn their music down or use headphones, in order to prevent their fellow student and housemate becoming seriously ill.  Similar difficulties are present with noise sensitivity in wider society: I lived briefly with a girl who was normally ill for several weeks around 5th November due to issues with fireworks, and I have heard someone with autism say that they had been on the verge of suicide due to a neighbour insisting on playing a musical instrument repeatedly in the middle of the night – the authorities insisting that it wasn’t loud enough to be regarded as an issue.

Issues with what you can ask others to do or put up with in order to accommodate the needs of others are complex, and I would not advocate a simple answer.  If there is one thing that is necessary to truly include anyone with extra or unusual needs, it is the acceptance that other people are still allowed to have problems and difficulties and needs too.  Community really can’t function if one person’s needs become completely invisible and irrelevant as soon as someone else is perceived as having a greater need.  The balance between normal freedom to function and the way in which what one is doing or not doing adversely affects others has to be maintained.  It is one thing to require the strong to bear some of the burdens of the weak, but the strong do not have infinite strength, and can still be overloaded.  It’s possible to have real and acute needs which it is genuinely not reasonable to ask people to meet due to the cost to themselves: an extreme example of this being people who need organ donations not being able to require them from live donors.

However, if this is so when it comes to disability and illness and need in normal times, it applies to an epidemic too.

I think that I would suggest our lockdown response to the COVID-19 epidemic is rather inconsistent, when it comes to the limitations generally placed on the ordinary adjustments made for disabled people on a day to day basis.  This is not simple because there are all sorts of reasons for advocating lockdown other than the protection of people at high risk from the disease, and a lot of the problems with disability adjustments come from a lack of understanding, rather than an unwillingness to make effort, or have freedom to do certain leisure activities restricted in some way.  Moreover, I think most people would argue that my university was wrong and should have made the adjustments I am talking of.  And what is justly required and enforced by third parties, and what it may be good for someone to do for others voluntarily, are different things.

I think, though, despite the complexities, requiring that people at low risk from a disease suspend all their normal activities and accept house arrest* on the specific grounds that it is to protect a different group of people who are at high risk of serious illness is problematic, unless it is also reasonable to ask a similar level of sacrifice and adjustment for those who have health and disability needs in ordinary times.

Cherry Foster

 

 

*This is slightly complicated: I personally have developed severe depression as a result of the lockdown, but I am thinking here of the people for whom it is unpleasant but not actually a threat to life or serious illness.

How shall we seek Thee?

Champaigne_shepherd
The Good Shepherd by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

O Lord, how shall we seek Thy help who have forsaken Thee?

Thou gavest us all Thyself by bitter death and bitter grief,

Thy Body broken, Thy Blood shed for us upon the Tree,

And still, when questioned by the flame, we turn from Thy belief.

O Lord, we turn away the gift of Thine appointed aid,

Demanding that Thou shouldst provide according to our choice,

And setting now our earthly life above Thy help, we fade,

And cowering thus deny Thy Life, Thy witness with one voice.

Through the shelter of Thy faith that sustained Thine anguished death,

And through the love of Three-in-One that raised Thee from dark hell.

And by the blood of those who gave for Thee their mortal breath,

And in the courage of the One who ever with us dwells:

O turn again, and turn us, Lord, to place in Thee our trust,

Not human sin, nor mortal death, Thy covenant can shake.

Turn us to look to Thee for help and not to mortal dust,

That we may witness to the Life that all from Thee may take.

 

Cherry Foster

 

 

N.B.  Given our cultural tendency to an “all-or-nothing” attitude, I would clarify by saying that I advocate taking all possible precautions in the process of receiving the Sacraments (Thou shalt not put the Lord Thy God to the test); it is denying access entirely on the grounds of human risk that I argue against.  Also, I don’t claim to be innocent in this or anything else, and as always, I do not judge anyone else’s conscience.  That, at least, is thankfully not my problem!

Shall we demand of God…

(As always, I know that people are doing their best in difficult circumstances and do honestly believe they are making the right decisions – but I also think that there are things being ignored which are important).

Shall we demand of God

That He sustain the hungry without food,

That none may be at risk from taking shopping to them?

Shall we demand of God

That He send angels to minister to the sick,

That no-one may be put at risk by nursing them?

And shall we demand of God,

That He sustain the Life Divine without the Sacraments

That there may be no risk to any from receiving them?

 

Cherry Foster

Hinder us not from living

Taking precautions is one thing, refusing people the Sacraments on the grounds of risk another.

Though I would not challenge the conscience of anyone else on this point, I would say academically, that as a Church, I am deeply bothered by the sense that we are not acting as if we believe what we say in reacting to this epidemic by choosing to stop taking the Sacraments to people almost altogether.

This is because, whatever respect we have for earthly life – and not to respect earthly life as a gift of God is gnostic (i.e. necessarily incorrect) – we are supposed to regard the Divine Life as more fundamental.

This means that I would argue that we should be acting the other way up: that is, instead of saying “the risk to earthly life is the most fundamental thing, unless we can completely negate the risk, we should not take the Sacraments to people,” we should be saying “the risk to Divine Life is the most fundamental thing: we should take every precaution we can to preserve earthly life, but it is right to take whatever left-over risk is unavoidable in taking the Sacraments to people.”  If our Lord who died for us is not worth that risk, what on earth are we doing on a daily basis in ordinary situations?  If we do not believe that the Life that can’t be destroyed is received through these things, what is it that we do believe?

I would suggest that there is quite a strong analogy here with the Christian tradition of martyrdom.  It is who loses their life who saves it, who gives it up for Christ’s sake who finds it.  Many Christians over the centuries have met at much greater peril of their lives than we would be in (not that I am advocating gathering specifically, at least not in large groups – I personally would not see that aspect of things as essential).  As for the fact that whatever we do is a risk to others’ lives, that is true under any circumstances, not just these.  If worship means so little, we could be spending the time we normally spend worshipping helping the famine stricken, for instance.  We could save lives just as much that way, as by almost completely desisting from practicing in this type of crisis (yes, there are differences in the two situations, but are the similarities more important?).

I grew up in a secular culture that condemned martyrs for their inconsideration to their families in holding to their integrity.  St. Perpetua is supposed almost to have lost her child in prison due to the difficulties of feeding it, and her elderly father was publicly beaten and humiliated in court, while pleading with her to deny Christ and thereby spare her child*.  Yet I have no doubt that she was right to hold to her faith at their cost as well as her own, and it is reasonable if we trust God to assume that her doing so will ultimately serve both her child and her father more than her denying her faith would have done.  If I did not believe that, I could not have come so far in the vocation as a religious which I have sought to follow.

Moreover, I am bothered by the sense conveyed in the emphasis on risk to the wider community that Christian worship is merely a matter of personal salvation, personal indulgence.  Granted the element of selfishness is always something that I am vaguely aware of, and which I am perpetually trying to purify from my worship (or, if I was wiser, would be trying to let God purify), but that is beside the point, because it is a flaw, and not how things should be working.  We receive not just for our own sakes, but for those of others; we should ultimately become overflowing vessels of grace.  Just as catching coronavirus is not a risk only to oneself but to others, a person’s falling from the Divine Life will result in others being pulled down, by the lack of their witness and companionship.

I really do not want to suggest that any individual Christian would be wrong to accept not receiving the Sacraments during an epidemic, if they feel it isn’t necessary to sustain them, and I don’t want to suggest bad motivation in anyone’s case.  I know people are doing what they think right in a very difficult situation.

However, there is an unconscious inconsistency as far as I can see, in this action of making a priority of risk to earthly life, over and above the Divine Life.  The person to whom the priest takes the Sacraments, who then dies as a result of the risk of infection they took in so receiving, has still from a Christian point of view gained and not lost.  The risk of infection, moreover, comes under the rules of Double Effect**, if the Sacraments are regarded as having a real value as vessels of the Divine Life: the minister of the Sacraments in such cases is not morally responsible for any deaths that result due to doing something that is more than equally important for people.

It isn’t right to seek martyrdom, only to accept it, and I would emphasis that I do believe completely that it would be wrong to take careless risks with an infectious illness (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”).  But in the end, we seem to have been placed in a position where we have a fundamental choice to make between risk to earthly life and risk to the Divine Life, and we have chosen the former, mostly without even seeming to recognise a case for the latter***.

I think it is unlikely that I’m the only one to be immensely troubled by the logical and spiritual implications of this.

Cherry Foster

 

*http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/ThSp_599z_SpDir/04_mart_vision/00a_start.htm

I do not know the weight of the historicity of this account, but for these purposes, it does not really matter: the archetypal understanding of martyrdom in the Tradition is more to the point, than what happened on any specific occasion (though I acknowledge that if it had never happened, there would be a lack of real witness to the value set).

**Double effect is when one and the self-same action results in a good consequence and in a bad consequence, which is foreseen but not intended.  For instance, when someone builds a railway, they build it in the full knowledge that there will be accidental deaths on it.  This does not make them morally responsible for these deaths.  Someone’s pushing an attacker away in the knowledge that they will probably fall over a cliff and be killed is a similar case.  For double effect to apply the two things should be roughly proportional (or, the good effect more important than the bad), they must be achieved in the same action (it is not possible to justify doing a bad thing to achieve a good one in this way), and the bad consequence should not be intended (i.e. the purpose intended should be achieved if the bad consequence does not come to pass).

***To come to different conclusions about what the priority of the Divine Life considered relative to the value we should put on human life would mean we do is not the same thing as taking earthly life as more fundamental – i.e. as the thing to which an appeal can’t rightly be rejected – which is what I am hearing in all the discussions I have had with other Christians on the subject.

Lock-Down and Mental Health Treatment

People with significant mental health issues are having their health sacrificed to the welfare of a different group of people, and they are unlikely to be given the help they need when the emergency is over.

Ultimately, with the exception of a few details relating to my Christian world view, I refuse to judge whether or not the UK government has been right to place its population under virtual house arrest (it is only legal to leave your home for a few very specific purposes like buying food) in response to Corvid-19.  I am glad I am not having to make the decisions.

However, as someone with long term depression and traumatic disorder problems, it cannot be avoided that I am being made seriously ill by the consequences to me of the restrictions.  And while this is slightly qualified by the fact that those of us for whom this is the case are still vulnerable to the collapse of infrastructure, as someone who is at very little risk from the disease itself, I am being made significantly ill by policies enacted primarily for the sake of the health and well-being of a different group of vulnerable people.

People often seem to underestimate depression – or rather, I think they confuse the minor forms with the severe, and assume that all depression is a matter of a bit of low mood which could do with a little bit of counselling and self-help.  It is quite right those things should be provided, but on the other hand, the fact that some people only need a bit of cream for their skin rash does not mean that all skin cancer is dismissed as a minor illness for which only minor measures are needed!

Given my tendencies, I have reached a point where I am desperately trying to process my emotions enough for the situation not to result in further traumatic disorder, but to keep them calm enough that the depression does not put me in hospital.  Though I’ve been out walking every day, I am concerned that I’m starting to develop a real (and potentially persistent) fear of going out, and I’m really struggling with my self-care, to the point that social services is having to step in to assist.  I am too fragile to communicate with people much, and this is particularly frustrating as it cuts me off from a lot of online things that would be helpful if I was well enough to access them.  And though I am doing my best, and hoping it may be possible to find ways of coping, the chances are that my health is only going to get worse the longer the restrictions continue.

The fact that it is like this for me may be a result of idiosyncrasies in brain structure that result from hypermobility disorder, though I am not sure how well established that suggestion is.  In any case, it is an illness like any other, not a matter of wilful weakness or simple ineptitude.  It can be responded to badly – in much the same way as a diabetic can choose to try to be careful with food or not – but it isn’t a choice or a failure merely to suffer from it.

At the present moment, I have excellent medical care (without which I would be much worse) in managing the immediate symptoms, from my GP, to whom I am extremely grateful.

However, there is a reasonable likelihood that I will develop long term problems – problems that do not ease with the easing of pressure – damage that will go on crippling and harming my life indefinitely, and this is not the province of a GP.  Even if I personally don’t develop long term issues, it is a reasonable assumption that there will be people who do.

What has been done has been done in an emergency situation, and as I say, I refuse to judge whether they are right or wrong to do it.  But the fact remains that there is a population of people whose health and wellbeing are being sacrificed primarily for the sake of the health and wellbeing of a different group of people.

When the emergency is over, will those who find that long-term damage has been done to their mental health by the precautions, receive prompt, automatic, adequate, expert care?  Or will there be no resources for them?  When they have suffered horribly in order that the health service may care for others with what is perceived to be a more urgent need, will they find, when that urgent need lessens, that they are the priority and that they will, without having to fight for it, receive the same care?  Will the health service then set up “field” mental health units and take on more staff to deal with the illnesses of trauma and depression and any others caused by what has been done by the government to deal with corvid-19?

From my previous experience, it is reasonable to project that the answer will be “no”.  We will probably be left to our ongoing suffering, perhaps with a little bit of very limited, non-expert counselling, and such as our GPs can do with medication.  Having been made ill by the precautions taken for others, we are likely to be abandoned to suffer from that illness.

Seriously, whatever else is right or wrong here, not regarding the serious mental health illnesses caused by precautions against the coronavirus as being due the same weight of medical assistance, is not right.

Cherry Foster