As if the battle against coronavirus weren’t daunting enough, there is now the battle over when and how to reopen society so that people can get back to work. It’s a battle of lives versus livelihoods. For those of us older, retired folks with a secure income, saving lives seems paramount. But for many out-of-work younger folks raising families, and restaurant servers now being served by others at food banks, saving livelihoods is reaching a desperation point. It’s not exactly a “Sophie’s Choice,” but close. (On arrival at Auschwitz, Sophie is forced to choose which of her two children would be gassed and which sent to a labor camp.)
Complicating our decision-making is the maddening lack of information. When can we reliably expect to have a vaccine? Will reviving the economy lead to a dramatic spike in victims? (Indeed, we’ll never know how many would have died if we hadn’t flattened the economy while “flattening the curve.”) With facts in such short supply, how can one possibly make wise decisions? All the classic conundrums apply: “Between a rock and a hard place.” “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” Given such no-win options, who in their right mind would wish to be a public official having to make such dire decisions? Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy, but, as Shakespeare reminds us, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Dare one be cynical enough to suggest that statistics are playing havoc with reasoned choices? How many would have died this year in any event? In the 2017-2018 season alone, up to 80,000 Americans died of ordinary flu (the Grim Reaper of the elderly). Or consider the thousands of traffic-related deaths each year, prompting no shut-down of the highways. Without doubt, global pandemics are a far more serious matter, but at what point must one think in terms of “acceptable risks,” understanding that life has no guarantees, and that death is as natural as life?
As believers, we’re often uncomfortable with the God of the Old Testament because of all the killing, death, and dying. But even with the entrance of a gentle Jesus and his redeeming cross (yet another death!), all the same deadly forces of nature—tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and pandemics—are still around. Despite the first couple’s rebellion in the Garden, God obviously had options, yet he clearly chose to allow both natural and human evil. And, more to the current point, even now he permits disease, suffering, and horrific deaths. What does that say about God’s character? Throughout the centuries, skeptics have howled, and the faithful have quietly wondered. One storied figure in particular—the suffering Job—asked all of our own hard questions, only to be told by a rebuking God that the answers were above Job’s pay grade. So, who are we to think we have the right to second-guess the omniscient Creator of the universe? Might God possibly see suffering and death from a higher, radically-different perspective?
The wonder is that God endowed us humans with the gift of choice in the first place. Knowing in advance that we would often make flawed, even horrendous, decisions, it must have been tempting to create us as automatons with no free will. But what would have been the point? When faced with (to us) a perplexing conundrum, God was not stymied. “For God so loved the world that he”…took a risk! Wouldn’t it be reassuring if during this crisis our leaders’ decisions were informed, not just by science, but by faith in the One who knows the unknowable? And wouldn’t we, ourselves, be better equipped to make difficult choices if we more fully grasped the eternal perspective of the Divine Sovereign whose crowned head rests ever so easily?