The world suffered from World War II in ways that could have been either prevented or greatly diminished if it had only had the moral courage and leadership to see things for what they were rather than what they wanted them to be. A similar collective state of denial is now occurring around the world and here in America as we engage in World War III, the fight against COVID-19. Robert Hormat’s article, “World War III isn't what the strategists thought it would be,” provides a helpful frame for why we must understand this crisis as a World War. I would go further to submit that unless we shift our thinking to a World War III mentality, we will find ourselves again prolonging and exacerbating the pain of war in the loss of hundreds of thousands of more lives, the societal decline in quality of life for those who remain, and the mortal danger to the collective life of our republic.
Strong, federal, technical leadership is required to coordinate the expansion of health care infrastructure, facilitate vaccine development, and treatment research. In addition, state and local governments must be organized and resourced along with the public and private health care industry who serve on the front lines of this war. The stunning failure of the president, his administration, and Congress to act clearly and coherently to marshal our federal resources will continue to result in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and threaten the moral compact that ungirds this republic.
While the fruit of this total failure of leadership is technical, the tree from which it is grown is moral. Yet, to simply assign blame to immoral leaders will not be helpful by itself in winning this war. After all, the leaders who spill the blood of their citizens did not come to power by coup. Therefore, one must also address the virus within the body politic that elected them.
In his book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Colin Woodard notes that not only is the continent made up of peoples from very different backgrounds, values, beliefs, languages, and economies, but those lines of distinction continue to exist today. This would explain why southern states are leading the charge to reopen, other states have seen armed protestors take over their capitals, while still other states seem content to shelter in place for the foreseeable future. Our hyper-partisan approach to public discourse paints anyone who promotes prioritizing life and safety as being economically naïve, irresponsible, and an enemy to hourly wage earners who need to work in order to live. Conversely, those who advocate reopening the economy are tagged as cruel capitalists hungry to trade lives for money, protect big business at any cost, and as being more concerned about our unpayable national debt then the mounting death toll of her citizenry. The reason that this argument rages is because it is framed as a contradiction rather than a paradox.
A contradiction involves two opposing ideas, whereas a paradox recognizes that contradicting ideas can point to a higher truth. In this instance, the paradoxical truth is that a failed economy is a health care issue. The data COVID-19 is currently generating demonstrate that the health consequences that failed economies create, as evidenced by the grossly disproportionate mortality rates within black and brown communities. The inability to afford food, medicine, or shelter is a public health crisis that must be treated with a healthy economy. That means that merely injecting liquidity into the existing economic system without restructuring it into a comprehensive-wartime economy will lead the 132 million Americans, who before COVID-19 did not have $400 in savings, to be pushed into a permanent underclass. The opportunity to create a wartime economy that puts people back to work will have been missed. Yet, how do we go back to work without risking more lives? The answer is, of course, we can’t.
Citizens in times of war often go about their daily business not because they don’t fear death, but because they know they don’t have a choice. The false notion that we can wait this virus out at home will not work economically. Other countries will not simply continue to finance our national debt so that our privileged class can telework, while our blue-collar workers must starve at home or put themselves at risk if they are allowed to work. We all want to live, but is it moral to only require the financially vulnerable to be at risk?
My grandmother worked in a bomb manufacturing plant during World War II. That meant that every day she went to work knowing that she was one accident away from not returning home. In that sense, she was as much of a soldier as the airmen who dropped those bombs on D-Day. A wartime mentality seeks to erase the lines between professional soldiers and citizens, the privileged classes, and those who have been deprived of opportunity. A wartime mentality enlists the assistance of the entire country to comply with stay at home orders, social distancing, the wearing of face masks to protect not just ourselves but one another.
What is needed now, as always, is real moral leadership. Moral leadership compels competing political parties to call a truce and collaborate in a way that will restructure our society and economy. Moral leadership requires us as citizens to be helpful to our neighbors and communities in ways that we have not seen in generations. Moral leadership is not fanciful; it is the only way forward against the cold and cruel invisible enemy that endangers every member of our species. Moral leadership, by itself, is not an institution. It is most commonly found in faith and uniquely in faith in Christ, who is the exemplar of servant leadership and champion of the beloved community. I am not aware of a more vibrant symbol of sacrifice than the cross and a clearer invitation to earthly and eternal salvation than in Jesus. While the postmodern mind reflexively recoils against the inclusion of faith in national socio-economic conversations – history knows better.
In the end, there are no atheists in foxholes because fear and despair bring clarity to truth and lay bare the need for grace. My prayer is that the hope that had been placed in the White House, the state house, the market, and technology will now find missional direction from the word of God, which is able to transform every institution and bring healing in our land. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.”