Virulence and the Myth of Neutrality

Before I answered the call to ministry and submitted myself to a lifetime of theological studies, I was three months away from entering medical school in the Philippines to fulfill a childhood dream. That childhood passion led me to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. I wanted to be the best prepared medical student, and I believed that the BSN was vastly superior to a pre-med degree in terms of clinical preparation. After I graduated and passed the Nursing Board exams, I served for a while as a community health nurse in a rural, underserved community. I was accepted to medical school in Manila not too long after that. A few months before medical school was to begin, I attended the 1978 Baptist Youth World Conference held in Manila where my father was pastoring. It was at that conference that I experienced a dramatic call to ministry.

All this is to say that what I have learned in my clinical experience, and in my ongoing fascination with science and the beautiful mystery of the human organism, continue to be a vital hermeneutic in my theological and pastoral journey and in how I understand the physical world around me. In recent days, I have been following intently the news of a dangerous disease that has broken out on mainland China.

The outbreak of a new coronavirus (named by the CDC as 2019-nCoV) in China’s province of Hubei this past December, centered around its capital of Wuhan, has caught the attention of the world. This new virus is reminiscent of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus epidemic that originated in southern China in November of 2002, which was finally contained in July of 2003. That epidemic caused an eventual 8,098 cases in 9 months, and resulted in 774 deaths reported in 17 countries. But this Wuhan coronavirus is far and away more virulent than SARS. In just 2 months, the Wuhan virus had already infected more than 40,000 persons primarily on mainland China, and isolated cases in 28 other countries, including the United States. As I write this blog, February 10, 2020, an update was issued by major news outlets that the number of deaths from the Wuhan coronavirus has passed 900 persons, far surpassing SARS. Scientists in China and around the world, together with the World Health Organization, are feverishly doing research on this virus even as they treat the epidemic and prevent more deaths. One thing is clear, this pathogen is powerfully virulent. Virulence, simply defined, is a pathogen’s or microbe’s capacity to infect or damage a host by breaching and overcoming its immune system, and establishing a colonized niche of infected cells in an otherwise resistant host.

My daily musings and reflections normally span my various interests. And many times they naturally intersect with each other. As I have been following with much concern the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic, I have been gripped by its virulence. I am cheering on the scientists and epidemiologists around the world that they soon will fully understand the genetic makeup of the virus and find a cure. This time, the word virulence intersected with another dominant and recurring theme – a leitmotif, if you may – that weighs heavily on my spirit.

As I ponder these days on the profound political and cultural polarization afflicting American society, and experientially struggling to make sense of the immense disconnective energy that fills our public discursive space right now, I find myself organically feeling the national angst. The binary, antagonistic, ideological divide that buttresses the formative political foundation of this country – conservative and progressive – was envisioned to keep and hold a creative tension in the national psyche and the democratic experiment. That creative tension ostensibly was envisioned to be an ideal that aspires to lead us as a people to a golden mean. But in the last 40-45 years, it seems like that generative tension has turned into a cleavage. That cleavage now appears to have become a chasm of animus. I feel it emotionally and psychologically, saddened and distressed by the unraveling of our social fabric. There is a social, political, and moral virulence assaulting the American body politic.

This extreme polarization has permeated, it seems, every level of our social consciousness. Every argument, every opinion, every cognitive construct of rational thought, even assertions of science, all now seem to be filtered through an inescapable dualism with pejorative, adversarial categories – it is either liberal or conservative, right wing or left wing, Democrat or Republican. In short, this dualism has blurred the complexity of the cosmos, the wonder of nature, the ineffability of beauty, and the complexity of the individual confronted by the multivalent possibilities of everyday existence. It seems that on the most ordinarily level of our personal interactions with another in the public sphere – whether it be in the grocery store, in the movie theaters, on social media, or what have you – the dualistic, ideological antagonism infecting our society has commandeered our perspectives into the funnel of only two irreducible modes of understanding the world.

As a Christian, my default gaze is primarily turned to my fellow believers in the community. It is distressing to see that many Christians – some of whom I personally know – have been so caught in the grip of this binary, antagonistic, and opposing ideological forces that their theologies, their understandings of the world and of the ethical life, are now articulated only in the vernacular of these opposing political ideologies. On the other hand, many have become cynics, deeply distrusting both sides as equally corrupt and driven only by self-interest, that they have chosen to detach themselves from participating as interlocutors in the political discourse. The cynics say that all politicians are corrupt, they are all the same. Trapped in its own vortex of endless “whataboutism”, that perspective resigns itself to the inevitable why-take-any-side inertia. But herein lies the snare of the binary ideological trap: both ideological sides masquerade as its own closed, self-contained system of moral absolutes. Both systems demand undiluted, pure loyalty because of its claim on ultimacy and dominion over the other. The cynic then feels justified in declaring non-allegiance to either side. In the presumption that both ideological camps are equally corrupt, the cynic is led to believe that detaching one’s self from the moral crucible of day to day living, by eschewing solidarity with either ideological camp through total disengagement, is in itself an ethical decision.

This is a legacy of the moral idealism especially of Immanuel Kant, which understood the ideal of the ethical life as being situated in knowing the truth, because when one knows the “ought”, one grasps the “can.” But ethics in the cognitive realm only convinces the individual of one’s obligation and duty, but in actuality renders the individual powerless to effect it. Soren Kierkegaard critiqued this formalistic ethical system as trivializing the existence of evil and sin, and erroneously understands sin only in quantitative terms. Rather, Kierkegaard argued that sin is “total guilt” and total guilt cannot be quantified by adding up guilty acts. This ethical system, according to Kierkegaard, is wholly inadequate in addressing the single individual confronted with the many possibilities of daily existence. We understand the totality of guilt, of humanity’s wholesale imperfection, when we place our guilt – not in relation to a particular ideology – but in relation to God who alone is perfect. And so he argued that the ultimate aim of the ethical life is not merely accumulating enough knowledge to know the truth, but instead to become it; not to produce objective truth, but to submit one’s self to be transformed by truth.

In a sinful world, our ethical choices do not ultimately lie within the left-right ideological continuum, or circumscribed by competing partisan political agendas. That is an arena of contested power where protagonists are expected to compete for dominion. We allow those binary ideological forces to truncate our understandings of the beautiful complexity of life at our peril, because moral choices in the realm of day to day existence are never always symmetrical, they are never always ideal. Rather, our ethical choices present themselves out of the moral crucible of right and wrong. And in an imperfect world, obedience to God sometimes requires transcending prevailing social, political, and ethical norms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian, who, together with Karl Barth, founded the Confessing Church of Germany, staunchly resisted the Nazi dictatorship and openly resisted Hitler’s euthanasia program and the genocidal oppression of the Jews. In the face of such unspeakable horror, he made a momentous existential ethical decision when he participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. When that failed, he was arrested and later on executed. In his watershed essay, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard again critiques the moral idealism of ethical rationalism, as ignoring the distinctive uniqueness of a person’s finite existence standing before God. There, he offered an elaborate analysis of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Abraham is called by God to perform a task that is a clear scandal to ethical rationalism. In Abraham’s absolute obedience to God, he proceeds to commit an act that contravenes a universal moral imperative in what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” I cannot help but wonder if, in the depths of his moral agony, Bonhoeffer found solace in Kierkegaard’s meditations.

Neutrality is a myth in the realm where life exists, because our existence – our lived reality – is constitutive of the ethical choices the we make. Neutrality is an ethical trap, because it only absolves one from the moral imperative of making an ethical choice in the face of concrete existential possibilities. We exist in a life that does not always offer ideal ethical choices or moral absolutes. Rather, what we commonly confront daily is moral virulence, and it is in those moments when we are summoned to make ethical choices that bring lesser harm. Yes, all are guilty before God. Yes, the world is imperfect. But it is in that milieu, and nowhere else, that God summons us to make our ethical and moral choices. Our sinful, finite, and imperfect world is inhabited by moral pathogens. Some are potential – because we all carry the rudiments of being one – and some actual. And in situations when those pathogens have been actualized, we are made to see which is more virulent than the other. Then we are faced with a choice. And in a time of profound social and political polarization, obedience to God might require us to make a choice that scandalizes our own notion of moral absolutes. To guide our choices with the clichéd, “lesser of two evils” frame is morally inadequate. Instead, it needs to be reframed to that which guides our ethical choices by what best serves the greatest good, by what brings the least harm, and by what serves our shared humanity. Our ethical life is not built by what we say, but by everything we do.

In the reality of moral virulence, the cynic cannot be justified in retreating to the sanctuary of dispassionate choice.

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