Efforts to limit the impact of contagious diseases unfold in phases. They tend to progress from focusing on who people are and where they’re from, to caring more about what people do and where we’re going. That’s progress of a kind, a movement up the hierarchy of human frailty from fear and exclusion to a concern for others, even if largely as a function of self-interest.
The impulse to lock the border, push cruise ships out to sea, and share our public virtues only with people who look and sound like us and haven’t had the bad judgment to consort with speakers of other languages or travel to far places, is predictable. Yet is seems to fail, predictably, and then we shift – we make the leap from thinking about the threat as an outside aggressor to seeing it as an aspect of who we are and how we act.
Early Christian leader Augustine of Hippo – known to most as St. Augustine – argued for a similar shift in worldview when he began teaching that evil is not a distinct thing that must be fought and killed but instead is an emptiness that must be filled with love: not a bad thing moving against us, but the lack of the good that we can do for others and for ourselves.
Social philosopher Hannah Arendt, a scholar of Augustine, wrote about the rise of Nazism in her native Germany in similar terms, noting the metaphor of virus and disease that Hitler embraced when he talked about Jews like Arendt, and later noting that our broader understanding of Nazism was leaning too far toward the same impulse after the war. Let’s end Nazism, let’s eradicate this foreign evil, let’s expunge our civic body of this foreign contaminant. She pushed hard for a different understanding that would have all of us, and all of our institutions, guard against the empty and dark spaces within us that make us vulnerable to hateful thinking.
It’s no secret that our current president likes the foreign-virus metaphor in his pandering to the easily roused nativists among us, and many others (though too few) had the decency to connect the dots when he called COVID-19 “this foreign virus” in his recent Oval Office speech. Indeed, “lock them out” has its overtones of “lock her up” and “build that wall.”
And it’s true that the pandemics and the deaths that exclusion prevents are almost never reported on because there is little or nothing to report: that is the story of prevention, when it works. But how often does it work? And at what cost?
I love the spiritual dialogue that runs like this:
- Question: How much I treat the stranger?
- Answer: There is no stranger.
We are the ones who hold the keys, but we are also the ones who are locked out. We are the ones who care for the sick, and we are the ones who need care.
We need to be larger, not smaller. We need to be brave and fill with care and concern the empty, fearful places that hate will otherwise claim.