Our university canceled in-person classes until at least April 13. Around the time the announcement came out, I happened to engage with an acquaintance on social media whose child attends the university. This acquaintance was calling for the university to reimburse at least partial tuition since the “consumers” were not getting what they paid for. Indeed, no one expected that our university would be offering solely digital courses for at least a month. I understand my acquaintance’s frustration, as well as the logic behind it.
I have been thinking similar consumer-like thoughts about other matters recently. I’ve been thinking about things like refunds on airfare, refunds for theater tickets, refunds for my kids’ various activities. I’ve been concerned about stocking up on medicine and food and toilet paper before supplies run out. It seems not only natural but quite urgent to not lose out in preparing for an oncoming crisis like the outbreak of COVID-19. And yet, disciples of Christ might be called upon to undertake a different kind preparation all together: Christians should prepare to lose.
Resist fighting for oneself
Regardless of exactly how bad this global pandemic gets, or how long it lasts, many people are going to lose. In Italy right now, as the entire country is quarantined and the number of people infected with the coronavirus grows rapidly, hospitals throughout the country are overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses are exhausted, and they are short on supplies. As Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic: “There are now simply too many patients for each one of them to receive adequate care. Doctors and nurses are unable to tend to everybody. They lack machines to ventilate all those gasping for air.”
Want more coverage on coronavirus from a perspective of faith? Sign up for our daily newsletter.
So who receives treatment? Who gets a ventilator when there is not enough for everyone who needs one to live? These are unbearable questions. Whether it is for oneself or for one’s loved one, it seems not only natural but quite urgent not to lose out if it is between “me or him,” “my loved one or her loved one.” And yet, might the Christian need to resist fighting for oneself in a situation like that and instead prepare to lose, even willingly?
Moral calculus of a Christian
That seems a far cry from demanding refunds for local theater, or even tuition reimbursement for canceled classes. But the logic runs straight through. The temptation — the urge — is to tally up all the potential loss and then fight for what I can get back, or get before someone else, or secure before it is too late. But the moral calculus of a Christian calls for a wider set of considerations. Are the staff of the local theater going to lose their paychecks or hourly wages because of these canceled performances? Is it possible to forgo the claim to a refund and ask the theater to direct the funds to their staff?
When universities close their campuses, there are salaried faculty and staff, as well as hourly wage workers. The ones least capable of taking a hit on their income are the hourly wage workers, and yet they are the ones who stand to lose hours if dining halls and bookstores and conference centers shut down. We are talking about janitors and cooks and clerks, and usually people who work more than one job. Salaried employees are more secure — they get what’s theirs — but might the more secure ask the university to apportion part of their salary to other employees in need? Would that come at a loss to them? Yes. Somebody has to lose.
Kids’ activities will be canceled. Entire soccer seasons, softball and baseball seasons may very well be called off. Dance studios will close for weeks, art classes will cease, and community centers like the YMCA or Boys and Girls Club will cut their hours. Those parents who paid hard-earned money when they registered their kids for activities that are now canceled are indeed entitled to a refund. But what about the coaches who would have been but now will not be paid to coach, or the dance studio owner who is running a small business, or the teenagers and single moms who work at the community center on an hourly wage? No leagues, no lessons and no hours means no income, for a month or more. Is the Christian who is owed money prepared to lose so someone else might not? Somebody has to lose. Might the loss be shared together?
It is impossible to play out every scenario where there will be unavoidable loss in the coming months. What is certain, however, is that there will be plenty of loss to go around, whether loss of life or health, comfort or security, money or supplies. The questions yet to be answered concern who will lose and why. And the other question is: Can we all share the loss together, bearing the burden collectively? Consumer-thinking does not typically allow for that kind of consideration, but Catholic thinking does: It is called “solidarity.”
To practice solidarity, you have to be prepared to lose. So how do we do that? How do we prepare to lose? The answer: well in advance.
To take but one example from the witness of a saint, we remember well that Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward to willingly take the place of a man condemned to death in Auschwitz. Kolbe went along with nine other prisoners to a starvation chamber, where he shared the burden with them while saving the other man from the loss he was chosen to suffer.
What we may not remember is that Maximilian prepared for that loss for decades, in order to practice solidarity in the moment of crisis. He fasted regularly, served the needs of others habitually, adored the Blessed Sacrament often, prayed the Rosary nearly constantly, and, time after time, practiced losing comfort and convenience in order to serve the Lord and his neighbors. This does not make his sacrifice in the final moment of crisis any less remarkable; rather, it reveals that his ultimate sacrifice presented true Christian creativity. He recognized the moment for what it was, and he made the free choice to suffer someone else’s loss, while sharing the loss of the other men condemned to die. He prepared to lose well in advance.
It is difficult if not nearly impossible to assess everything that is going on in a moment of crisis without adequate preparation. It is hard to see as well as we need to in order to fulfill our Christian duty when things are moving fast and everything is urgent. The duty of Christians is to prepare in advance so that when the moments of crisis come — when there are too few ventilators, or there is too little money, or there remain too few supplies — the disciple of Christ can see the cost that someone has to bear and choose whether or not to bear that cost, or at least share in it.
None of us can say which cost another should bear. What we can and must do, as Christians, is encourage each other to prepare ourselves to see well the trying choices that will come and be free enough from our ingrained consumer mentalities to recognize the sacrifices we might be called to make. That’s how we train ourselves for the practice of solidarity.
A sacrifice is a loss, and often that’s what Christian victory looks like: losing.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. You can find him online at leonardjdelorenzo.com.