Attentiveness: Pandemic and Moral Reasoning, Part II - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Pandemic and Moral Reasoning, Part II

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology

This is a two-part series. Read Part I.

In a pandemic, which moral foundations are most important to guide us as individuals and as a society?

I believe if we get this wrong many more innocent people will die.

On the other side of the pandemic, will the church be identified as having done the right thing? At this point, I am not sure. In last week’s blog post we identified the six moral foundations that guide us in life: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty

For all of us certain foundations lead or guide us more than others. This is both a personal matter, and a cultural matter.

In China and Korea—in fact in all of East Asia—authority dominated in the national and individual response to the pandemic. Confucianism skews all political and individual moral decisions toward social order through obeying authority. In such a situation, with the right information and decisions from those in authority, this is a very good thing. Raw authority alone as a moral foundation, of course, is seldom a good thing.

In contrast, Italians, French, Spaniards and (you guessed it) North Americans value liberty (individual rights) above strictly obeying authority. I grew up with a sticker on my notebook (it had three rings and paper inside: 20th century type) that said, “Question Authority.” It seemed not at all controversial. The United States was founded on the act of questioning the authority of Great Britain. “Give me liberty or give me death!” is the foundation of Western moral thinking.

But of these six areas of moral thinking, which should be lifted up by Christians? Moral thinking must be shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not only by our culture. An ethic of love, rooted in the very nature of God and seen in the life of Jesus is a challenge to local cultural norms.

Following the via negativa (defining something by what it’s not), I would suggest that two of the moral foundations above must be deemphasized at this time. Pastors and other Christian leaders should not only be aware of this but should make it clear that these moral foundations must take the back seat at this time. Both loyalty (to tribe or ethnic group or nation) and liberty (“I did it my way:” Frank Sinatra, 1969) must be sacrificed. Loyalty is often expressed as extreme nationalism or racism. Liberty becomes selfish purchasing of toilet paper, and insisting on one’s “right” to gather in groups even if it risks the health of others.

Speaking positively, (via positive) at this time we must lean into care and fairness. Care for others is made so clear throughout Scriptures (James 1:27, Matthew 25:35, Luke 7:22). In fact, there are over 70 verses in the Bible about care for widows alone! This being the case—that care must be a guiding moral principle at this time of emergency—we need to ask: where are the fragile people, those who need care? They are the elderly, the lonely, the widows, the sick, and the homeless. Care for these, not protecting our tribe or nation should guide our lives.

Secondly, fairness, must guide us at this time where many people do not receive adequate care, while others are hording supplies and medical equipment and tests. We will see very soon that nationalism must subside as our Christian fairness (God is a righteous king) asks, “Who is looking out for poorer nations in Africa and South Asia? It is not fair that they have so few doctors and so few hospital beds.”

What is “fair,” (described by sociologists), is what is “just” and “righteous” for the Christian. At this very dangerous and tragic time Christians should stand on the side of the poor, the weak, and needy. At this time, focusing on “loyalty” and personal “liberty,” will actually cost lives. Care and fairness can be easily translated as love and justice for the Christian. These moral foundations must lead us through this pandemic.

Then, on the other side of the pandemic people will note, “I know who it was to stepped forward and took care of us and helped the marginalized: It was those Jesus people.” I hope we hear these words, or words like them in the future.


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.