Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sufficiency and the Pandemic
distributed 3/20/20 - ©2020

The mission statement of Eco-Justice Ministries speaks of helping churches "develop programs that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward ecological sustainability and social justice."

Along with every other sector of the global society, the coronavirus pandemic is challenging faith communities. Churches need to dramatically re-evaluate what "faithful, relevant and effective" means when we can't gather in community, and when human needs -- economic, medical, psychological and pastoral, and for basics like food -- are cascading.

For those of you who are pastors and church leaders, I urge you to (1) be diligent in practicing strong "social distancing," especially when it is tempting to visit shut-in members, (2) be innovative in maintaining church community in virtual formats, and (3) be persistent in looking at ways to meet the most urgent needs within your congregation and your community. We can't "do church" in the ways that are most familiar to us, but we must "do church" in new ways that spread hope, healing, and prophetic clarity.

As we re-imagine what to do and be for this time, we can -- we must! -- draw on deep wisdom from our traditions. Last week, I tapped into the eco-justice ethical norm of solidarity as foundational for social distancing and care for the common good. Today, I turn to another of those four norms, sufficiency, for timely guidance.

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Drawing again on the classic article by Dieter Hessel, sufficiency is defined as "a standard of organized sharing, which requires basic floors and definite ceilings for equitable or 'fair' consumption." Put that way, it is clear that sufficiency builds on the norm of solidarity, which seeks the common good and which acknowledges that "we're all in this together."

My usual short-hand summary of sufficiency is the word "enough." I usually pull out the phrasing of the Lord's Prayer -- "give us this day our daily bread" -- which hearkens back to the Exodus story of manna in the wilderness, a daily bread which could not be hoarded. Enough is enough for today.

As ever more extreme measures are being implemented to slow the spread of the virus, and to "flatten the curve" of medical care, we're hearing most about issues of insufficiency. News stories keep telling us about settings where there isn't enough.

There aren't enough surgical masks, or hospital beds, or ventilators for the expected peak of critical cases. There isn't enough toilet paper on store shelves (right now -- there's plenty in the warehouses, and TP is being restocked along with all kinds of food). Food pantries are running short on supplies, as grocers and restaurants cut donations. There isn't enough money in families where layoffs have cut off income.

Sufficiency gives us some guidance about how to respond.

On the most basic and personal levels, "organized sharing" means that we don't over-stock when supplies are limited. Just buy reasonable amounts, and leave some TP and beans and eggs for others. Make donations as you are able -- of staple foods to a food bank, and of cash to social service agencies. If you have more than enough, share to support those who don't have anywhere near enough.

On community and societal levels, sufficiency means digging deep to support those facing desperate insufficiency. Unemployment insurance, offered as broadly as possible, will be a strain on state budgets, and must be provided. Also, there are now many in need who haven't qualified as employees -- the self-employed, "gig workers," and undocumented workers -- and we need to find ways to provide essential support to them.

Federal proposals in the US to provide checks to everybody (from the sketchy information I've seen), will leave out the undocumented and the poor who didn't file 2018 tax returns, and will send cash to millions of people who don't need immediate help. It misses some with the greatest need, and benefits others who are not in serious need. This fast-tracked idea may not meet the notion of organized sharing with both a floor and a ceiling.

We hit the most difficult and painful ground when considering sufficiency in the health care system. The last few weeks have brought to light long-standing gaps in US institutions, with millions uninsured, and a chaotic tangle of differing provisions under different insurance plans. Here, too, the pattern has been inequitable -- some get little or nothing, while others have abundant provisions. There is a systemic transformation which will need to be addressed in years to come.

But for right now, the agonizing problem is what to do when health care infrastructure, like ICU beds and ventilators, is not sufficient for the expected need. There just plain isn't going to be enough to go around. We can't share what doesn't exist. Decisions have to be made about who gets limited resources.

Bloomberg columnist Faye Flam describes detailed protocols developed by the World Health Organization before the feared bird flu pandemic of 2006. Under these guidelines, patients would be divided into broad priority categories.

  1. The highest priority for treatment are those whose deaths would cost other lives. It is essential to save those who will in turn save lives -- health care workers, firefighters, police, and the people who keep up essential public works such as the water supply.
  2. The second level of priority becomes those who are most likely to recover. When resources are scarce, principles of triage focus on those who can be treated most successfully, not on those who are most desperately sick. Yes, doctors will have to decide who is going to die.
  3. The WHO protocols then look at the scenario where there isn't enough capacity to treat even those who are likely to recover. In that case, a random lottery should decide who receives extensive care. Not only is this the most impartial approach, randomization provides for better scientific research as we look back at what treatments prove to be most effective.

Those WHO protocols offer good ethical guidance for a genuine crisis situation -- one that has already been encountered in many countries around the world. Within our church communities, we can provide moral leadership be getting these principles into circulation and conversation. Let's talk about them before they need to be applied.

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The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting all sorts of flaws and inequalities that have been "under the radar" for most of us. We're in a difficult place, in part, because our society has not done well at wide-spread sufficiency.

As we try to build a more just, sustainable and resilient society, the temptation is to look only at how to get those in need up to a basic floor of enough. But there's another side to sufficiency as defined by Hessel and other ethicists. There's a ceiling of too much. In a limited world, a concentration of wealth and resources in a few means that there will be a shortage of resources for many.

I heard a vivid and prophetic critique of that inequality just a month ago. In mid-February, before the coronavirus disrupted the US, and when there were still five people considered viable Democratic candidates for President, Bernie Sanders answered a debate question:

We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That's wrong. That's immoral. That should not be the case when we have half a million people sleeping out on the streets. When we have kids who cannot afford to go to college. When we have 45 million people dealing with student debt. We have enormous problems facing this country and we cannot continue seeing a situation where in the last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth ... But the average American saw less than a 1% increase in his or her income. That's wrong.

I quote that, not as an endorsement of Bernie's candidacy (it's probably too late for that, anyway!), but as an accurate assessment of how US society fails against the ethical norm of sufficiency.

This month, the US is facing a complex crisis with the spreading pandemic. Many aspects of the crisis would be less extreme if our society had less people at or below the floor of just-barely-enough. We'd be more resilient if there were less people living paycheck to paycheck, less people living on the streets or in prison, less people without adequate health care.

Sufficiency is an essential component of a just society. That's true when we're dealing with a pandemic, and it is true when life is more ordinary.

Churches seeking to be faithful, relevant and effective should study the principle of sufficiency, and be vocal advocates for greater sufficiency in all parts of our society.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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