Michael Banner in THE TABLET, 25 June 2020
A leading moral philosopher argues that the coronavirus has not posed new ethical problems, but it has strikingly illumined two major features of the social landscape that society and the Church usually prefers to ignore: race and class
Academics, living sheltered lives (and in the case of some of my colleagues, lacking access to what they refer to as “the televisual apparatus”), sometimes hear of events in the outside world only when they receive a PhD application. Keen young students, feeling that there may be no pressing need for yet another thesis on Pseudo-Dionysius, bring word to aged professors of developments and novelties of which they may be ignorant.
The proposal I received this week for a dissertation on the ethics of Covid-19 was the first I have received on this theme, but it did not constitute news, even for me. Word of this pandemic has reached even as far as Cambridge.
The proposal was keen to focus on the novelty of the situation – the novel coronavirus posed new ethical questions requiring new thinking and new answers. A jaded don, of course, is determined to find nothing new under the sun, though may just concede to the keen, young researcher that there may be some aspects of the current situation which present relatively novel problems, perhaps around the proprieties involved in testing a risky yet urgently needed vaccine, for example. But on this occasion the jaded don would be right. What is striking about the virus is not that it poses new ethical problems, but that it poses some very old ones with particular sharpness.
The virus can be compared to a lightning strike that puts everything in a new light. You look through your window at a landscape you know very well. Perhaps it is a scene you have seen every day for the past 10 years. And yet to see the scene lit up in the middle of a storm by a flash of lightning gives you a new perspective – you see contours and features that were always there, but that are only brought to light by this unusual and stark illumination of the scene.
Two contours in our social landscape have been brightly illuminated by the storm in which we have found ourselves. They are class and race. They have been illuminated in one way in the UK and in another in the US – and perhaps differently again elsewhere. But across our individual societies, and across the world, these two contours have stood out in sharp relief, for the virus has not affected all people equally, but has followed and highlighted those contours of social differentiation that track economic inequalities and racial injustice and oppression, the two quite often combined in a bitter mix of unmerited and unjust hardship, sickness and poverty.
These contours have always been there; but in the harsh light of the virus, we cannot fail to see them in their striking reality. For what is glaringly clear about the avoidable deaths caused by Covid-19, as of the avoidable death of George Floyd in police custody, is that the victims were not, so to say, randomly selected – as we might suppose that people who are struck by lightning are randomly selected.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the UK have suffered disproportionately in the current pandemic (with more infections, worse outcomes and more deaths), compounding the lesser opportunities and advantages in work, housing and education that were already suffered disproportionately by members of these communities.
The question for those in the Church is this: How well, and how effectively, have we spoken of class and race? Liberation Theology brought class and structural injustice to scholarly attention. And, somewhat ironically, it was in part the neglect of the issue of race in the Liberationist tradition that spurred the development of a black theology of liberation, in the work of James Cone and others, which in turn led to the more general flowering of African-American theology.
But when we ask about how well the Church has spoken of this or that, we surely should be asking not only about what has been said by theologians to theologians about theologians, but about what is spoken of in sermons, prayers, school assemblies and parish newsletters. Here we still seem to shy away from talking about race and class.
I was struck teaching in Cambridge earlier this year, when race came up for discussion, how uncomfortable and inarticulate students were. They knew that no one should be a racist, but were hesitant and unsure about the fact that racism as a doctrine is built on what is, scientifically speaking, an entirely bogus concept.
The Church should be having a serious and accessible conversation about race and class. Many doctorates will be written about Covid-19 and the ethical dilemmas it posed. But until we all learn to speak and think carefully and critically about race and class, we will be continuing to ignore the two decisive contours of the social landscape that the pandemic has so strikingly illuminated.
Michael Banner is Dean and Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge.