In her poem entitled “Pandemic,” Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Lynn Ungar writes,

Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)

There’s more to the poem, but that’s the part I want us to reflect on together, about how we are connected, how our lives are in one another’s hands, we can hardly deny it now,  surely it has come clear.

The reality of coronavirus contagiousness has touched everything, and no less than life and death are at stake.

And, when life and death are at stake—or at the very least, health and harm—we find ourselves in the land of ethics. Ethics is whole-hearted thinking about people getting their fair share, protecting the vulnerable, and making good personal choices. Ethics is about fairness, justice, and freedom.

Ethics is thinking which guides what we ought to do.

Wooden signpost with four arrows - ethics, honesty, integrity, respect - great for topics like business values etc.

So, this morning, we are talking about an ethics of our new normal. We are engaging in whole-hearted thinking about some big questions that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing our way. These are not necessarily original questions, because fairness, justice, and freedom are perennial issues and people have been reflecting upon them for thousands of years. But COVID-19 is giving these perennial issues new forms and new urgency.

We begin by jumping right in. Imagine with me that a vaccine for COVID-19 has just been successfully developed, but the supply is scarce since production takes time. Not everyone can get it, although some can. Who will these people be, then, who get first crack at it?

This is actually going to happen. This is where we are headed. So, in advance of things, how might we wrap our minds around this issue and see it from a fairness perspective?

One line of thought says that fairness is about being allowed to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. If I’ve worked hard for something, then why should I have to share that with you? It’s like a conversation among farmers: you grow your crop, and I’ll grow mine. We get to keep what we each grew. That’s fair. But if my crop is taken away from me, to feed other mouths: that’s unfair.

Philosopher John Locke expressed this perspective famously in 1689, when to speak of farming made sense to everyone. But today, we live in modern capitalist America, and that means work yields not crops, necessarily, but money. Money comes from our work, so we earn the right to have it. And this logic is only extended through the act of spending. I earned this money so it’s mine. What I spend my money on is therefore also mine, and no one has a right to take it away from me.

From this perspective on fairness, who do you think ought to get first crack at the newly developed COVID-19 vaccine? The owners and stockholders in the pharmaceutical companies that developed the vaccine. The (probably) rich country or countries in which the vaccine was developed. The richest and most powerful within these countries.

What do you think? Is this fair?

I have described ethics as “whole-hearted thinking” because, often, a line of thought appears persuasive in the abstract, but then when you apply it to a concrete case (like this one about the vaccine), your intuition starts to squirm. Something doesn’t feel right.

Fairness as “what you’ve earned by your labor” isn’t, to my mind, an absolute value. It only goes so far. I am thinking of that powerful quote from Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where he says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is what we are talking about, and it becomes particularly clear when we replace the word “injustice” with “COVID-19” and replace “justice” with “health”: “COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to health everywhere.”

It’s Lynn Ungar’s poetic words again:

Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.

So, we have to solve the distribution of the vaccine problem differently, and an alternate way of thinking about fairness might do the trick. This alternate way of thinking comes from American philosopher John Rawls, and he asks us to conduct a “thought experiment” to enter into the spirit of his ideas. He asks us to imagine that each of us has completely forgotten the various identities that we’ve taken on in the course of being born in a certain time to certain parents of a certain race and class. Rawls says, imagine you have forgotten whether you are American or Chinese, rich or poor, male or female or trans. You have forgotten ALL of that. But you are still in possession of one thing: the ability to reason. So, pretending all this, engage the question: can social inequality ever be fair? And: Is it ever fair for the haves to make sacrifices on behalf of the have nots??

Rawls has staked his career on his conviction that rational people will agree that sometimes inequality is acceptable, but only if it is in everyone’s best interests. Inequality can be justified, yes: but only if the best off would feel ok about taking the place of the worst off if that should somehow happen.

Would it be in everyone’s best interests if only the very rich and powerful in the richest countries got first crack at the vaccine? Not at all. There must instead be a plan for the initial wave of distributing the vaccine that takes the entire world into consideration, poor countries and rich, to the end of minimizing overall harm and death. COVID-19 anywhere really is a threat to health everywhere. We must have in mind the global public good. This is what’s in everyone’s best interests, truly.

How each of us can contribute to this is, at the very least, through voting. Vote for leaders who care about the global public good. Vote for those leaders. Not “America First” politicians. Or ones with similar nationalist attitudes. Not those.

This is what fairness genuinely asks of us, at least to my mind.

But now we turn to a second ethical question that comes upon us in the shadow of coronavirus contagiousness: the question of protecting the vulnerable. And, to help us see this more clearly, we’re going to step back in time before we step forward into our present moment.

The time we’re stepping back to is the late Spring of 1837, to the place of what is now North Dakota, to a certain steamboat named St. Peters, sailing the Missouri River on its way from St. Louis to Fort Union, carrying trade goods to distribute among American Fur Company trading forts. The story is told by Clay Jenkinson, entitled, “Smallpox and Indians: When Pandemic Warnings Go Unheeded.” Jenkinson writes, “The St. Peters arrived in Fort Leavenworth (today’s Kansas) on April 29. A deckhand exhibited signs of smallpox at that time. Although the captain of the boat knew that smallpox was far more devastating to Native Americans than to white people, he neither removed the infected individual nor paused long enough for the contagion to run its course among his crew. Somewhere farther upriver, the St. Peters took on board three Arikara women, each of whom had been infected, to return them to their home villages in today’s North Dakota.”

It took but two weeks for the epidemic to destroy the Mandan nation, settled there near the Missouri River. I’ve read a diary from the time, from American Fur Company employee Francis Chardon, and I will spare you the gore. I will say I wept and wept, like I am weeping now for the 90,000 Americans who have already died from COVID-19, which (to put this number in some perspective) is how many American soldiers died from both the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. 94,725 American soldiers died over the course of those two wars. There will be that many deaths from COVID-19 next week.

I am weeping and I know you are weeping too.

But let’s go back to the story. Here is the main part I want us to know. Clay Jenkinson has just argued against the idea that blankets infected with smallpox had been intentionally given to Indians to wipe them out. These Indians, the Mandan, were a prime customer base to the American Fur Company. Why would you want to wipe out your customers, upon whom you depended for your livelihood? Clay Jenkinson goes on to say, “Even if the smallpox epidemic was not deliberately introduced among the villager Indians as germ warfare, the responsibility lies with the white traders and transport crew, who chose profit over precaution after smallpox was discovered aboard the St. Peters as far down the Missouri River as northern Kansas. Just as we have learned to distinguish open from structural racism, so, too, we can differentiate deliberate genocide from appalling indifference that has genocidal ramifications. If the crew of the St. Peters had waited in Nebraska until all possibility of contagion was over, they might have been unable to ascend the Missouri River after the summer rise was over and thus lost a good deal of money, but they would have saved thousands of lives.

“Instead, they reckoned they could deliver the steamboat all the way to Fort Union, and somehow keep native peoples from getting close enough to the vessel to become infected. It was a cynical throw of dice representing life and death for Missouri River Indians, born of a sense of cultural superiority so deeply rooted that the steamboat crew could not see Native Americans as worthy of special precautions.”

That’s the story from 1837, and let us really hear the pile-up of injustices: injustice in how the captain of the boat knew that smallpox was far more devastating to Native Americans than to white people, but did nothing; injustice in the choice of profit over precaution; injustice in the appalling indifference of the whites; injustice in the “sense of cultural superiority so deeply rooted that the steamboat crew could not see Native Americans as worthy of special precautions.”

More traditional theological language would summarize it this way: the American Fur Company, the steamboat captain, and his crew, were guilty of sins of omission more than commission. Their sin was not so much about what they did as what they did not care enough to look hard at and what they did not do.

And now we can fast forward to our present moment, to our time: how past sins of commission and sins of omission are coming back upon us with a vengeance, particularly where black people are concerned. COVID-19 is a wake-up call. COVID-19 is killing black people in numbers that are wildly disproportionate to what’s happening to others, and there are so many reasons for that, and they are all persistent, and they are all pernicious, and they are all unacceptable. Too many today possess the same “appalling indifference” and “sense of cultural superiority” that were so very deeply rooted in that steamboat captain and crew from 1837.

Same thing goes with that steamboat captain and crew’s choice of profit over precaution. It’s the same choice that the Trump administration has been making all along, from the very beginning of the pandemic; and now it takes the form of a call for meat plants—hotbeds of COVID-19—to reopen; and when you also realize that many meat plant employees are immigrants, you have to wonder about the appalling indifference underlying that call. Unacceptable.

It is unacceptable that what happened to the Mandan Indians in 1837 keeps on happening.

When you are not as vulnerable in your life, justice work which is spiritual work is an obligation to care enough to pay attention and to learn the stories of people who are more vulnerable, and to find the thing you can do to help bring healing, as much as is possible.

Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.

(Surely that has come clear.)

Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)

There is one more thing to speak of. One more ethical question to explore, here: the question of freedom. How we ought to use our freedom in this time. Is it morally acceptable to insist upon doing whatever it is we personally want? Or is this a time where we ought to be willing to be personally inconvenienced on behalf of the public good?

This ethical question I ask, mind you, is a separate one from what people are actually doing with their freedom. What people are actually doing is what they have always done in a plague time. Writing in the 14th century, amid the Black Death, the great author Giovanni Boccaccio said that some people hid away in their homes, but others refused to accept the threat. Their coping strategy, writes Boccaccio, was to “drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go around singing and merrymaking, ands gratify all of one’s cravings when the opportunity emerged, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.”

Isn’t that something? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Although, to be fair to our American scene today, we’d have to add a couple things to Boccaccio. We’d have to include something about people flying into a rage when asked to bear any personal convenience on behalf of the common good. A bus driver tells someone to wear a mask, and the bus driver gets spit upon. A McDonald’s employee says it’s take-out only, the dining room is closed, and they get shot. State governments issue stay-at-home executive orders, and some citizens arm up, appear at the state capitols, and protest what they call “tyranny.”

The President doesn’t wear a mask in public, so why should I?

We’d have to add all that to Boccaccio. And this as well: the fact that 25% of Americans recently polled said that they would probably not get the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available, even if it is deemed perfectly safe and effective. They don’t trust vaccines. Maybe vaccines are a conspiracy. Something is very wrong with vaccines.

Add all this stuff from our time to Boccaccio. No doubt he would scratch his head at it. But, again, he lived in Italy 700 years ago. America today brings some different things to the table, and one of those things is dueling conceptions of freedom. Different ideas of freedom, battling it out.

One idea is captured by the Revolutionary War flag that says, “Don’t tread on me.” The mentality here is utterly individualistic, and it doesn’t want to feel the burden of other people’s opinions and other people’s needs. This particular freedom mentality is “I go my way, and you go yours.”

Just to bring this closer to home: you may be tapping into this “don’t tread on me” sensibility right this instant, if I have said anything in this sermon and it felt too politics-related, and you’re feeling like I’m being too pointed, too in-your-face….

Same thing, if this congregation tried to take a collective stand about something, and you felt that collective statements by congregations are way out of line with Unitarian Universalism’s emphasis on freedom of individual conscience….

The libertarian “don’t tread on me” instinct is deep in American DNA and deep in the DNA of our very American Unitarian Universalist faith.

Which is why I can’t possible say that, if the “don’t tread on me” feeling is strong in you these days, your feeling is wrong. Can’t do that. I get it.

But what is fair to say is that to be an American is to live within the tension of competing impulses. On the one hand is “don’t tread on me”; but on the other hand is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” On the one hand is “inherent worth and dignity”; on the other hand is community use of the “democratic process” where majority voice rules–and real times when this majority voice needs to be communicated to the world. From the very beginning of our nation and of our own UU faith, individuality-oriented freedom and community-oriented freedom have both been in play—and in creative tension with each other.

Bill Clinton would memorably illustrate this by asking people to take a penny out of their pocket. “On one side,” he’d say, “next to Lincoln’s portrait is a single word: ‘Liberty.’ On the other side is our national motto. It says ‘E Pluribus Unum’—‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say ‘Every man for himself.’”

That’s the two-sided coin of our American realm.

It must be acknowledged. But where does this stand in our new normal world? What happens when the world utterly changes on you? These coronavirus contagion times are truly extraordinary, rendering all talk about “don’t tread on me” senseless. COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to health everywhere. It’s just not possible, really, to step back from being tread upon, or to step back from treading upon others. Coronavirus contagiousness actually relies upon people insisting on doing their own thing.

What I am saying is that in this time—in this extraordinary time–an imbalance in favor of self-restraint is the right thing to do, even as it chafes against the deeply ingrained individualism that naturally comes with being an American. I for one feel the chafing. I do. But my duty to our shared community means I need to get over myself.

Staying virtual and not gathering face-to-face as a congregation, for as long as it takes, out of overriding commitment to the value of people’s health and wellbeing, is the right thing to do. Not being able to sing together, as much as I grieve the loss of that, is the right thing.

Even if wearing a mask in public fogs up your glasses, or you think it makes you look silly or weak—gotta do it. I do it more for you than for me. It’s a sign that I care.

Even if you are wary of vaccines, or don’t like needles: please, take it when it becomes available. Please. It is the right and moral thing to do.

Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands

Again and again, what Lynn Ungar says. It’s the ethics of the new normal.

Though it’s nothing original.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The poet John Donne, from the 17th century, writing in the shadow of yet another plague time:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.