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  • Writer's pictureSean O'Leary

Inevitable Blame Culture?

The finger-pointing has started. Throughout the world, stones are being carefully sharpened ready for throwing. Power-hungry political parties, international organisations, inept politicians, unprepared civil servants, ineffective healthcare systems, inefficient care providers, reckless citizens, docile bishops, populist leaders, vested interest groups, unreliable media, selfish tourists or arrogant scientists. Take your pick. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the targets for blame are growing more numerous by the day. Truly, the impact of the pandemic is biblical in scope.

Detailed investigations will take place. Weighty reports will be published, possibly with some sections redacted for legal reasons. Critical findings will be unclear or inconclusive. Numerous recommendations will be made. All of this will take place in earnest, in the hope that someone or something can be sacrificed at the altar of public opinion. If sufficient support is found amongst the populace, the scapegoat will be cast out of the community.

The truth is that it is far too early for finger-pointing even if it was a constructive way to proceed. For every argument, there is a counter argument.

In Ireland, private nursing home providers have highlighted government neglect as a contributing factor to explain the distressing number of deaths that have occurred in care homes. In response, government agencies have pointed to the governance gaps in the operation of the care homes.

In the US, there are plans to terminate the country’s relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

These are just some of the volleys that have been fired in the growing unrest caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has served to deepen political divisions throughout the world.

The tragic reality is that some of what we assiduously prepared for didn’t materialise and things that we didn’t anticipate actually happened. We always overestimate some risks and underestimate others. Contrary to modern sentiments, we don’t know everything. Likewise, we can’t predict everything. We are not perfect. In the history of human civilisation, has it ever been any other way?

The science of the coronavirus is complex and will take time to unravel. There are so many variables at play in this pandemic that it is difficult to be certain of anything. Of course, uncertainty is not a barrier to people in finger-pointing mode. In the absence of clear evidence, anything might be true. In a culture of fear, opportunities for harsh judgement increases.

Enthusiasts point to other countries as evidence for their convictions but the data from different countries is often not directly comparable. Again, there are simply too many variables to consider that require detailed and prolonged scrutiny.

Nature is not entirely predictable, and this virus is no exception. No plan for managing the effects of the virus across an individual country or indeed the entire world will be completely efficient. One thing we can do well is to learn as much as we can as we go along. This requires perseverance and humility. It also requires wisdom to shine through the murky sport of mudslinging and political point scoring.

The problem is that finger-pointing can present a veneer of moral righteousness. It feels good to be right but whether we’re right or not, this feeling should not be a justification for destroying another person or even an entire organisation. If this is our goal, we are simply perpetrating an even greater moral failing.

Christians should know well that the moral risks of finger-pointing are not lessened by the supportive strength of popular sentiment. The crowd is not always right. This is evident from biblical accounts or by perusing the pages of more recent history. Courting popular approval is never an avenue to virtue nor is it always just.

The strange thing is that while some of us may well be immune to the worse physical effects of the coronavirus, not one of us is entirely immune to the temptations offered by siding with popular opinion. Even the first apostles that were hand-selected by Jesus struggled with this dilemma.

Outside the controlled confines of the science laboratory, the real world is difficult to understand. It is not always possible to isolate observed effects from background variables amidst a range of interventions. This makes it very difficult to develop robust predictive models. It also means that it can be impossible to identify a target for blame when things go wrong.

Human communities are complex. The biblical description of scapegoating is as relevant today at it ever was. The apparent peace offered by banishing the scapegoat is only temporary. There is no real solidarity or wholesome community to be gained from denigrating the other. Sometimes, the most important step that we can take is to stand apart from the mob that is baying for blood.

Wisdom is not easily earned. In every circumstance, we are tested anew. One of the things that we can be absolutely certain of during this virulent time is this: the depth and breadth of nature is much greater than we can know. It is time to seriously contemplate this truth.

The undeniable sweep of human progress in the Western world cannot solve every problem.

In Western culture, the idea of progress has moved from a reasonable expectation to a metaphysical reality that must be defended at any cost. However, the coronavirus pandemic reminds us that this expectation is imperfectly imbedded in natural reality.

As a teenager growing up in the eighties, I often heard and uttered the adage to ‘Get real’. It’s not a great phrase because it implies criticism without offering any solution. Yet, it does seem to point to a deficit found in lazy ways of thinking.

It is never easy to find a scapegoat. Certainly, it will not be an individual nor an entire organisation nor even a particular ideology. Though it is easy to criticise certain aspects of modernity, it would be short-sighted to try to scapegoat modernity in its entirety.

We can no longer continue on as we did before this global contagion. To value our shared humanity, we must work towards breaking down divisions. If we want to get real, we have to work ever more earnestly towards building a just society for all and craft a way of living that exists in harmony with the natural world.

We relish the freedom to discover the world and even to change it but understand very little about the duty that is necessary for us to live in harmony with the natural world.

While modern culture talks freely about love, it focuses more on the freedom to love rather than the duty of love. But, true freedom cannot be gained from a partial view of love.

Fear and servitude walk hand in hand. So too does duty and obligation. But in the presence of real love, dull servitude and shallow obligation fades. With love comes inspiration and insight.

But with God in our hearts, we do not think of the natural world as a constraint that enslaves us so much so that all we have to do is to break free from it. When we see a divine Person behind the laws of nature, we willingly submit to a higher calling of love.

Humankind can choose to be lawless so it is worth contemplating the reality that there is infinitely more love in humankind than we can know. In exceptional circumstances, such as the height of a pandemic, we see more clearly our capacity for love. But as these rare moments fade, we see division and disunity re-emerge in our hearts.

The one thing that can help us to hold onto our capacity for love is the startling truth that God loves us so much that he became human and died for us on the cross. It is this reality that overcomes our capacity for finger-pointing and stone throwing. It is this eternal love that truly sets us free.


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