The Greatest Good

I love The Incredibles. Yes, I’m a woman in my 30’s, and I still unapologetically enjoy many animated films, especially ones that give a little nod to their adult audiences. Pixar is great at this, and The Incredibles offers many such references throughout the movie, but nowhere quite as good as the marital spat during the final battle sequence. You know the one I’m talking about… the city is under attack, with the Incredible family furiously trying to stop a giant robot, then cut to Frozone and his off-screen wife bickering about him leaving their dinner party to join the fray, “Honey, where is my super suit?… It’s for the greater good!” “The greater good?… I’m your wife! I’m the greatest good you’re ever going to get!”  

The greater good… it is a theme that pops up a ton in pop culture, and it’s a massive conversation taking place worldwide daily amidst this COVID pandemic. What is the greater good? Who is the greater good? What are we willing to sacrifice to attain the greater good? The majority of the population has concluded that the greatest good is the preservation of life for as many as possible. As far as what they’re willing to give up to achieve it… basically everything. Shops, restaurants, bars, etc. can be closed, people confined to their homes under threat of fine or arrest, millions of people can lose their jobs, all with the goal of avoiding death.  

This week’s episode of Ringside tackles a thought experiment to reframe what the greatest good could be in this pandemic. Recent new reports have been leading with the statistic that the death toll from COVID has surpassed that of World War I. While an undeniably catchy headline, it is hard to see why this statistic is useful, as the way we view death in each scenario is very different. “We’ve been acting like every single death due to the virus was avoidable and is a tragedy and preventable, but we look at the lives lost in the war as being justified. It’s a different view of death,” Tyler reflects. Rev. Joel Hess responded to the cause of these differing views. “Dying from COVID is succumbing to an illness. It’s not waging into battle and dying a hero for the sake of others. Dying from COVID is dying for no purpose.” 

So, what happens if we think about COVID deaths the way we think about casualties of war…imbued with purpose? “You could reframe this whole thing as those who have died are casualties of keeping our economies open, and they are therefore justified. We’re at war…We’re going to keep it open, and there will be deaths, but it will be for a cause, and that cause will be the livelihood of everyone else” theorizes Rev. Paul Koch. I doubt we will ever get to a place where society as a whole can explore the effects of this virus in such a way, but it certainly provides an interesting twist in the conversation. 

It all comes back to what you determine to be the greatest good. Secular society says that the preservation of life trumps all…and regardless of how individual congregations have chosen to respond to the current crisis, the Church should fundamentally disagree with that statement. Death is the product of this fallen world, and it’s what awaits us all sooner or later. “Maybe we should all live our lives in such a way as though we’re ready to go at any time,” says Rev. Ross Engel, “and we’re ready to say goodbye at any point because we have forgiveness, we’re at peace with each other…Whenever God calls us, we’re okay. Whenever he calls our loved ones, we’re okay with it.”

Christians should not fear death, but instead look to what is truly the Greatest Good imaginable…that God sent His son into this world to die and rise, absorbing the penalty for all of our sins, and justifying us in the eyes of his Father. Death has been conquered (note the past tense!). So then, if we don’t fear death, what can we strive towards during these turbulent times? We do what we always have: we administer the gifts of God, the Sacraments that He gave us to assure us of His Greatest Good. We speak the Gospel promise boldly, with the Law’s condemnation playing out vividly all around us. We care for our neighbors, in whichever way they need it most. We take comfort in the Sacraments, in the distinct places where God has promised to come to us. We are reassured, without any doubt, that our sins are forgiven, and when we die, whether sooner or later, we will rise again to live with our Lord for all eternity. That is the greatest good we are ever going to get.  

This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed during this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Ross Engel, Rev. Paul Koch, and Tyler the Intern as they duke it out over viewing COVID deaths as casualties of war, whether pastors should preach more doctrinal theology in their sermons, whether Martin Luther would come to your church or cuss you out, and more on the full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “What Would Luther Say”. 

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