One day, Jesus and his disciples were walking through the fields. They were hungry and they were poor, and they knew the law: that farmers had to leave a bit of their crop at the edge of the field, and that portion belonged to people who were hungry and poor. So, as they walked, they started plucking heads of grain from the stalks and eating them. Some Pharisees saw them and were concerned, because it was the sabbath. And even if plucking the grain was allowed on the other six days of the week, it was work. And work as not allowed on the sabbath.
The Pharisees walked up to Jesus and asked him, “Do you not see what your disciples are doing? Why are they doing something that is against the law on the sabbath?
And Jesus answered them, “Do you remember what David did when he and his friends were hungry? They went to the priest Ahimelech and asked for bread. But the priest didn’t have any bread except for the Bread of the Presence, the bread that is put on the table every sabbath, and that sits there in the presence of God for a week, until it is removed and replaced with fresh bread. And only the priests are allowed to eat that bread. And it was the sabbath, so Ahimelech couldn’t make any more bread. So the priest shared the Bread of the Presence with David and his friends.”
“Do you know why the priest did that?” Jesus continued, “Because the sabbath was made to serve humanity, not the other way around. So if someone is poor and hungry and needs to eat, then it is lawful for them to pluck a head of grain from the stalks that the farmers leave at the edges of the field for them. Even on the sabbath.”
Two things are happening as I write this. First, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 225,000 people worldwide and more than 67,000 people in the United States. That means that more Americans have died from this coronavirus than died in the Vietnam War. Second, states are letting businesses and other gathering places open up… because it is important that Americans get back to working and buying and selling so that the economy will be okay.
And that’s just another way of saying that we are sacrificing the health of people for the sake of the health of the economy.
In a weird way, that makes sense. We have a habit of imagining that the economy is a more-or-less autonomous thing that exists ‘out there’ and that we have a responsibility to keep it healthy and growing. We imagine that we can influence it through our actions and as though we can predict what it will do in response to those actions. But we also imagine that it is our duty to take whatever actions are necessary to make the economy expand endlessly.
In other words, we tend to imagine the economy as a supernatural force that must be appeased through rites and sacrifices. The core economic problem right now is that a global pandemic is preventing us from performing the usual rites and making the usual sacrifices. The economy is flailing right now. And that means that we need to resume our normal practices and appease it.
The problem, of course, is that the economy is not some supernatural autonomous force ‘out there’. It is the sum of our actions and policies. And that means that if we want different results—not in terms of GDP, unemployment rates, and so on, but in terms of people fed and housed and cared for—we can simply do things differently. If would take a concentrated effort to realign our economy and serve different priorities. But there’s no reason that we can’t do that; it’s just a heavy lift.
The people who are ‘reopening the economy’ or who are demanding that ‘the economy be reopened’ are not asking us to design an economy where, on the one hand, we can keep people safe and, on the other hand, we can have something resembling the normal exchange of goods and services (and the things that come along with that). That’s true even if they’re making gestures towards protecting people, like asking us to maintain social distancing in restaurants or wear facemarks in grocery stores. Instead, they are asking us to return to our normal lives, while engaging in some largely unenforceable health-security theater, even if that results in a lot of deaths. And they are doing that because they imagine that the economy is something ‘out there’ that cannot be changed and that must be satisfied.
To put that another way: they are demanding that we ‘reopen the economy’ because they believe that we must serve the economy… and that if we do not serve the economy, then the economy will punish us.
But we do not serve the economy. The economy is a way of organizing human life that we have built to serve us. Of course, historically, the economy has been organized to serve some of us at the expense of others. That’s an issue for other posts. For now, it’s enough to note this: we need to abandon the narrow vision of how humanity can be forced to serve—and be sacrificed to—the economy in favor of bold visions for how we can organize an economy that serves all of humanity.