It is not surprising to find Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, invoking Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—the Russian dissident who exposed the Soviet Union’s brutal prison-camp system in his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn, who survived the Gulag himself, bitterly denounced the inhuman ideology of the Eastern Bloc. But he understood that, left unchecked, the commercialism and venality of the capitalist West was also spiritually corrosive. At bottom, he argued, the West shared many of its materialist assumptions with Eastern Communism. This twinned critique has long endeared him to thoughtful conservatives in the United States.
It is frankly shocking, however, to see Reno make use of Solzhenitsyn to undermine recent measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Reno sees a perverse “sentimentalism” at work in the quarantine restrictions and social distancing that have become so prominent in recent days. He thinks state and local authorities who urge us to refrain from much of life’s usual business are really saying that “death’s power must rule our actions.” Satan, he tells us, has been pleased to watch churches bow to the “false god of saving lives” by canceling religious services. And if we want to understand why some things are more important than preserving life, Reno suggests that we look to Solzhenitsyn, who “resolutely rejected the materialist principle of ‘survival at any price.’”
I am no expert on Solzhenitsyn, but I have long been moved by his books—and I recognized this quotation. In fact, it appears in The Gulag Archipelago in the imperative form: “Survive! At any price!!” Solzhenitsyn is describing the mentality of zeks, or Gulag inmates, arriving at camp. This mantra is the “natural splash of a living person,” a spontaneous instinct for self-preservation. But for many zeks it hardened into “an awesome vow.” And “whoever takes that vow, whoever does not blink before its crimson burst—allows his own misfortune to overshadow both the entire common misfortune and the whole world.”
Zeks faced a terrible choice. The most human, natural goods—of life, food and shelter—could only be taken from their fellow inmates. Of course this was the very purpose of the Gulag system, a hellish machine carefully calibrated to degrade and destroy human life. Solzhenitsyn is clear: “‘At any price’ means: at the price of someone else.” Reno, meanwhile, castigates the media and local authorities for seeking to manipulate us with the “fear that we’ll die redoubled by the fear that we’ll cause others to die.” He takes particular exception to the suspension of public Masses, but his pique really appears to be directed at the general inconvenience of quarantine: “Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced.”
What a yawning chasm separates the pupil from the teacher! Solzhenitsyn shows us that the essence of materialism is parasitic: survival at the expense of our neighbor defiles the most basic of God’s gifts, life itself. Solzhenitsyn saves his most withering contempt for the zeks who angled for better bunks and rations by betraying other inmates to the camp authorities. Reno, on the other hand, asks us to ignore the doctors, the mayors, the scientists who are begging us to consider our neighbor. These leaders have asked some of us to sacrifice our natural goods—free movement, gainful employment, entertainment—to promote the survival of others. They have asked others of us—doctors, nurses, grocery-store workers—to risk life and health by dutifully continuing to work. If some inmates could choose to live for others even in the cesspools of the Gulag—and Solzhenitsyn shows that some, a precious few, did—how can we decline the same call? In short, Reno has got The Gulag Archipelago exactly wrong.
Today’s quarantine restrictions complement centuries of Christian response to epidemics. The church has always urged the faithful to take every sensible precaution in defense of human life, while continuing to serve God and neighbor. When the plague came to Wittenberg in 1527, other pastors asked Martin Luther if it was proper for a Christian to flee. His response is worth reading today:
If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.
Of course it was wrong to abandon the sick and dying, and Luther himself remained in town to help. Yet he insisted that refusing to make use of “intelligence and medicine” was “not trusting God but tempting him.”
Perhaps Reno, a convert to Catholicism, thinks Luther a doubtful authority. In that case he should look to St. Thomas More, who knew better than most that some things are worse than death: he accepted martyrdom before dishonoring his God, his church, or his own conscience. Yet he also knew, from “more than many” examples in Scripture, that “God hath given us our bodies here to keep, and will that we maintain them to do him service.” Even while awaiting execution in prison, More recognized that “when God sendeth the tempest, he will that the shipmen shall get them to their tackling, and do the best they can for themself, that the seas eat them not up.” In an age of epidemics, More practiced what he preached. As a student, he prudently left Oxford to slow the spread of a plague; but years later, as a royal official, he remained in town to personally direct the city’s quarantine efforts.
Luther and More lived in an era often blighted by pestilence and death, and they both urged Christians to love one another through collective efforts to slow contagion. But they also recognized the tremendous spiritual power of the “remembrance of death” in a time of crisis. Both men were the product of a culture fixated on the “art of dying.” The deathbed manuals of their time instructed the faithful that “whoever thinks always of death does a good work,” and that “every discerning life is a meditation on death.” Reno’s ostensibly theological take on the current outbreak contrasts very unfavorably with this rich tradition. He is so quick to chastise our sudden preoccupation with mortality that he cannot appreciate it for what it is: a chance to contemplate death in community. This may be the first time in generations that the wealthiest nations of the world have experienced a true memento mori—a reminder of life’s transience and fragility.
Ironically, by encouraging us to carry on with business as usual, Reno sends us back into the arms of the very materialism he claims to reject. In the West today, we organize both our working lives and our leisure hours around consumption. We live as if youth, health, and wealth are the default settings of life. Most Christians through the centuries have not had that luxury. Millions today, who worship in the developing world or under the yoke of persecution, have never had it. Why is that when we make the slightest adaptation to our historically unique status quo, canceling concerts and dinner parties to protect the vulnerable, Reno cries foul? What worldview is he really defending?
All human beings tend to mistake the coarse, changeable world of everyday experience for the unchanging and eternal. But twenty-first century Americans may be uniquely susceptible to the illusion that our way of life is a permanent program. We are now confronting a crisis that should shatter that illusion; at least for a time. God willing, this too shall pass—the sick will be treated, parents will return to work, children will reappear in the schoolyards. But the social cost of that recovery may well be enormous and unprecedented.
Few Christians would ask for this cup, but we must drink it—to serve God by serving our neighbors, and to grow closer to God through the contemplation of death. Solzhenitsyn’s mission was not simply to expose the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime and the horrors of the Gulag. He was also determined to show how even the most inhuman captivity, the most unjust suffering can move us “in the direction of deepening the soul.” Quarantine is no Gulag, but it is a costly act of service that meets the urgent human needs of our neighbors. That service may involve going to work—at a hospital or a testing center—or staying home. But make no mistake: these sacrifices are not a surrender to death. They are a sacrifice to the God who gives life.