By Gary Gunderson
Jonas Salk knew a few things about virus pandemics. As a young man of only 37 years, he led the urgent and complex process that resulted in the Salk polio vaccine. In a manner unimaginable today, he, with Basil O’Connor, mobilized tens of thousands of faith, business and community organizations to test and then broadly administer the polio vaccine.
It took decades longer and another visionary team of William Foege, Jimmy Carter, Rotary International clubs and others to effectively eliminate the crippling scourge from human experience (there were only 135 cases worldwide last year).
It’s not surprising that Salk saw human possibilities where others saw only troubling actualities. He came to understand that progress moves through eras that seem to last forever and never go back. To go forward means crossing a point over a discontinuity into a whole new era of threats, but more importantly possibilities. Faith – which is all about the future – helps, as does some science and a functional democracy.
Life in a strange land
Anyone reading this is passing through one of these radical discontinuities. The norms and fences we thought secure only two years ago are now hard to remember. And the other side of the discontinuity – the one we are living into – is unclear. In such a passage, we must look forward and focus on how we might find life in a strange land. The Bible is full of stories about people doing just this – finding that the durable faith and values carry us, even as we have to discover all sorts of things about the new place we live. Some science helps (God bless the virologists!).
Neither faith nor science can find footing in our new place without learning how to talk with each other about what matters most. It is possible – actually, quite possible – that the human family will fall into the abyss of social chaos, failing to protect each other as the planet melts and other viral plagues have their way with our children. If that happens, we can’t blame God or the scientists. We, the grown-ups, will have failed at our most basic task – to talk to other grown-ups.
As Jimmy Carter counselled in the very first issue of the magazine that birthed the FaithHealth movement back in 1994, “We make the choices that lead to life.” That doesn’t mean eight billion separate choices serving me and mine. It means talking with each other and finding the way for what the Bible calls “the people” to move toward life.