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Global Health and Just Peace Ethic for Security Strategy in the COVID-19 pandemic

During this global pandemic, a theological imagination contributes to helping us draw on a public health approach to our security strategies and shift focus to a just peace framework.

During this pandemic, we have a crucial opportunity to shift toward a public health approach to our national and global security strategies. 

In this context, Pope Francis calls attention to the disciples after Jesus’ death and burial; and he asks, “Who will role away the stone [from the tomb]?” so that we may “rise up again.”

With over 838,000 dead and millions out of work and often desperate for food, Francis claims we live in a “propitious time” where the Spirit can “inspire us with a new imagination of what is possible.” Part of such a creative, fresh, inbreaking imagination is learning from public or global health approaches to security strategies. Such learning and visionary transformation is better enabled through a just peace ethical framework, which focuses on building sustainable peace, engaging conflict constructively, and breaking cycles of violence (this ethic is elaborated on and utilized for U.S. domestic and international cases in the recently released book, A Just Peace Ethic Primer). 

public/global health approach to security strategies helps us to see that violence, whether it is direct, structural, or cultural violence, functions like a contagious disease. Scientific research has demonstrated that exposure to such violence increases the person’s or community’s risk of adopting violent approaches. Violence transmits, clusters, and spreads primarily based on exposure and habits, just like an epidemic disease. Violence is about learned behavior, not about bad or evil people. Transforming community norms, focusing on prevention, and interrupting transmission are crucial strategies.

With the experience of COVID-19 pandemic and with a public health approach, we better sense our cross-border interconnectedness and our deep interdependence; and thus, our shared vulnerability. Similarly, Francis says this experience helps us realize that “for better or worse all our actions affect others because everything is connected in our common home.” For instance, we are deeply interdependent on our health care workers, adequate medical supplies, how others choose to prevent the transmission or not, and how other states and countries respond. We are also interdependent on accurate information, truth-telling, and trustworthiness, especially of leaders and people of influence.

In this light, Pope Francis explains that “an emergency like Covid-19 is overcome in the first place by the antibodies of solidarity,” that is, not by war-framing either of this issue or of other violent conflicts. A just peace ethic specifically identifies key virtues, such as solidarity, to function as norms for constructively engaging conflict. But it is not simply a solidarity among a community, a nation-state, or geopolitical allies, rather it is an orientation to global solidarity which is necessary and better enabled by drawing on a public health approach and just peace ethic.

Below is a summary of the norms of a just peace ethic I am referring to: 

1) Developing virtues and skills to engage conflict constructively: spiritual disciplines (prayer, discernment, forgiveness), key virtues (mercy, empathy, humility, courage, nonviolence, solidarity, compassion), education and skill training in nonviolence, participatory processes, forming nonviolent peacemaking communities

2) Breaking cycles of violence: reflexivity (means and ends consistent), re-humanization, conflict transformation (includes root causes), acknowledge responsibility for harm (including restorative justice and trauma-healing), nonviolent direct action (nonviolent resistance, unarmed protection), and integral disarmament

3) Building sustainable peace: relationality and reconciliation, robust civil society and just governance, human dignity and rights, ecological sustainability, as well as economic, racial, and gender justice

This ethic challenges us to ensure that our strategies and actions are consistent with, enhance or at least do not obstruct these norms. For instance, with the just peace norms of human dignity and re-humanization we better value and re-humanize those marginalized and de-humanized persons, who are crucial to a national or global security system when it is oriented by a public health approach. They are crucial because the health of everyone is interconnected and equally valued. Rather than being indifferent toward the deaths of elderly, prisoners, immigrants, persons of color, Iranians, Palestinians, or those we consider ‘enemies’ in the context of COVID-19, we would generate actions and policies that better ensure their safety and well-being. As we more clearly realize and actualize such policies in the context of COVID-19, we also might better do so in the context of violent conflicts and security strategies in general.

With norms such as economic and racial justice we might better share resources and build just systems. For example, rather than focusing on and investing more in the elites of the economy in the context of COVID-19, we would focus on and invest in those most in need and more consistent with racial equity. The norm of nonviolent direct-action illuminates how health care practitioners exhibit unarmed civilian protection as crucial for genuine, front-line security and sustainable well-being. With the norm of integral disarmament, we would be more apt to not only better disarm within by reducing our resentment, distrust, or hatred towards others, but also to find creative ways to reduce the role of armed weapons. Rather than selling and buying more weapons in the U.S. or abroad in the context of COVID-19, we would support the grassroots movement, the UN, and Vatican’s call for a global ceasefire and shift significant weapons production and spending towards public health infrastructure, medical supplies, and nurses.

Yet, in reference to other epidemics, Francis asks, “Will we be able to act responsibly in the face of hunger suffered by so many knowing that there is food for all? Will we continue to look the other way with a silence complicit in the face of these wars fueled by desires for dominance and power? Will we be willing to change the lifestyles that plunge so many into poverty by promoting and encouraging us to lead a more austere and human life that enables an equitable sharing of resources? Will we take the necessary measures as an international community to curb the devastation of the environment, or will we continue to deny the evidence?”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity and urgent challenge to draw on public/global health approaches to our national and global security strategies. A just peace ethic may better enable this shift and cultivate the imagination for better security strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the various epidemics we face; and thus, to “role away the stone” so that we may “rise up again.” The religious imagination offers a vital contribution to this shift with the attention to our sacred dignity and interconnectedness, the spiritual discipline of discernment, the virtues of mercy and empathy, as well as unleashing the power of active nonviolence to overcome domination and death. We rise together.

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