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The View from Below

‘There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.’

So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison cell in Germany, not long before he was hanged in the Flossenberg concentration camp on April 9th, 1945 for his role in an assassination attempt on Hitler.*  76 years after his death, Bonhoeffer’s words still carry the prophetic weight they held when they were first written.  

More than 85 countries will not have widespread access to coronavirus vaccines before 2023

Many of us welcome the call to ‘see the world from below’ when that call comes in the abstract. But Bonhoeffer meant for his words to be a concrete call that would invite us to follow Jesus into uncomfortable places.  It is a call to convert to a kingdom-inspired way of seeing the world. 

Perhaps one of the uncomfortable things we are called to see at this moment is the severe inequities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution that the World Health Organization’s Director-General describes as putting the world on the “brink of a catastrophic moral failure.” and others have called ‘vaccine apartheid’. According to a March report from The Economist, more than 85 countries will not have widespread access to coronavirus vaccines before 2023.  While Canada has secured supplies enough for five times our population, only 55,000 Hondurans have received one dose of vaccine as of April 8th in a country of 10 million people, according to the WHO, and future vaccine supply is uncertain.  The story of Honduras is echoed in the story of so many other countries without the social or economic standing to secure sufficient vaccine doses at fair prices.  One recent report found that Uganda paid $8.50 per dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, over twice as much as the United States and Canada. 

In Bonhoeffer’s terms: from where do we see it, and with whom? 

Now, it is one thing to notice this situation. But how do we see it?  Or, to put it in Bonhoeffer’s terms: from where do we see it, and with whom?  From the comfort of my socially-distanced and air-conditioned office in Canada, I may see this situation as simply ‘the way things are’, as the outcome of the logic of supply and demand working the way it is meant to work in a market economy.  It may be unfortunate, but global capitalism has created so much good, and besides there is little I can do to change something as big as the pharmaceutical industry and global vaccine rollouts. Right?   

But to see this situation ‘from below’ is to recognize that pharmaceutical patent law, my home country’s international funding commitments, and global lending institutions seem to always to work better for higher income countries like Canada, the United States, and the European Union than for countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America.  For those of us who claim the call of the Old Testament prophet Micah’s call to ‘seek to do justice’ we must say more than ‘that’s just how the world works’.  We must say ‘there is something terribly wrong – this is not the way things should be.’

Our joy cannot be just a distraction from the world’s brokenness but a summons to mend that brokenness

Now, I don’t want to rain on our collective vaccine enthusiasm. All of us are tired of this pandemic, and so all of us are understandably excited about getting our first doses or seeing our older friends and family receive theirs. I’ll admit it – I teared up at the sight of British pensioners receiving their first doses! But a commitment to seeing the world ‘from the perspective of those who suffer’ is an invitation to experience our joy in what the poet Jack Gilbert called ‘the furnace of this world’.  That is – our joy must not be in ignorance of or at the expense of others’ suffering but alongside and in spite of their suffering. 

Our joy cannot be just a distraction from the world’s brokenness but a summons to mend that brokenness so that everyone – no matter where they were born – can flourish in God-given joy.  How do we do that? One way to start is to voice our displeasure at the way things are and to call for us as a global community to do better.  When it comes to vaccine inequities, one example is The People’s Vaccine campaign, initiated by Winne Byanyima, which hopes to get access to affordable vaccines by the waiving of patents, drawing similarities with earlier successful battles over HIV/AIDS treatments. 

Another good place to begin?  When you get your vaccine – and I hope you get one soon – pray for those around the world who may have to wait a long time for theirs.  Pray for the coming of a more just world where these sorts of inequities no longer exist. Pray for the energy to address those inequities yourself, even if it’s just calling or writing to your local Member of Parliament about your concerns (here’s some helpful starting points if you do).  

And if you’re having a hard time finding the right words, here are some to get you started: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.  

 This quote can be found in the collection of Bonhoeffer’s final writings, titled Letters and Papers from Prison.

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

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