My friend Hal never knew what hit him. He was unconscious before he even hit the ground. At least that’s what the script said happened to him. Hal, along with about fifty more of us, was a participant in a disaster drill back when we were in high school. The ill-fated exercise was a mock bleacher collapse at a sporting event (everything seemed so accidental before the adoption of color codes and terror threats, didn’t it?). According to the script, Hal wasn’t immediately killed in the accident, but he was badly injured. The first responders who initially swarmed the scene took his vitals, gave him a once-over, tagged him, and left him to theoretically die where he lay. With so many of us strewn across the staging area, resources had to be spent on those who could actually be saved, not on those who were already hanging on the hinges of death.
That was the day I first learned about something called utilitarian ethics, though I didn’t know that was the name of the practice at the time. I thought it was just the luck of the draw (or for Hal, all bad luck). My ethics professors would later talk about “securing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The right thing to do, they said, was to bring about the happiness of as many people as possible, even if some had to be left behind. Years later, when I became a chaplain in the healthcare world, I was on the other side of the mock disaster drills. All these hypothetically injured people would swamp the medical facility and utilitarian ethics would go into practice like gangbusters. The arriving patients would be triaged and tagged as they arrived. A small bump on the head would get a green tag. A chemical burn and broken arm would get a yellow tag. The person with internal injuries and bleeding would get a red tag. But the person with a traumatic head injury (poor Hal) would get a black tag. Those with green and yellow tags were set aside for a while; their health could afford to wait. The red-tagged were rushed into surgery or slated for immediate intervention.
Those with black tags, however, were sent to the morgue – even if they still had a little life left in them. They were deemed unsalvageable. Their condition was so fragile and the other needs so pressing, the law of “securing the greatest good for the greatest number of people” simply prevailed. This practice works about as well as could be expected unless, like Hal, you come to consciousness while in the morgue and discover that you were one sacrificed for the greater good. Then the black-tagging doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.
Jesus never seemed to make decisions like a triage nurse, putting some in the salvageable category and others in the discard pile. In fact, he had a special affinity for the weak, the “broken reeds and flickering candles;” those who were hanging by less than a thread. Jesus was forever healing the sick, ministering to the poor, sticking up for the downtrodden, and crashing up against the manipulative systems of his day. In the normal, need-infested, resource-limited, hard-and-fast world, where everything must be prioritized, he recognized that some just didn’t have a chance. They were too feeble to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or too poor to hire the best attorneys. They were too small to stick it to the system or too unconnected to call in any favors. They didn’t know enough, weren’t strong enough, or couldn’t recover fast enough.
But Jesus showed unique compassion just for these, the “least of these” he called them. The untouchables. The forgotten. The stigmatized. The diseased. The poor and the hungry. The ostracized. The Hals of the world whose plights of helplessness and abandonment are not a hypothetical skit. Christ came to love and redeem those who were black-balled and black-tagged. As bearers of his name and grace, we must do the same.