Is a Ukrainian Life Worth Higher Gas Prices?

Is a Ukrainian Life Worth Higher Gas Prices? March 12, 2022

A regular reader of my blog asked the other day whether I might want to consider writing about topical things rather than the apparently more remote and esoteric stuff that I tend to write about. Another regular reader wanted to know why I posted an essay (a revision of an older one) called “The Sacrament of Sports Fanaticism” yesterday. “Help me understand the emphasis though when a dictator is blowing up hospitals.” In response, I said that I avoid writing about current events in real time for a number of reasons, several of which I will mention below. Usually, that is. Today is an exception.

What follows is not intended as a complete description of current events in Ukraine; that would be well above my pay grade and level of knowledge. I’m interested in the challenges to those of us who, living on the other side of the world, have to choose how we will coexist with a situation in which millions of lives are in danger—but few of those lives are directly related to ours. I particularly wonder whether those of us who profess a Christian faith are compelled toward attitudes that might conflict with what we perceive as our best interests.

As we all know, gas prices in this country (and worldwide) are currently as high as they have ever been. Thanks, Vladimir Putin. The national average at the pump is likely to top $5.00 per gallon before long. Although this is what Canadians and Europeans have been paying at the gas pump for years, this is not something that Americans take kindly to. Our freedom to consume fossil fuels at will is being challenged. I cancelled a possible quick road trip to Vermont to visit my uncle because of gas prices. All of this is very inconvenient, to say the least. How dare anyone or anything throw an unexpected wrench into what we are used to?

Gas prices are likely to stay high as long as the war in Ukraine continues. For some Americans such as myself, this a manageable inconvenience. For others who must use their vehicles for their livelihoods and do not have the ability to easily pay higher prices or the luxury of simply driving less, this is a significant problem. Choosing one online article from dozens available on the topic of how higher gas prices will affect our daily lives, here is a sampling of reactions from people across the country:

  • Jesús López, 36, who works as a school janitor in Dallas, said that if prices kept skyrocketing, he would have to cut back on leisure activities. “It’s sad that if I stop going to a restaurant, a toxic cycle will be created. If I stop spending money on a restaurant, they’ll get less income and people could lose their jobs. If I have to spend more to go to work, then I’ll do it. I’ll just have to administer and budget my money more if I want to keep having a decent lifestyle.”
  • Sandy Ramos, 24, who lives in Cerritos, Calif., says much of the money she makes at her part-time job as a research and development engineering intern now goes to food and gas. “I don’t know who to blame or what to blame. I feel like someone needs to be responsible for it.”
  • Destiny Harrell, 26, drives her silver Kia Niro hybrid about 15 minutes each day from her home in Santa Barbara to her job at a public library. She is now considering asking her boss if she can spend some days working from home. “It’s super frustrating that a war that shouldn’t even really affect us has global reach.”

It is perfectly and understandably human to immediately frame everything by first wondering “How is this going to affect me?” Am I going to have to cut back on entertainment and lifestyle choices? Why should I/we have to suffer the effects of events on the other side of the world that are happening to people we don’t know? Why does it seem so important to find someone to blame? And then there was this:

  • Alan Zweig, 62, a window contractor in San Francisco, said: “I don’t care if it goes to $10 a gallon. It’s costing me dearly, but not what it’s costing those poor people in Ukraine.”

Mr. Zweig’s comment reminds me of something Jeanne reported hearing when watching a television report from Ukraine a couple of days ago. A Ukrainian woman said “People in your country may have to pay fifty cents more per gallon for gas. Is my life worth fifty cents a gallon more?” I don’t know anyone (fortunately) who would answer that question in the negative, although I’m sure that such people are out there.

As I talked with Jeanne during the writing of this essay, she reminded me that although we are at a place in our lives where higher gasoline and heating oil prices are no more than a manageable inconvenience, this has by no means always been the case. For the first several months we were together while Jeanne finished her Master’s degree in Santa Fe, I had two jobs. One was a minimum-wage clerk position at a local bookstore. The other was an organist/pianist job at a large church in Albuquerque, sixty miles to the south. Keeping gas in Jeanne’s car for my twice-per-week round trips, one for Wednesday night rehearsal and one for Sunday services, was not easy—it would have been impossible now.

While in Milwaukee as I did my Ph.D. program for the following four years, Jeanne worked for the Milwaukee Public School system facilitating student computer labs. We often didn’t know where she would be working on a given day until she received an early morning phone call specifying which one of the dozens of schools in a geographically large school system she would working at that day. Had gas prices been close to what they currently are, we would not have been able to afford her keeping that job.

In circumstances such as the above, I can’t imagine that our first topic of conversation when thinking about the war in Ukraine would have been about how people on the other side of the world are suffering or what our government and NATO should be doing about it. Our continuing topic of conversation would have been about how to pay for a necessity for which we did not have sufficient money. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know, but it certainly is a human thing.

This is one of the most difficult essays I’ve ever written for this blog, first because it is more or less written under duress and, second, because I wish I had something profound to say. As a person of Christian faith, I don’t want to be “that guy” who only cares about the suffering of others when that suffering directly impacts me and mine. I don’t want to be sort of person whose first reaction to change—big or small—is to immediately wonder how that change will affect my daily life and my comfort zone. And yet that is a perfectly human reaction. I would like to say that the transformed life promised when one follows Jesus includes always shifting one’s immediate attention to others rather than oneself. But I have to honestly report that for me this has seldom been the case.

I often tell my students that if they don’t like the answers they are getting to a given question, they might consider changing the question. In this case I think a bit of listening to my own advice is in order. Our tendency, or at least my tendency, is to think of self-interest and other-interest as an “either/or” binary. It is human to choose self-interest, and my faith calls me to favor the interests of others. Choosing either at the expense of the other can produce guilt.

But what if the situation is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or”? Assuming that self-interest and the interests of others are in conflict ignores one of the fundamental claims of the Christian faith—in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, “us” or “them.” Our usual categories break down when I realize that my faith refuses to allow me to consider anyone as “Other.” The gospel does not require me to ignore my interests, but it does require me to recognize that my interests are no more important than anyone else’s, even when that “anyone else” is someone on the other side of the world whom I will never meet. I must face the challenges of my life as I find them, but must never forget that the challenges others face are not less important simply because they are not mine. It’s never just about me.

Put that way, I am once again brought face-to-face with just how radical the life of faith actually is. It runs contrary to our natural wiring, not by changing the wiring, but by expanding it to eternity. Is it possible to love another as much as I love myself? Is it truly possible to consider a stranger’s reality to be as important as mine? Important questions whose answers can only be worked out in practice. The gas pump is a good place to start.

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