In a week in which the Bahamas is reeling from hurricane devastation, when September 11 passes with all it carries, as our youth prepare to rally us in support of our planet and as our foreign and domestic policy continues to confound, many may not be paying attention to the story which has gripped my heart.
The news coverage of the pending settlements in the Purdue Pharma cases has made my stomach churn. Every time I have heard another story, I have felt my bile and tears both welling up. What is the cause? Aside from any personal resonance, I believe it has to do with the fact that we are using legal challenges to address an issue about human worth and dignity. From my public policy days, I remember that it is hard to put a value on human life—and it most definitely is. And yet when we are talking about 200,000 lives lost to the opiate crisis in the United States (and 81 last year here in Contra Costa County) loss of life also means loss of thriving while alive and the count and cost of the opiate epidemic is much larger if these costs are calculated. What is the cost of the loss of family connections? Of career plans and talents lost? Of mental acuity and health? Of physical health and safety as people? Of the loss of a sense that people are more than markets or commodities?
Those big numbers have human faces for me and I compare the pain and the agony I have seen on those faces to the pictures of the billionaires who have profited from this devastation. The single fact that has churned my insides is that the settlements will not address the wrongdoing involved by the leaders who separated profits from their humanity.
Religious leaders on my side of the theological spectrum don’t often raise questions in a moral frame and yet this is what my heart needs me to do. To say that no matter how many billions are paid out, something will not be complete until the many, many people who are complicit in this taking of life and snuffing out of the thriving in lives can admit that what they did was wrong.
A legal settlement of this type is important. And the message it sends is “don’t get caught.” The message we no longer seem to hear is “don’t do wrong.” And that feels much more ominous.