Don’t Push the Button: Lessons from Lampedusa

Our Daily Bread column allows us to share timely engagement with events in our world today from a eucharistic perspective. This article creatively raises the question, “In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, ‘who is my neighbor?'”

The COVID 19 pandemic has provided a new context to contemplate the Christian metaphor of the body of Christ. There are two competing narratives at work. One is grounded in independence and places the desires of individuals above the health of others. The alternative is grounded in the Gospel and makes decisions based on the common good. This essay unpacks these two standpoints and affirms that reliance on the teachings of Christ can be a powerful life-saving message.

Button, Button Mindset

The 1980’s Twilight Zone episode “Button, Button” is a modified rendition of a Richard Matheson short story. The central plot hinges upon an offer from a stranger to a couple. If they push a button on a small device, they will receive a large sum of money, but someone they do not know will die. The arguments as they contemplate the merit of pushing the button are timely during this pandemic. There are four components to this episode that are reminiscent of the current context: economic hardship, incomplete knowledge of the mechanism of death, the passage of time changing perspectives, and physical detachment from those dying.

The episode immediately establishes that the protagonists, Arthur and Norma, are facing economic hardship. Their outdated car is broken, causing Norma to push her groceries in a cart down the street. Finances are a point of contention, making the opportunity for money alluring. Similarly today, financial burdens are on the minds of many people throughout these months of the pandemic. Job loss has increased dramatically during the pandemic, especially for small businesses that have been forced to close. These are real issues that affect people’s homes, educational opportunities, and access to food. When people argue that businesses need to be open to save jobs it may not be out of greed, but a desire to provide for loved ones.

Second, the episode raises the nebulous reality of the mechanism of death. As they are deciding what to do, Arthur and Norma take the button mechanism apart to see if there is a radio or transmitter that would in some way cause someone’s death. When they find nothing inside the device, they declare that it is a worthless hoax. There is also much we do not know about the COVID 19 virus. We have learned some things about how it spreads and places to avoid, but there are still mysteries about infection. While few people believe that the virus does not exist at all, there remains enough ambiguity to make the correct path forward hazy.

We should not globalize indifference, but instead globalize the awareness that our smallest decisions can make a difference.

Third, Arthur and Norma go back and forth on their decision throughout the episode. This is partly to build drama in storytelling, but it is also realistic. After retrieving the unit from the trash, Norma stares at it all day, eventually opening and closing the top lid that protects from an accidental push of the button. She is inching towards viewing the action as acceptable. In the United States in March, most people sheltered-in-place as virus totals skyrocketed. People were afraid. As time passed, just like Norma, people began to inch outward towards previously remote possibilities. In early July the rate of infection had far surpassed the totals in March, yet people were no longer sheltering in their homes. They have inched closer and closer back to “normal” and now see a return to March’s quarantine as unacceptable. Time wears people down to move from the improper to the customary. We ease into things we really want, no matter the consequences that follow.

Finally, the key to the episode, and to what we are seeing in this country during the pandemic, is detachment. The phrase “someone you do not know” is used by Stuart, the stranger, multiple times. It is meant to be the eerie catchphrase of the episode and the climactic realization. When questioning the push, Norma says, “What if it is some old Chinese peasant or something, or someone with cancer?” It is clear that her concern begins and ends with her well-being. The death of a person she does not know will not change her life. Plus, she reasons, people die all the time. Arthur responds that such thinking is murder. Norma laughs this off — she isn’t poisoning someone or shooting them. She is pushing a button. How could this be murder?

Proximity and method are crucial to the moral questions raised by this story, and, I think, to the conundrum of acting during the pandemic. When an individual who is asymptomatic goes to a restaurant or stands in a public place, it is unlikely that she/he will ever find out that it was that contamination that caused someone’s death. I can travel freely around unknown people and be socially distant from my elderly relatives to protect those in my social circle. So, as Arthur quips, is it murder? Unless there was a knowing intent to target someone, it is unlikely there would be legal ramifications from spreading the infection. And so, people traverse the world and infect others, free from legal responsibility and trusting that those who will die are “someone you do not know.” This is not to say people are not also inadvertently infecting their loved ones. Rather, it is about realizing the care we take around our loved ones should be no different from when we are with anyone else. Just as Norma ultimately pushes the button in the climactic scene, we have become comfortable pushing the button of chance. It seems Norma only partially believed pushing the button would actually do anything. But she did it anyway. This is the approach of many people, spreading this disease, living lives detached from reflecting on the common good.

Lampedusa Mindset

Five months after his election, Pope Francis journeyed to Lampedusa where his homily set the stage for some of his foundational perspectives. Immigrants trying to reach Lampedusa are dying at sea as they flee their homeland, hoping for the opportunity to work. These tragedies are commonplace, but often ignored. Francis challenged all people, not just those listening to his homily, to treat the tragedy of Lampedusa as a wake-up call to the way human beings treat each other all over the world. Like “Button, Button,” this homily has taken on new significance in 2020 and offers a competing perspective to the temptations towards treating “someone you do not know” differently.

Similar to the short story, Francis begins his reflection acknowledging the economic needs of people to survive. He refers to the boats that collapse during the sea voyage as “vehicles of hope [that], became vehicles of death.”[1] The same foundational desires that prompt people to want to open their businesses during the pandemic and that nudged Norma and Arthur to consider pushing the button are understandable impulses. The Church has always defended the right of people to work, earn an income, and support their families and Pope Francis returns to this theme to set the context for his remarks.

Francis then turns to Genesis where the stories of Adam and Cain illuminate the tone for tragedy at Lampedusa. In the Garden of Eden, Adam severed the harmony of creation through his sin of trying to be like God. This separation created an outlook of irresponsibility toward others. Francis states, “‘The other’ is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and comfort.”[2] God’s question to Cain about the whereabouts of Abel follows from Adam’s decision. Cain’s reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is now a question for everyone, not only Adam’s oldest son. The human beings seeking a better life, dying on these boats, are our brothers and sisters by virtue of their humanity. Like us, they are made in the imago dei, the image of God. Francis then introduces the idea of “the globalization of indifference” — an important concept in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, that was published the following year.

“The globalization of indifference” is the central argument challenging the “Button, Button” mindset. Norma’s insinuation that the person dying might be a “Chinese peasant” should not matter. The use of “Chinese” was meant to indicate racial difference and “peasant” invokes a socio-economic stereotype. In both cases, they are different from her. Francis is saying adherence to difference is at the heart of humanities’ inactions at Lampedusa. The worth of the “Chinese peasant” is equal to the worth of the Lampedusa refugee, and is equal to the worth of each of us. That is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ where all are made in the image of God.

Stuart’s claim that the dying person will be someone unknown is the same for the deaths of the Lampedusa refugees. Few people hearing the homily knew the names of these people. They are all treated as nameless victims. As newspaper outlets publish COVID 19 statistics, many increase the numbers on a chart, rarely putting a face or name to those numbers.[3] In all these cases, this is “the globalization of indifference.” We take comfort if we hear these victims are not our friends or family. They are simply “someone you do not know.”

The Body of Christ

How can we apply the vision of Lampedusa to undo the inclination towards “Button, Button” mentality? This essay is not proposing keeping all businesses closed until the pandemic passes. It is not offering action proposals, political positions, or medical advice. Instead, I am challenging people to see the dangers of forgetting that we are all members of the Body of Christ. At a time when reception of the Eucharist is much more infrequent, it can be difficult to feel this connection. The reception of Christ’s body is, itself, a risk for those who must leave their homes and attend Church services. But that should not mean we are not living the message of Christ in our daily choices. Now, more than ever, we need to live what it means to say “amen” during Eucharistic reception.

Now, more than ever, we need to live what it means to say “amen” when receiving the Eucharist.

First, we should always act with an acknowledgement that our simplest actions have consequences. Do I realize in choosing to go to a public place that I can unknowingly spread the disease to others? We should not globalize indifference, but instead globalize the awareness that our smallest decisions can make a difference. We should reflect before we act, whether opening a business, attending a protest or campaign event, or going to the grocery store. Every decision can impact “someone you do not know” in ways that could cause our sisters and brothers to become ill or even die. Second, we must place the health of people over things. We need to remember that the virus does not distinguish between people by age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion. All human beings are potential victims and should be considered more valuable than goods or money. Finally, we should see the world as a community, not the perceived boundaries of family, statehood, or nationality that often are used to differentiate “us” from “them.” We need to see all people created in the imago dei, the image of God. Fighting the pandemic is a human issue and should not be considered a political issue. If Norma had seen all people as one community, she would not have finally pushed the button because there would have been no one that she “did not know.”

When the stranger returns to collect the unit and deliver the money, Norma is told the unit will be given to someone else. Stuart promises that it will be given “to someone you do not know.” In that moment she knows that she could be the next victim of a stranger who does not value all human life. A new person will hold the device and will weigh the life of someone unknown. In that moment Norma sees with the eyes of Christ, but too late. If we do not fight against this pandemic heeding the words of Pope Francis to live as the Body of Christ, knowing that “strangers” hold our key to life, we may also come to this realization when it is too late.

  1. Pope Francis, Homily at Lampedusa, July 8, 2013, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa.html, accessed July 8, 2020.
  2. Ibid.
  3. One notable exception is that the New York Times on Sunday May 24, 2020 published nearly 1,000 names as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000 people. The article beautifully said, “They were not simply names on a list. They were us.”


About James Menkhaus

James Menkhaus, Ph.D. has published articles on spirituality, social justice, and Christian ethics in numerous journals and is a member of Emmanuel’s editorial board. He teaches theology at Glimour Academy in Cleveland, Ohio.