Kirk Johnson is the author of Medical Stigmata: Race, Medicine, and the Pursuit of Theological Liberation, published by Palgrave Macmillan. He earned both his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Medical Humanities degrees from Drew University. Johnson is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently teaches ethics, religion, and medical humanities courses at Seton Hall University and Montclair State University. He serves as a member of the Atlantic Health Systems Bioethics Committee, and is a former Assistant Director of the Medical Humanities program at Drew University. He is also a member of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and The New York Academy of Medicine.
GE: You’re an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and a bioethicist with a Doctor of Medical Humanities degree from Drew University. What set you on the path toward the work you do now?
KJ: I started at Seton Hall University as an undergraduate with the mindset that I wanted to become a lawyer. That quickly changed, though, through numerous personal experiences to wanting to go into ministry. At Seton Hall, I became chaplain of the University Gospel Choir for a couple years, and that rooted my perception that ministry was an area I needed to be in.
From undergrad I went to seminary at Drew Theological School where I received my Master of Divinity degree. During my second year, I took a course called Health and Medical Ethics which opened up my horizon to another way of serving and doing ministry. That’s when I came across the doctoral program in medical humanities there at Drew.
While in the medical humanities program, I was a fellow in the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association for about a year and a half. I did a lot of public health work in underserved communities, particularly communities of color. That experience made me more aware of health disparities, health inequities, and the various social determinants of health.
Right now, I’m teaching ethics, religion, and medical humanities courses at Seton Hall and Montclair State University. I was also Assistant Director of Medical Humanities at Drew for about a year.
GE: We’re currently experiencing the worst global pandemic in more than a century. What insight does the field of bioethics offer us as we respond to this crisis?
KJ: For the past three years, I’ve been involved with Atlantic Health System’s bioethics committee at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, NJ. This year, we’ve really been looking at how healthcare professionals respond to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s not just about how they’re serving their communities, but also what are we doing for healthcare professionals and their mental health? What are we doing for doctors, nurses, social workers, and many other individuals that are involved in the healthcare system? What are we doing to assist them through the trauma of a pandemic?
What we talked about most recently was medical narrative: doctors and other healthcare workers writing out their thoughts, journaling, poetry, as well as different forms of art like painting or drawing. That’s in addition to the regular therapeutic method of talking—talking things out and supporting each other.
Another major bioethical issue is racial disparities related to COVID-19. Among many communities of color there’s a certain level of mistrust in the medical establishment. For example, all the world’s major pharmaceutical companies are working on COVID-19 vaccines. But many people in communities of color are already saying: “No, we’re not taking that! We don’t know how it will react with our bodies.” Well, where has that come from? In part, from the history of unethical experimentation, like the infamous Tuskegee experiments. So this mistrust is a huge element in communities of color.
In addition, COVID-19 is a disease where you need to stay away from other people to avoid getting infected. That’s why we invented the term “social distancing”—although I prefer “physical distancing.” We can still be social, talk on Zoom, call. But you need to have a certain level of privilege to be socially distant. The majority of African Americans are blue collar workers. They have to physically be at their job in order for them to get a paycheck. That’s another element of why African American and Hispanic communities are at higher risk. They have to have that human interaction. If they don’t, they can’t eat. They can’t support their families.
GE: What role do you think the concept of “healing” has to play in the racial justice efforts that we’re seeing right now?
KJ: Let’s use the metaphor of a cut. If you have a cut—a deep cut—and you don’t treat it, the cut is going to continue to get worse. It will ultimately become an infection in your body because you haven’t acknowledged that you have a wound that needs to be treated.
This parallels a real problem, by the way. A lot of individuals, especially in communities of color still don’t have health insurance, so many will live with an issue for a long time before finally going to the emergency room to treat it. By then, the disease or illness has progressed so far that they have a bad prognosis.
To return to the metaphor, though: it’s the same for racism in our American context. In order for us to heal, first we have to acknowledge the issue and be transparent, which is not an easy thing to do. But we need to say “yes, racism exists” in order to treat it. Not just for Black individuals, but for Hispanics, Asians, communities of color, our first Americans. This is our history. It’s a negative, bad part of our history. Nonetheless, we need to acknowledge that history and its consequences.
Hopefully, the protests and racial justice efforts going on right now will lead to some sort of acknowledgment. Then we can start healing: not just through reconciliation, but also through restitution. There are systems that we built to specifically harm certain populations in our country. We need to acknowledge this first. Once we acknowledge it, the healing can start.
I recently created a set of courses called “Race Talk Workshops” that address this. These courses are designed for any setting—medical, religious, non-religious—to explore the sources of racism. Race Talk 1 focuses on the origins of racism, and Race Talk 2 focuses on systems. I’m offering these workshops on behalf of my denomination, the United Church of Christ.
GE: Speaking of origins and systems, you brought up the mistrust that many communities of color have regarding the medical establishment. What do you think is the key to healing that particular divide?
KJ: On the individual level, empathic communication. Statistically, the majority of physicians, including those serving communities of color, are white. So it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of your patients.
This is true in general, but especially for patients of color. They experience certain things in this country that a white individual never will. That doesn’t mean white people don’t have struggles or difficult times; that’s part of the human condition. They just don’t have to experience specific difficulties due to the color of their skin.
Even so, white physicians should still try to put themselves in their patients’ shoes. Doing so brings a certain level of empathy that will really improve the communication skills of not just doctors, but also nurses and other healthcare professionals.
On the systemic level, universal healthcare. Affordable healthcare for all is a macro thing that would alleviate health disparities in our communities. As a bioethicist and medical humanist, I believe that all human beings deserve healthcare. That’s a human right.
Bio: Kirk Johnson is the author of Medical Stigmata: Race, Medicine, and the Pursuit of Theological Liberation, published by Palgrave Macmillan. He earned both his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Medical Humanities degrees from Drew University. Johnson is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently teaches humanities courses at Seton Hall University and Montclair State University.
Bio: Gabriel Ertsgaard is the Interviews Editor for The Peace Chronicle. He earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. He previously taught university English courses in both the United States and China. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in various print and digital publications.