Change, transformation, renewal, conversion are a part of the religious lexicon that is, I believe, too often lost in our time. In all of the calls for justice, it might be wise if we were open to considering the importance of transformation. Not just for those we believe to be wrong — but perhaps most importantly for ourselves.
In a recent United Methodist People podcast, the Rev. Dr. Brad Miller hosted a conversation with Indiana United Methodist Bishop Julius Trimble. If you are interested it can be found here: (http://Apple Podcasts:http://bit.ly/UMPeoplePodcast). I tell of something that happened nearly forty years ago am newly aware of the ways my heart and mind has been changed — and, I pray, continues to be reshaped by God’s transforming love for me and for all.
It is a tiny statement really. Our family’s banner during these days. It is a symbolic witness we make without leaving home – it is a banner hung from the patio of our condo. It reads:
“White Silence EQUALS White Consent BLACK LIVES MATTER.“
Now retired, in our mid-70s, trying to be wise about our health we avoid large gatherings and the COVID-19 virus; even so, we cannot remain silent. In these times, even the stones now cry out “Black Lives Matter.” Hanging off a balcony is a banner celebrating Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, the day the word reached slaves in Texas that their freedom had arrived. This banner, now, is our way of saying to those who suffer under the racism in our time, “We see you, we hear you, we join with you.”
The first Juneteenth was 155 years ago and yet racism still dominates our nation’s narrative. This scourge has been persistent across the decades — improvements, yes — then retrenchment and steps backward, almost always. This is the case because we have allowed racism to be defined as individual prejudice or discrimination that is carried out by bad people. This makes it simple and we hear folks say, “We’ll I’m not a racist.” Either/or — simplicity at it’s best — There are good people like me and bad people like “them” and that’s all I need to know.
I recently reviewed the Kerner Report (1968). That document famously, and in hindsight, tragically warns, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report was a strong indictment of White America: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The Kerner report outlined racism as more than individual prejudice or discrimination. Racism it said was embedded in systems of unequal power — these were group prejudices (often unrecognized by Whites) reinforced by institutions across our social landscape — educational, medical, ecclesial, judicial, law enforcement. In other words, pervasive. So, our little banner is indeed a small witness.
1968 – that was 52 years ago. We who hang this banner now, were in our early twenties when the Kerner report was written. We were inspired by Dr. King and the passage of Civil Rights Legislation. We believed racial justice would soon be realized across the land. The five decades that followed demonstrated how deeply racism is embedded in all of our institutions, our community practices, our churches, our political parties and in the psyche of too many across our nation.
So, we make this small witness now — as folks drive north on Walnut Street in our city, they can look off to the third floor of our building and there is the banner “Black Lives Matter.”
Let me encourage you to find your own small ways to demonstrate a commitment to be an antiracist. My last blog post suggested some ways to read and learn anew the dimensions of racism in 2020. We must Listen, Study, Pray, Act. One excellent resource helping us understand the deeply embedded systemic dimensions of racism are around us, like the air we breath, is the book Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. You can watch the video overview of Rothstein’s research at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9UqnQC7jY4&feature=youtu.be.
Do Black Lives Matter? Of course they do! This was an essential message in 1865, 1968 and even more so just now. So we hung the banner — our Juneteenth reminder. Elaine, always good with tape and an ironing board helped ready our small display. It now flaps in the wind — perhaps more tape is needed!
Perhaps like me you hear some say, “Well don’t all lives matter?” Of course they do, but that’s not the point. Not all of us face the systemic discrimination and inequality of power distribution in employment or financial security. Not all of us need to have “the talk” with our children about what to do or say if pulled over by the police. Not all of us experience the same level of health risks, whether it is the water in Flint, Michigan or the differential in healthcare highlighted by the current corona-virus pandemic.
Personally, to cope, I contextualize this, make a little joke in my head. The question “Don’t All Lives Matter?” is like a nutty scene where Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount. In this Monty-Python-type-scene Jesus is announcing “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep…” and a couple of well-dressed fellows in the back of the crowd, who haven’t missed a meal for years, shout out, “Hey Jesus don’t all lives matter?”
Actually this scene isn’t too far fetched. In Luke 4, just a couple of chapters earlier Jesus is preaching in his home town of Nazareth. Using the text from Isaiah 61 he proclaims:
Luke 4:18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The folks in Nazareth responded by saying — “Hey, isn’t this Joseph’s son? What right does he have to come and claim that ‘today this scripture is fulfilled?’ Hey, Jesus, don’t all lives matter?“ They run him out of town! You see, they were like a lot of good Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Orthodox — and all you others — believers and nonbelievers. If you don’t understand this, you may never quite understand the Gospel Jesus came to proclaim — blessed are those who suffer exclusion.
In truth if all lives matter — equally — then those of us who have been so blessed need to sing, shout, hang banners, sign petitions, encourage our political leaders, write letters to those in power and, mostly, live our lives in ways that proclaim: “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”
Perhaps the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmad Aubrey in Bainbridge, Georgia have shaken our slumbering nation awake. Perhaps. Perhaps we have been woke and deep hungers for righteousness will now stir within our communities. Protesters have flooded our streets in anger and despair.
A courageous seventeen-year-old young woman videotaped the 8 minutes 46 seconds as George Floyd’s life ebbed away with an officer’s knee on his neck. “Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.” It is a cry from the streets; the length of time peaceful protesters take a knee; and, a way to summarize the injustice of four hundred years of racism in our nation.
Friends ask what they might do in response. Some clergy friends are preparing sermons on racism. They are surprised when I say, “Don’t preach that sermon, yet.” One surprised pastor said, “But this is exactly the time to preach against racism.” Perhaps he is right, but first, a warning.
Back in 1973-1975 I was part of a research team for Project Understanding. a national effort to address racism. My dissertation, written on this research, is Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change. I recall my disappointment when the data showed the least effective way to change racist attitudes and racist institutional practices was through preaching. (The effect of preaching, by itself, is negligible). While the pulpit can be a helpful additional, backup resource, a reinforcement — a supplemental provider of encouragement — it was almost never a pivot point for change.
Sadly, teaching and educational approaches weren’t much better if enduring transformation is sought. Again education can be a supplemental benefit. And, only slightly better than these two are regular pulpit exchanges among racially diverse congregations.
The most effective approaches were discovered to be interracial teams working to address various civic or institutional matters that didn’t need to focus exclusively on racism. For many, probably most, this is counter-intuitive thinking. I had been taught that you change one’s attitude first and behavioral changes follow. Of course, the idea of behavioral change being the lead priority, was the research behind the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
There are multiple actions possible. Perhaps you could work on the Equal Justice Initiative to set up markers memorializing each of the lynchings in your state. (In Indiana there are 12 such known lynchings.) Perhaps you could join groups monitoring racist practices in education or housing or policing. Or, learn about and join the “white coats, black lives” actions of medical workers in your community. Start an interracial prayer or book group. Charity is not the goal here. You need to become the one who is tutored, and not the tutor. Turn off that natural White tendency to keep the power differential in your favor.
So, before you preach that sermon, especially if you are a White pastor to a predominantly White congregation, what can I suggest? First, do your homework. I understand the urge to go fight and speak for justice. Even so, you need to prepare yourself before encouraging others. More importantly you need to listen to African Americans and determine where you might take some action.
So, in this order then are steps to take — LISTEN, STUDY, ACT, all before you preach. If you don’t know African American leaders in your community, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t yet joined a protest, and can do this safely during the COVID-19 pandemic — perhaps this is the way to start. Or, join an opportunity to work for racial justice — and — get moving.
Dear White friends, don’t expect African Americans to tell you what to do. Instead, listen, carefully and humbly listen. Then study; then ACT. Only then will your sermons make a difference. Here are some resources for study:
Ibram X. Kendi’s fine book “How to Be An Antiracist” (2019) is a good place to start. We must move beyond the notion of being a non-racist to leaning how to live lovingly as an antiracist.
Mona Hanna-Attisha’s “What the Eyes Don’t See” (2019) is a story as told by a physician of the crises, response and hope from the Flint, Michigan water crises.
Jonathan M. Metzl’s “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland” (2019) is a collection of interviews on the deep underlying myths carried by white racism.
Will Willimon’s “Who Lynched Willie Earle: Preaching to Confront Racism” (2017) and “Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (2016). There is also a five week video study for church groups.
Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin” (2016) is a Biblical and theological analysis that offers hope for a different way.
Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law (2017) outlines the way housing discrimination has shaped our nation.
It does appear this is a time of change, an inflection point, a time theologians speak of as Kairos time — when signs of God’s kingdom might become more manifest in our institutions and communities. So, before you preach, PREPARE. Listen, Study, Act and then preach away — all of you — ordained clergy and non-clergy. Let’s preach our hearts out, and do it as part of a deep and enduring narrative, that will bring to our grandchildren a lasting change.
As I watched the tragic scenes unfold across our nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I remembered the phrase scratched on a napkin and slid toward me: “Words, words, words: Hamlet.” This writer of the quote in 1992 was Bill Hudnut, former long-time mayor of Indianapolis. Bill was a friend. I was pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church. We often had to agree to disagree. In considering the wounds to our nation’s soul just now, I think of Bill.
There have been too many words. I believe this is a message the rioters are tying to communicate — in imperfect ways, yes, but there have been too many words… words of promise, words to placate, words to delay. And, there have been too many words from the highest office in the land that harm and destroy. More, even worse, there have been words designed to incite violence. There are words tweeted in short attacks or enshrined in policies that reinforce the systemic racism of a nation that has never recovered from slavery, segregation and centuries of discrimination and shame.
Hudnut wrote the note “words, words, words” as we listened to the remarks of a popular young governor. The speaker was his opponent in 1992, as Bill challenged the young governor for his seat. Hudnut lost that race. The governor went on to another term; then was elected senator, like his father before him. As I recall all these years later, Hudnut was reacting to the governor’s word-salad related to a question about law enforcement and tragedies like the death of Michael Taylor. How might we better address police abuse? In 1987, Michael Taylor, a 16 year old, was handcuffed and in the custody of Indianapolis police officers when he was shot and killed. The officers claimed Taylor had somehow, with hands in cuffs, behind his back, grabbed one of their weapons. — So, they said, “they had to kill him.”
Michael Taylor’s murder remains an open sore for many in Indianapolis, myself included. George Floyd’s murder and the national response only displays that we have a pervasive and longtime pattern of such abuse. We have only formalized the “lynching culture” prevalent a century ago. In 1987 Bill Hudnut and I publicly disagreed about Indianapolis’ response in the Michael Taylor case.
Don’t get me wrong — Hudnut was a wise voice, took a lot of heat for not being tough enough on crime and too friendly with the minority community. At the time, Bill challenged some prevalent police practices. Still, he was the mayor and thought his primary job was to keep the peace and the support of his party. In private, we talked on several occasions, we prayed together and he shared his profound sadness. Behind the scenes Bill took actions to improve police practices, including better public review — something that is still not sufficiently dealt with today.
“Words, words, words: Hamlet” is remembered now. At the time they were first shared with me, neither of us knew how much “the Rev. Bill Hudnut,” graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, was a part of a dying breed. He was a Republican committed to racial justice and civil rights in word and DEED. A part of his story is told in Indiana History, “William Hudnut III versus the Reagan Administration” (https://indianahistory.org/stories/william-hudnut-iii-versus-the-reagan-administration/).
The Republican Party lost its way. How can they claim to be the party of Lincoln or Grant? How? I wish it was this easy. If one can just blame someone else, it is too easy. Our nation has lost its way as well. Bill Hudnut was a practical politician — yes, he made compromises. He was right to have a jaundiced view of the language of the Democrats.
We have all lost our way. We somehow think that there is some easy way to undo the massive damage of racial injustice that is four centuries old in our land. “Words, words, words” Bill Hudnut rightly quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In every arena related to racial justice we have talked too much and accomplished too little. The deceit was implicit in the opening words to our constitution, written by a slave owner, who knew better but never emancipated his own slaves. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) all are created equal…” Perhaps our generation can do some bold things to make these sentiments more than words.
We have been offered a magic pill — Hydroxycloroquine. We are told by “him-who-will-not-be-named” that he takes “a pill daily” to protect from infection by the COVID-19 virus. This simplistic prescription is mimicked by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Both men share certain anti-scientific, anti-democratic tendencies that result in disasters for their nations whether environmentally or in terms of public health. Brazil and the U.S. now lead the world in deaths from the corona virus, surpassing Italy, Spain, Russia and the United Kingdom. Still, these two men propose simplistic answers to complex challenges. Sadly this is accepted by millions as reasonable. Why not? It is easier than taking the time or thought to offer complex options that are more difficult to implement.
This prescription of C₁₈H₂₆ClN₃O as the magic pill would be sad enough, if it didn’t point to the multiple ways good science is being undercut in other human arenas. Quality scientific work is complex and, if done properly, usually doesn’t result in a single, easy-to-use form. However, hucksters across time and around the world still suggest they have the magic potent, “the cure.”
Like the salesman “Professor Harold Hill” in the Broadway Show The Music Man, contemporary hucksters abound. Often what is being sold can be beneficial, if used wisely. Hydroxycloroquine, medical research has demonstrated, can be beneficial to folks struggling with malaria or lupus. Now research shows that “this magic pill” may do more damage than good. Just as young people learning to play band instruments, as “Professor Harold Hill” prescribed to the good folks of the fictional River City, Iowa the remedy misses the mark. However, seventy-six trombones, new band uniforms or even one-hundred-and-ten-coronets are hardly effective cures to the so called social diseases as diagnosed by the huckster. A marching band might engender appreciation for music and even civic pride but will do little to change the behavior of young folks hanging out in pool halls or gambling on horse races.
Every day, I am amazed by the hucksters who deny research, good science and even basic logic. The simplistic solution is offered where other positive actions could be taken. There are so many ways we could act rationally that can make a difference. Instead of taking a daily pill, what if “he-who-will-not-be-named” modeled a healthier alternative and actually wore a mask, worked to provide a national testing and vaccine options, let medical experts speak openly to the nation or demonstrated compassion and wisdom for those who are suffering. No — that would be too complex, too scientifically informed.
I watch phony cures being offered in other venues. We keep seeking the “magic pill,” the simple answer to complex problems. For example:
What if we decided to seek a well-reasoned response to climate change? This would mean a comprehensive program moving away from fossil fuels. It would mean rebuilding infrastructure so some future tragedies like the dam failure this month in Michigan might be avoided as altered weather patterns bring more rain and floods.
Or, what if we addressed the need for universal health care? Tens of millions are suddenly out of work and without health insurance, isn’t this the occasion to move as a nation to address health care for all rather than simple encouraging “reopening” to get back to a “normal” that will leave tens of millions without health benefits?
Or, what if religious leaders stopped prescribing the “magic pill” of congregational development, or the perfect traditional doctrine, or a new leadership initiative or a restructuring? What if instead we focused on listening to and connecting with others, especially the poor? What if focus turned outward rather than seeking the one magic remedy of propping up their ever more irrelevant institutions?
What if as a nation we decided to offer safe housing to every citizen and stopped relying on shelters for those who languish in our alleyways, out-of-sight skid rows, or living out of a car?
What if we followed the excellent research available regarding opioid addiction and instead of making it a moral failure, or something that leads to imprisonment, we understood this as a health and medial problem?
We have done many remarkable and complex things before as a nation, in our corporate life, in our health care and religious institutions. There are examples like establishing the interstate highway system, public education, the Marshall Plan, the polio vaccine, the G. I. Bill, religious and legal circuit riders, or Medicare. The list goes on and on.
For now, however, I fear we are destined to a future where the small mindedness of magic pill thinking will prevail. We have moved the small-minded, ideologically rigid to the front of the line in too many arenas. It is the choice offered by too many political, corporate, healthcare and religious hucksters all eager to protect their power and profits.
Recently I raised three queries as to ways forward for people of faith responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This posting focuses on the last question of the three: what shall we truly love and treasure in the future?
The first question (May 7th) was: Shall our choices be limited to Life or Livelihood? I told of my stealing a small pocket knife as a six-year-old, with the inscription on it: “God is Love.” My dad saw this, taught me a lesson about the true meaning of love and this has lead to a lifetime of learning the importance of moral choices. Life or livelihood is a false dichotomy. Still it has been promoted as a political agenda — “we must open,” we are told without clear plans for how this is best done. Now, in dozens of states in the U.S., we see the chaos of such either/or thinking. I know small business owners who are facing bankruptcy — it is heart wrenching, speaking with them. There are better ways to proceed that honor both livelihood and life as demonstrated in other nations just now. In the U.S. the political games continue.
Comprehensive guidelines for the common good, both in terms of public health and commerce, were offered in a 17-page document from the CDC two weeks ago. However, it was shelved by the White House. Governors, mayors and other leaders are left with an assortment of one page, scaled-down “suggestions” that arrived only today (May 15). These are vague directives full of “sorta-perhaps-you might-want-to-if-it-seems-right” guidance given in one page documents to separate groups. The message from the top is that we will love our “treasures,” more than life. Aid to small businesses, hospitals and cities may never arrive. The vulnerable ones (businesses and people) are set aside as so much “collateral damage.” And so… commerce, especially large corporate activities, has been pitted against the common good. If health officials are correct, we will see the results of this foolishness in two and three weeks when a resurgence of the virus appears — and even before that, tens of thousands more will succumb to the virus.
The second question (May 8) was: what shall we consider to be normal? Should our national and global experience in 2019, before the virus arrived, be considered normal? How long before we are past this pandemic? Is this a blizzard, long winter or ice age? For Christians we consider the question of idolatry — is money more to be treasured than the life of another? Believing this virus will not end soon, and wanting a better future than we have known, we asked what compass and a guide will help us live toward an even more flourishing future for all? Drawing on John Wesley’s counsel of “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God” it was noted that even if we could go “back to normal,” we could do better than that.
Just ten days ago or so, we were approaching 60,000 deaths from the virus in the United States; today over 80,000 persons have died; conservative projections are that this will total over 100,000 by the end of May.
This brings us to the last question (May 15): what shall we truly treasure and love in the future? Let’s begin with basics — What is meant by “love” anyway? Few persons in the Wesleyan tradition have thought more about this than theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Dr. Oord suggests that love is “an intentional act, in relationship with others, that promotes the overall well-being.” In other words, love involves an action. It is in sympathetic or empathetic relationship with others, including God and the community. It is for the purpose of doing what is good for the whole. (See: “Thomas J. Oord on the Mystery and Definition of Love,” The Table podcast, 11/15/2018) Another valued theological voice is that of Steven Harper. Dr. Harper explores the lives of people of faith over the ages and offers regular insights into a theology of love in his postings at: https://oboedire.com/.
So, if love is anintentional act in relationship with others for the common good, how might we act now and in the future? How will we welcome the stranger? How will be live with hope, imagination and resilience? Ancient rituals thought essential like shaking hands, passing the peace, singing congregational hymns and corporate worship will be sidelined or radically modified. What of the sacraments of communion and baptism? How will we behave in loving ways to demonstrate a belonging to one another, offering words of meaning and the gifts of mutual empowerment? And what of ministries with the poor and the immigrant?
For this, I turn to you good reader. What do you imagine? How do you suggest we proceed? I will not leave you stranded with these questions. Let me turn to two persons who can help us “think forward together.”
The first is D. J. McGuire, who on a recent The More Perfect Union podcast, noted that in U.S. and world history we can see differing paths after a societal tragedy. For example, McGuire opines, “After WWI, the nations of Europe, especially Germany, were left in disarray and the U.S. turned to our own self-interest. President Wilson tried by failed — for many reasons — including his health. This led almost inevitably to the Great Depression, followed shortly by the Second World War.”
McGuire contrasts this with U.S. and international response following WWII. He observes that here “we aspired to something larger than our previous ‘normality.’ We sought to build international strength and an economy built to include many.” The years after WWII were not easy ones — there was the conflict in Korea, the nuclear arms race and deep systemic racism continued.
Even so, aspirational actions like the establishment of the Marshall Plan, the G. I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the establishment of the United Nations and dozens of other efforts from NATO, to NASA, to the Civil Rights Act, to cures or treatments for polio and tuberculosis. None of these efforts were perfect — like all human activities, there was corruption and abuse; however, the trajectory was set toward a better world and not merely a return to normal.
These were two almost contradictory impulses following a major crises. Within each trajectory there were (and are) multiple ways forward… many options.
The second voice is that of Rev. Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark calls us to a Politics of Compassion (https://www.gostandrew.com/resources/livestreaming/). It is a way of considering how love can be put into action. His sermons can be viewed on the church’s website and his book “A House Divided” will be released in September (Chalice Press).
I will not rehearse aspects of Mark Feldmeir’s message here. Suffice it to say that he calls us to recognize our common humanity, our belonging to one another. He suggests that we shape our actions in terms of kinship, kenosis (or self-giving) and delight. Employing the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually one tree that spreads over miles in Fish Lake, Utah, he says: “Universal care, concern, and commitment fueled by creativity and collaboration are the keys to the salvation of the aspen grove. And to our own. We need the wisdom and compassion of the aspen that can only come from a deeper sense of connectedness and belonging, and a deeper commitment to the common good.”
Feldmeir goes on: “We may be inclined to believe that the antidote to this politics of contempt is a politics of compromise, which seeks to end disagreement and claim consensus. But in our politics, as in our religion, we have often made idols out of centrism and the ‘middle ground’… we can transcend a politics of compromise in favor of a politics of compassion, which fosters a way of relating to people and responding to real human issues with universal care, concern, and commitment.”
You see, good reader, we don’t have to create a Pandemic of Compassion — we already belong to one another. The question before our nation and world is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift… this place of belonging where we already reside. How will we act like we are aware that we are part of and called to love and care for this living creation?
Friend and gifted hymn writer Ruth Duck offers these words as we seek to spread a Pandemic of Compassion:
In Fear the World is Weeping
In fear the world is weeping, and longs with every breath. For life and hope and seeking, new paths beyond this death. And loving hearts are risking, their lives that we may thrive. Praise God for those who labor. O may they stay alive.
Our lives are bound together, in sorrow and in prayer. In life and hope and nature the Holy One gives air. Around the world show wisdom; with open hearts give care.
A new world calls us onward; sing hope now everywhere.
When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?
Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?
In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?
Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?
Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”
When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.
So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).
Is Normal Our Best?
My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!
In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”
In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”
As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).
Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.
I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.
If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.
Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.
Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)
So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.
Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.
Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?
Who will take responsibility? Is there a voice of ethical clarity among the leaders in the White House?
As a six-year-old I accompanied my father to a religious bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky. To my preschool eyes, the counters were a wonderland — filled with lovely trinkets — “notions,” as the store owners called them. I saw dozens of inviting small treasures designed, no doubt, by someone in post-war Japan to appeal to a six-year-old American child. One of these items, a small two inch pocket knife somehow, mysteriously, ended up in MY pocket. The imitation pearl handle carried the inscription “God is Love.” Those were the same words beautifully stenciled in the front of the sanctuary of the antebellum church where my father was pastor. In fact, those words, “God is Love,” were among the first three words I had learned to read.
Heading home, back across the old K & I bridge that separated Louisville from New Albany, I took out my new prized possession, opening the blade and reading the words again. Then I heard, “where did you get that?” I was jolted from my revere. I remember that my heart leaped and there was a noticeable wetness in my six-year-old pants. Again, “Where did you get that?” my papa asked. Through tears, I told him that it was beautiful and it had the words “God is Love” printed on it just like in the front of the church. “See,” I held it up, trembling and then handing my booty over. Within a half-an-hour we were back in the store. After paying for the knife, papa explained that he had given me a loan and I would be paying him back out of my allowance, with interest!
I learned a lot that day… and on many other days, as I learned personal habits of responsibility and about the lifestyle to be expected of followers of Jesus.
As the COVID-19 virus lumbers across our nation destroying the lives, health and the future of millions, I wonder if our president ever learned such a basic ethical lesson. As our healthcare, educational, commercial and technological strength is sapped away, instead of a clear taking-of-responsibility, instead of a plan, we are offered up excuses, phony narratives, wagons-full of diversions, and, most troubling we are given binary options as to who is to blame and how we are to proceed. We are told again and again — and shifting from day to day — that one idea, or group, or preference must be sacrificed to another in order to recover from this scourge.
I wonder — did anyone ever hold the six-year-old Donald Trump accountable that made a difference in his sense of the value of himself and others? Or, how about when he was twelve, or twenty-five, or sixty? Has this sad, sad man ever been asked to move toward healthy adulthood? It is precisely this that would help him now lead a nation in answering the questions, “Whose lives are to be saved and what is to be treasured?” Did he ever have to look past his own self-interests to know that life is complex and most things are NOT a simple either/or choice?
With the virus, a veil has been lifted that makes evident what was present but unseen by too many prior to this pandemic. It is much more than the narcissism and deceitfulness of the White House that is exposed. It is a revealing of the inequalities in healthcare access and economic resources available to our citizens. [I will not rehearse the data here as to which groups of persons are currently suffering the most from this virus. I will suggest that ultimately, we ALL face difficulties due to these inequities.]
The disparities in healthy options for care based on social class or race have become painfully clear. Who are suffering the most? Will we treasure these? As the statistics from this pandemic are presented it is clear that the essential front line workers, healthcare providers, AND public service personnel are also those who are the most economically challenged. They are the lower-middle class, the poor, the immigrant and those without shelter or healthcare options.
The United States represents less than five percent of the world population and current reporting has us with more than twenty-five percent of the reported cases in the world! Something is amiss. Something more than the way the counting is done — here or elsewhere!
Where is Our Treasure? If God is Love, what does it mean for us?
Persons familiar with Christian scriptures will have already anticipated that I will point to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. Jesus offers this observation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus goes on and teaches, in these passages and throughout the gospels, that it is the neighbor, the weak ones, the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the wealthy — ALL are to be treasured. All are a part of God’s household of love.
What do we believe should be valued and who should be sacrificed? These are matters of the heart — they are core values. For most they are learned in childhood. Sadly, for some, these are never learned. They may also reflect our ability as a nation to stand tall and take responsibility now.
A second answer, found throughout scripture is our kinship with all others and all of creation. Every other person is a child of God and they should have BOTH a life and a livelihood.
In Genesis 4:9 after killing his brother Abel, Cain responds to the question, “Where is your brother?” He answers with those famous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some translate this as “Am I my brother’s guardian, my brother’s baby-sitter, or my brother’s brother?” In this exchange of questions, it is the next question asked of Cain by God that we now face. It is “What have you done?” Are we our brother and sister’s kin?
I believe the answer for our citizens and responsible adults everywhere is, and must be, a resounding “YES.” Who is my neighbor? Who is the one who should receive my care? Every other person!
Sadly, I have known some pastors, rabbis and imams who read their scriptures differently. They would say the answer to the question “Where is your brother or sister?” is “they are only those who are in my congregation or who are truly Christian, Jew or Muslim. Only these are to be considered my neighbor,” they would suggest. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). How can we not see that the three words “God is Love” apply to all, everywhere?
This is NOT a screed against the wealthy. Some of the most generous folks I have met are blessed with many resources and they share them wisely and widely. At the same time, some of the stingiest people I have known are persons who always, in every action and decision, seek to selfishly add to their possessions. In a year, or perhaps two, the answer will be clearer as to what we have truly treasured. We will see how some of those who have taken political actions in these months were also benefiting their own status, portfolios and bank accounts. This is, sadly, too often the human behavior.
We can love our livelihoods — but not if we sacrifice the neighbor.
For me, as a Christian, I continue to learn the core lesson that “God is Love.”
Late in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I came across a surprising passage from an economics text. Edmund Phelps, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and professor at both Columbia and MIT, edited a book back in 1975 (Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory). In his introduction he writes, “When Sir Dennis Robertson lectured at the bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University, it was therefore expected that he would address a question of grandeur: What Do Economists Economize?” His unexpected answer: We economize on love.”
We economize on love. How apparent this has become in recent weeks. What or who do we love most truly? What or who do we treasure most dearly? It is an ancient religious question that has been raised to the highest levels of our consciousness by this pandemic.
Life or Livelihood? The debate ramps up. Will we preference saving lives or saving livelihoods? My congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, was an early voice (April 14) proposing we should “put on our big boy pants” and accept some loss of life to secure the ‘American way of life.’ The genie was out of the bottle — there would soon be a wider call to sacrifice some people to the benefit of others. We shouldn’t let the “cure be worse than the disease,” meaning, of course, that a national effort to shelter-at-home shouldn’t get in the way of quickly returning to “business as usual.”
Since that time, in a rising crescendo, the American people have been called on by folks like Larry Kudlow, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and the governors of Texas, Georgia, Florida and other states, to “wage a war” on COVID-19 by… you guessed it — restarting the economy. It is that simple? Really? These folks admit such actions will threaten the lives of many, especially the most vulnerable, still they persist. Why? The true purpose, in far too many cases, is the protection of wealth, property and businesses of those who are at the top of our economic system. I am not unaware of the damage that is being done to small businesses — what I do argue is that we can find a better way.
How far we have come from early American leaders like William Penn who wrote: “A good end cannot sanctify evil means: nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it… let us then try what love will do.” What might love do differently? What might faithful people seek in this time. As a Christian, I ask myself, “isn’t there a better way to proceed?”
Life or livelihood is, of course, a false choice. Why are we not approaching this with a third option? Why are we not asking how can we save as many lives as possible and at the same time do as much to stabilize economic interests as well? The answer may be that what we truly love, what we most deeply cherish, is exposed by this pandemic.
Like so many of the choices offered, things are being boiled down to simplistic dichotomies – either/or – either the wealth some have accumulated or the life of many others. In some places (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California), after the tragic loss of life, there seems to be a slowing of new infections. Yet, even this is at risk, if we are not prudent.
In other places where the COVID-19 virus is only now appearing, governors and mayors are being urged “open up the economy and immediately get back to normal.” My fear, based on considerable experience and research, is that we will see, not only many persons in poor and/or rural and/or isolated communities succumb to this virus, and in the process we will see the destruction of the economic life of these poor and already weakened communities, their businesses, hospitals, social services and safety personnel. All of this will be due to this false choice that has been unevenly conceived with a preemptive “restart” and “return normal.”
A few days ago Donald Trump projected that “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” lose about 60,000 lives, then a few days later it was “ONLY” 75,000, and as I write, he suggests “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” see perhaps 125,000 die but, he argues “we must all fight the war and restart our economy.” One wonders what will be the “tragic as it is” number of lives that will be counted among the dead from this virus by mid-summer? One wonders what is most loved and most treasured?
All of this begs several questions for people of faith, and especially for those of us who are Christians. Here are three that come to mind today; questions we will consider in the days ahead:
1) Which livelihoods are to be preferred and saved?
Our nation suffers from the challenges of COVID-19. Even more we have arrived at this time divided and distrusting of many others. One of the benefits I enjoy is knowing where there are important voices that should be heard in this time, in this nation, in our world.
I invite you to watch the attached video in which the steps toward renewal are presented by Rev. Mark Feldmeir, St. Andrew United Methodist Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado. I believe Mark’s voice is one of wisdom and vision. His message is one that should be heard nationally and globally. Please listen and then share it with a neighbor. How will we emerge from this pandemic with a sense of hope and vision? I believe it is to discover the Common Good through a Politics of Compassion.