While we’re all tired of thinking about the pandemic, exhausted by quarantine regulations, overwhelmed with grief over the loss of life, and ready to live in a post-coronavirus world . . . there are some takeaways from this tumultuous season. After all, God works through the cracks of everything—tyrannical reigns of terror and global pandemics alike—and we have both in America. There’s a passage in Hebrews that speaks of a time of “shaking” so that which is “unshakable may remain.”
Certainly, the pandemic has shaken us. I grieve the loss of life, especially all the lives that could have been saved here in the U.S. had we had better leadership and more empathy for one another. And yet I also think that this season could be a time where some things that needed to be shaken will fall away—like in a refining fire or a time of pruning. Our grapevine in the backyard is blooming with thousands of grapes, in part because we prune it each year. Jesus spoke a lot in images like this—pruning and cutting some things back so that the whole vine can be healthier and more fruitful.
During this time of shaking and pruning, some of our theology may die, and it needs to die. The boxes we put God in are often just too small. Some theology is not big enough to hold a pandemic. It’s why we’ve heard some really bad theology from some very prominent leaders here in the U.S., saying terrible things—like the notion that the pandemic is God’s judgment on America. Or they have said that God will protect us, and the test of our faith should be recognizing that we don’t need to wear masks; later they, or some who have followed their ideas, have died from Covid. (I will leave aside the irony that many of the folks who say they don’t need a mask because of their faith in God’s protection still own semiautomatic weapons.) Theology can be toxic.
When a ten-year-old gets raped, and our only answer is “God had this happen for a reason”—that is toxic theology. We need a more robust theology of a God who suffers with us—who was born on the margins and executed on the cross, who knows what it feels like to say “I can’t breathe”—as thousands of folks are saying throughout the streets of America. God is with us. And that means this time of shaking may bring about a work in which our old politicians, stale rhetoric, and impotent governmental structures will fade away—which is a good thing.
Not only is this a time of shaking and pruning, but it is also a time of revelation. I had a journalist ask me if I believed this was the “apocalypse”—inferring that these may be the “end times,” sort of like a zombie apocalypse. But I pointed out that the word “apocalypse” literally means “to unveil,” “to reveal,” or to “to rip away the veil”—from the Greek apo- and kaluptein—to uncover . . . like when Toto tears away the curtain around the Wizard of Oz and reveals a little old dude behind it all. And in that sense, this apocalyptic moment is a good thing.
Perhaps it’s why Jesus spoke often of having “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”—we are living in a time in which people are seeing injustice and racism and inequality with new and alarming clarity. Scales are falling from more and more eyes. I’ve often said that Donald Trump did not change America, he revealed America; perhaps he has hastened the scales falling away. The pandemic is doing the same.
In this time of reckoning, we are seeing some of America’s worst demons surface and manifest themselves in a Legion of ways. The infection and its death toll have disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable people—people of color, folks who are incarcerated and locked up in detention centers on our border, those who are homeless, and the elderly. It has also revealed that there are many people in power who are not concerned about those whom Christ called “the least of these.”
As my brother The Reverend William Barber (co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign sweeping our country, even amid the pandemic) has said, “Too many people in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.” We must do better.
The pandemic came to the United States during the season of Lent when Christians around the world remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus during the holy season of penitence before Easter. Often, folks fast from life’s pleasures, giving up things like chocolate or technology, in order to ground their spirits in prayer. A friend of mine said the pandemic imposed the “Lent of all Lents”—it was like Lent on steroids. We were forced to give up many of our cherished pleasures in this involuntary fast imposed upon us by the virus. And yet what happens when we fast is, we become more deeply sensitized. When we give up food, we appreciate it all the more. And we gain a deeper sense of solidarity with those whose bellies ache with hunger because of poverty and injustice.
In many ways, the pandemic has set before us a similar opportunity of sensitivity. My hope is that this season of social distancing leaves us with a hunger for community like never before. I think we’ll all be glad to step away from Zoom calls and Facebook and be with real people again. It’s important to remember there is a long tradition of social distancing in the history of our faith. Think of those forty years in the wilderness as God was preparing the ancient Israelites to be a holy nation. And, similarly, the forty days in the desert as Jesus was pre-
paring for his own ministry. These periods of isolation can show us who we are and—if we will let them—shape us to be the people we are meant to be.
On the other side of these strange seasons, life may not look the same . . . and that’s a good thing. A reporter recently asked me when we will get back to “normal.” I thought for a moment and said, “I hope the answer to that is never.” I later wrote an article pointing out the irony that one of the things stopped by the pandemic here in the U.S. is executions; thanks to the pandemic, we just went through one of the longest periods in American history without executions. We don’t want to go back to executing people again. My hope is that the pandemic gives us a new appreciation for life, and a new sensitivity, empathy, for those who are suffering. We don’t want to go back to normal.
Normal wasn’t working. Normal got us George Floyd, murdered by Minneapolis police. Normal got us 105 days lost to gun violence in the United States. Normal got us 700 people a day dying from poverty . . . before the pandemic. The pandemic is an invitation to reimagine the world and to insist that we cannot go back to normal. Even as this is a time filled with grief and anxiety for many, it is also a time full of imagination, pregnant with hope. There’s that passage in Romans (8:22, NIV) that says the whole creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” Paul goes on to say that we ourselves groan with the earth.
Does it not feel as though the world is groaning, that the earth itself ravaged by economic exploitation? The masses in our streets are groaning, “We can’t breathe.” We call childbirth “labor” for a reason. It involves groaning, weeping, tears, sweat, blood . . . and in the end, new life comes. I think of the words of activist and lawyer Valarie Kaur as she named this present darkness we are in: she raises the question, is this darkness the tomb—or is this the darkness of the womb?
In this moment of groaning and pain, I believe a new world is being born. And we get to be the midwives.
Used by Permission. We Shall Be Changed © 2020 Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY 10016