When I was growing up, my family and churches were premillennial dispensationalists. We were awaiting the rapture, followed by seven years of tribulation for those left behind because they had not accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. We looked for signs of the end times everywhere. Even the Christmas pageant we put on in the city auditorium ended, not with the baby in the manger, but with the second coming of Jesus and the Great White Throne Judgment. I’m still traumatized by watching the pastor’s son, dressed as the devil, pulling screaming people offstage into the fiery pits of hell as Jesus said, “Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity. I never knew you.”
Every year we watched the film, A Thief in the Night, about nonbelievers who had been left behind. We pored over Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, and the youth choir sang “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” a song about people’s woeful lack of preparation for the end times.
(I’m guessing if you’re under age 40, you’re now shaking your head in disbelief. If you’re 55 or older, I’m guessing you not only know what I’m talking about, but you now have that song’s melody playing in your head.)
Now that we’re watching COVID-19 devastate the world around us and expose the gaps in our global preparedness for pandemic (and even though I’m no longer a premillennial dispensationalist), I find myself repeatedly humming the line, “I wish we’d all been ready.” I don’t mean ready for the rapture. I mean ready for a crisis that is global in scope and disproportionately harms people who are already socially and economically vulnerable.
Our social system in the United States was completely unprepared. Without the guarantee of paid sick leave and access to adequate healthcare, the lowest paid workers had few options for social distancing. We didn’t have enough medical equipment. We didn’t have plans in place to close schools and restaurants and cancel concerts and athletic events. The stock market tanked.
Our president was unprepared. In typical Donald Trump fashion, rather than address the crisis, he denied, minimized, blamed, lied and failed to act and then refused to accept the least bit of responsibility. When he did act, belatedly, he exacerbated xenophobia by calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” and undoubtedly has made the whole situation worse.
Republicans remain unprepared. A new NPR/Marist poll shows that Republican concern about the novel coronavirus has actually plunged in the last month, even as the number of cases and deaths reported has increased and governments have taken action to limit large gatherings.
While no less than Newt Gingrich himself tries to convince Republicans to take the pandemic seriously, other Republican leaders like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and media outlets like Fox News keep telling people that they should continue to go out and socialize and that the response to the virus is an effort by Democrats to imperil Trump’s reelection chances.
“Many people are going to be left behind, not by the rapture, but by inadequate access to a living wage, paid time off and healthcare.”
So now, even though Trump has begun to act with some sense of gravity about the virus, many of his Republican supporters remain unconvinced. The willingness of many Republicans to reject science, embrace “alternative facts” and live in the echo chamber of Fox News and conspiracy-spinning websites has created a political party completely unable to address a real crisis in any meaningful way.
Furthermore, the GOP has collaborated with the Trump administration to hollow out government agencies, leaving them without leadership, the expertise and support of trained staff and the financial resources that could have resulted in measures to respond more quickly, to help “flatten the curve” and, most likely, to save lives.
White evangelicals remain implicated in Trump’s web of deceit, incompetence and irresponsibility. A new Pew survey found that support for Trump remains high among white evangelicals who see him as fighting for their beliefs. In fact, Jerry Falwell Jr. suggested the virus response was the “next attempt to get Trump.”
Another pastor suggested fears about the virus were a “demonic spirit” and refused to cancel church services because he didn’t believe God would let infected people bring the virus to church. Many evangelical leaders took their cue from Trump’s early statements downplaying the virus. One Florida pastor pledged to continue church services and even encouraged congregants to shake hands during worship. An Arkansas pastor told other local pastors that “half of his church is ready to lick the floor to prove there’s no actual virus.”
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said that the pandemic is not one of the plagues from the book of Revelation because the Antichrist has not yet appeared, but the virus, like all natural disasters, is a result of sin.
Our hearts were unprepared. Our lack of compassion and a sense of community quickly became evident as people began to hoard toilet paper and price gouge for hand sanitizer. Many young Americans seem indifferent to the pandemic, continuing to travel for leisure, dating and going out with friends and gathering in large groups, even though their behavior may put older adults, in particular, at risk.
Gun shops have experienced an upsurge in gun purchases, many by first-time buyers. People may say they’re worried about lawlessness if society breaks down because of the virus, but research shows that the people most likely to be injured or killed by a gun in the home are the gun owner and loved ones.
Many conservative Christian commentators have labeled the virus as yet another sign of the end times (I’m not providing links because these websites don’t deserve more views).
“We can demonstrate the love for neighbor Jesus advocated, and we can act as the beloved community we’re called to be.”
Which leads us right back to premillennial dispensationalism, The Late, Great Planet Earth and A Thief in the Night. Looking for signs of the end times doesn’t prepare us to live in times of crisis; it only allows us to spiritualize real-world problems and imagine a divine intervention that frees us from earthly responsibility to address social inequality, disease and global disaster. Many people are going to be left behind, not by the rapture, but by inadequate access to a living wage, paid time off and healthcare.
Still, all is not bad news. Many people are coming together in acts of solidarity. In a 2016 interview with Krista Tippett, author Rebecca Solnit suggests that in disasters people do step up to care for one another. In that spirit, I suggest these acts of solidarity:
- Follow guidelines for social distancing. You may not be at highest risk, but you could infect someone who is. Many churches have cancelled worship services and other events and substituted remote services. Most are struggling with how to continue needed ministries while keeping everyone safe.
- Check in on your neighbors, especially those who are older, live with a disability or are in poor health,
- Run errands, with appropriate precautions, for people who can’t.
- Buy what you need, but don’t hoard. No one needs four cartons of Costco toilet paper.
- If you have already bought more than you need, share. Then practice above.
- Say thank you again and again to those people who can’t work from home because they have to sell you groceries, pick up and deliver your mail or pump your gas (if you live in Oregon or New Jersey where you can’t pump your own).
- Give big tips to delivery people. And see above.
- Donate to trustworthy, experienced organizations that are helping deal with the impact of the virus: local food banks and shelters, local college campus food closets and emergency funds, Meals on Wheels, Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, to name a few possibilities.
- Audit your social media intake. Be vigilant about using credible news and information sources. Pay attention to and support nonprofit news organizations that serve the public interest with accurate, reliable reporting and fair-minded commentary (yes, like the religion news site you are visiting now).
- Donate to and campaign for candidates who will do better, accept expertise then act in the interest of all citizens and address the glaring problems of social inequality that have exacerbated the spread and impact of COVID-19.
We were not ready for this pandemic. Now that it’s here, though, people of faith have a choice. We can ignore the advice of infectious disease experts, put our desires above what’s best for the most vulnerable among us, hoard and pretend we can pray the virus away without engaging in concrete actions in the world. Or we can take this pandemic seriously, and we can be the best of humanity.
We can demonstrate the love for neighbor (whether next door or in China or South Korea or Italy) Jesus advocated, and we can act as the beloved community we’re called to be.
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