If you often find yourself uninspired by online church services, yelling at the nightly news on TV or just generally cranky over all the unjustified optimism about reopening the United States economy, this is for you. Rather than serving up more sunniness and positivity, I offer a lament.
As I’ve watched Christians leap to Bible verses about hope and share words of support and cheer on social media, I have at times felt like the Eastertide equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge. Bah, humbug! I am not encouraged by images of neighborhoods cheering healthcare workers or inspirational stories about recovery from the virus. Upbeat Facebook posts just annoy me. I don’t want to have a virtual cocktail hour huddled with others around our computer screens or listen to another church choir sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while individually sheltering in place.
“We need to mourn and rage and contemplate what led us to this moment.”
I have been trying over the last month to make sense of my reaction, my absolute rejection of a seemingly endless number of attempts to help me feel better about the situation in our world. I’ve realized that in reaching for hope beyond the pandemic, we may be trying to avoid the hard step in between pandemic and normalcy (whatever that becomes) – namely, grief. Raw, unadulterated grief and, at least for me, its attendant rage.
The scope of devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States was largely preventable. If we had been blessed with competent, responsible and empathetic leadership in the White House, if President Donald Trump and his administration had acted six weeks sooner (or even one week sooner), if we had universal healthcare, if we had a guaranteed minimum income and living wages, if our political leaders had listened to the scientists and pandemic experts – the horrific levels of death and disaster could have been mitigated.
Instead, we must now live with the consequences of our collective choices.
Before we rush to hope, I think we first need to sit for a while in the ashes. We need to mourn and rage and contemplate what led us to this moment.
We know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects the most vulnerable. We also know it has disproportionately spread in communities of color. The impact of the novel coronavirus is yet another consequence of our long national history of white supremacy.
We know that the poor and economically vulnerable feel most deeply the economic impact of the pandemic. This is the consequence of our embrace of an unbridled capitalism that has left so many people behind even as it has multiplied the vast wealth of a few.
We know the U.S. government knew about the pandemic as early as January when the World Health Organization sent out alerts, and yet the president chose to minimize the risk, to suggest any criticism of his refusal to act was a Democratic hoax and eventually to offer up the WHO as a scapegoat in a stunning act of cynicism and cruelty. This is the consequence of Americans’ choice to elect a greedy, selfish, incompetent and amoral narcissist who over the past month has been more concerned with the ratings for his daily televised press briefings than the health and welfare of the citizens he was elected to serve and to protect – especially those who are the most vulnerable.
We know that a faction of the evangelical church has made things worse by defying stay-at-home orders and minimizing the danger of the virus, as if all we need to do is pray the pandemic away. This is the consequence of the choice of a bloc of white evangelical leaders and voters to become nothing more than a wing of the Republican Party and to sell its soul to the cult of Trumpism.
So, before we move to hope, we need to sit for a while in the ashes of democracy and the evangelical church.
To be clear, I’m not pondering the why of all this suffering. I’m not asking why bad things happen. I’ve come to terms with the intellectual question of human suffering. Sometimes bad things happen because we live in a world with earthquakes and tornadoes and deadly viruses. Bad things also happen because people commit evil acts.
This pandemic is not a theological crisis. It’s a moral one. And we would do well in this moment to take the prophet Jeremiah’s advice: “Because of this put on sackcloth, lament and howl” (4:8, NRSV).
“Sometimes, despite our best efforts, evil wins. Perhaps for now we should just sit with that a while.”
We need to mourn. We can’t just jump right to hope. People are dead. In the United States alone, over 60,000 – SIXTY THOUSAND – people have died from confirmed cases of the coronavirus, a monstrous figure that is both certain to be higher than the reported total and that will continue to climb. Like Job’s children, they are dead, and new children don’t make up for the ones who died.
We can’t gloss over their suffering or their families’ suffering as if death is not real. Sometimes Christians treat death that way. They deal with their grief by jumping to resurrection without making space to mourn real loss. In this pandemic people have died needlessly, especially those who were already marginalized and vulnerable – the very people for whom Jesus had greatest compassion.
We need to sit with that loss and its utter futility. So many did not have to die. This is the consequence of our choices.
We also need to mourn that so many people in the U.S. think vulnerable people are dispensable for the sake of the economy. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, an outspoken evangelical, suggested grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy. A few weeks later, he underscored his stance, saying, “there are more important things than living.”
We must mourn who we have become as a culture. Mary Oliver warned us in her poem, “Of the Empire”:
We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
As a culture and a nation, we are mean – and a number of conservative Christians are leading the pack in meanness, particularly in the face of COVID-19. R.R. Reno of the conservative Christian website, “First Things,” warns about the “sentimentalism” of trying to save lives. “There are many things more precious than life…. There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.”
I can’t imagine that the biblical notion of laying down your life for your friends includes laying it down for the capitalist economy.
I recognize that many progressive Christians have tried to do the right things. We’ve voted our convictions, written our legislators, protested, stayed at home, worn masks and donated to churches, nonprofits like Feeding America and other organizations trying to help the most vulnerable. Perhaps for us, that makes our grief and rage even greater. No wonder we often feel hopeless.
Some might find this lament to be unchristian in its despair and fury. I think sometimes Christians believe that it’s not OK for us to mourn and be furious. We’re supposed to be positive and optimistic, to live in the hope of the resurrection. But even Jesus grieved at Gethsemane and on the cross. We gloss over that sometimes. We think Jesus knew the end of the story and so somehow his suffering wasn’t quite real. But I think when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” there was no hope, no resurrection in his heart and mind. There was overwhelming grief and doubt and suffering.
“I can’t imagine that the biblical notion of laying down your life for your friends includes laying it down for the capitalist economy.”
Rather than jumping right to hope and resurrection, I think we would do well to follow the advice of the prophets and “take up a lamentation.” Or the poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Suffering and death are not always meaningful. Sometimes it’s just death; sometimes it’s unjust, unnecessary and unwarranted.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, evil wins. Perhaps for now we should just sit with that a while in sackcloth and ashes.
I’ll get to hope. I’ll get to resistance and radical love and a vision of God’s beloved community to come. But not today. Today I just need to sit here and mourn.
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