As a psychotherapist specializing in marriage and family therapy, one of the things I’m hearing with regularity not only from my patients, but from friends and family members as well, is how much the coronavirus has laid bare our collective dependency upon the stock market as THE measure of national and individual well-being.
This comes out colloquially as “We can’t go on like this for much longer; otherwise the economy will never recover” or more chillingly from Oprah’s favorite excrement expert, Dr. Oz:
“We need our mojo back. Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble. I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality … it might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”
Here in East Tennessee, after suffering the tragic loss of nine members of our local community to suicide in the first two weeks of self-isolation, it did not take our county mayor long to make a (soon-to-be-dispelled) connection between these untimely deaths and the shuttering of our local economy:
“Before COVID-19, the U.S. had record low unemployment, so we expect to see a surge in suicides, something we are already experiencing at our Knox County Regional Forensic Center. That number (nine suicides) is completely shocking and makes me wonder if what we are doing now is really the best approach.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic brings our collective fidelity to human sacrifice starkly into view, but it did not create it.”
In this kind of landscape – with more than 50,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the United States and an estimated 26 million people laid off or furloughed since mid-March – it’s nearly impossible to assert confidently that one life matters, and that this one valuable life belongs to you and me and to people decidedly unlike either you or me. Despite the hyper-individualistic American ethos, asserting the inherent sacredness of a person’s worth divorced from their assets or future earning potential is an inherently theological, if not deeply prophetic, pronouncement – especially when this worthiness sacrifices the supposed short-term and long-term flourishing of “the Market.”
In the face of economic collapse, Americans are being invited to become sacrificially collectivist in their willingness to strap life, limb and vulnerable loved ones to the altar of our hyperventilating economy for the good of “everyone” (although, again, the “everyone” being talked about here seems decidedly unclear).
Which reminds me of something God thunders in Jeremiah upon discovering that the people of Judah had been sacrificing their children as a way of securing bountiful harvests, favorable outcomes in tribal disputes or the end of an enduring drought:
“For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight; … they go on building the high place of Topheth … to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire – which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when … the corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and … the land shall become a waste” (7:31-34, NRSV).
When our national religion mandates that thousands of people patriotically perish in order to resurrect our nation’s unalienable right to Shrimpfests and Taco Tuesdays or aimlessly spending $35 dollars at T.J. Maxx or Nordstrom Rack, we are engaging in an ancient and detestable barbarism parading as devotion, faithfulness and bravery. It isn’t brave to sacrifice other people who aren’t like you to reopen the economy, just like it isn’t brave to consign other people who aren’t like you to the fires of hell, or a snaking bread line, or a crumbling school or a war zone pretending to be a neighborhood in which you would never venture.
The COVID-19 pandemic brings our collective fidelity to human sacrifice starkly into view, but it did not create it. Millions of Americans live every day without access to affordable healthcare (including mental healthcare), quality educational opportunities for their children and the right to a living wage due to the religious belief that somehow the lives of wealthier Americans reflect an inherent worthiness our most impoverished and reeling (or, frankly, squarely middle class) communities do not.
Which is why the Easter season (at its most historically orthodox) is such a prophetic interruption of how religion typically functions in America. Easter radically asserts the counterintuitive worthiness of all people by spreading the good news of a God who refuses to sacrifice anyone but God’s self (in the image of Jesus) in an effort to bring about our broken world’s salvation.
“Refusing to save ‘our American way of life’ by sacrificing ourselves and others during a global pandemic is a deeply Christian response to a world in need of resurrection.”
So, when you and I, and people who are decidedly unlike either of us, choose to stop internalizing the anxious pressure of an economic system that endlessly demands more and more from us by literally doing nothing but surviving in our homes, we aren’t just practicing “self-care.” We are undertaking a subversive act of political and theological resistance in the name of this self-sacrificing God.
Not answering email, or putting in a full eight hours, or becoming a “brand” on social media, or being our best selves when our children’s education has been abandoned by their school systems, or our own mental, physical and spiritual health buckling under the weight of existence isn’t an act of selfish laziness or fearful withdrawal; it is an act of prophetic resistance to a moment not fit for human habitation.
Refusing to save “our American way of life” by sacrificing ourselves and others during a global pandemic, even after it begins to wane, is a deeply Christian response to a world in need of resurrection. Because our God, the Christian one and not the one who goes by “Mammon,” dies for the world, rather than putting the world (and its most vulnerable) to death as a way of saving itself.
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