Surely it was a bad sign when they put television screens on gas pumps. Americans have become so unable to withstand even a minute of silence that now advertisers use the relative respite of pumping gasoline to sell more products. There can be no people in the universe more impatient and driven to distraction than those in our culture.
Not that we needed televisions on gas pumps to tell us that. I check my phone more than 100 times a day, and not because I expect to see anything. Stoplight – check phone. Lull in conversation – check phone. Free throws in my child’s basketball game – check phone.
No thought can be sustained, no reverie maintained. Both the little idol of distraction in my pocket and the allure of the marketer invite me to consider what I lack. They remind me of my dissatisfaction with myself, a self that can be actualized through more consumption.
Thank God for the church, then, as a place that promotes being still. Worship services, at least under the guise of capitalist logic, are pointless. (Here is a wise essay from Melissa Florer-Bixler on why that is a good thing.) They never get us anywhere, with the possible exception that they create people who can sit still for an hour or so without demanding to be entertained.
“COVID-19 is an apocalyptic event, unveiling the blood at the roots of this sin-sick society.”
In the church’s worship, nothing is produced; no marketable good is manufactured. Money is involved, but at our best Christians problematize money as something more likely than not to be a false god. We encourage each other to give it away, even if we do not always redistribute the offerings with perfect faithfulness. And in the most important moments, for me, we wait in grief and lament, even while acknowledging that there is nothing we can do to fix the world.
Churches have been deemed unnecessary for capitalist production, but there are numerous people that society relies on as essential in our economy. Among them are farm workers, grocery clerks, delivery services personnel and hospital staff. (One of the coming reckonings in this country is the necessity of paying all of those people as though they are in fact essential.)
For people outside those industries, though, and for those with the fortune of good health in a troubling pandemic, this moment has created a rare opening – a sustained pause to producing and consuming under the rigor of capitalism’s demands. For a few moments we get to enjoy boredom, that most precious of resources. We can sit on our front porches and daydream about what the world might be.
But you cannot imagine the world as it might be unless you are willing to look without flinching at the world as it is. COVID-19 is an apocalyptic event, unveiling the blood at the roots of this sin-sick society. The past several days have revealed the deep inequities woven into the racial fabric of American being:
- In Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago, black people are 23% of the population and 70% of COVID-19 deaths.
- Michigan is 14% Black, but 35% of infections and 40% of deaths.
- In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, black people are 26% of the population and 81% of the deaths.
- In Louisiana, black people are 32% of the population and account for more than 70% of deaths.
- In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (home of Charlotte, where my family lives), black people are 33% of the population and more than 45% of infections.
The novel coronavirus may not be racist, but the healthcare system that treats it is. And so are the insurance system that rations care by income, the food system that deserts, the housing system that evicts, the carceral system that locks away, the banking system that redlines, the economic system that hoards and the education system that segregates.
A single death by COVID-19 is a tragedy. Such tragedies will affect many individuals who will be mourned by families and loved ones, often from a distance, adding to the cruelty. The people who die will come from every walk of life in every town in the country. But in aggregate, the pattern shows now and will continue to show that deaths by the disease are political deaths – ones set into motion by racism and oppression. Lives of mothers and fathers, siblings and children, beloved aunts and uncles and cousins, are ending prematurely because the politicians and the money traders need what they have always needed: someone to die for the economy.
“This moment has created a rare opening – a sustained pause to producing and consuming under the rigor of capitalism’s demands.”
In a racist society, black and indigenous people will be over-represented in those deaths. But race will not be the only factor. Many of those who die will be employees of every race termed “essential” while they go to work but treated as disposable by their bosses.
This week, many Christians around the world are recalling another politically motivated death. As the events around him began to unfold, Jesus found a place to be alone and in silence. He went to a garden called Gethsemane to meditate. He agonized over the coming moments. A few friends went with him. Jesus tucked himself into a private corner of the garden and asked them to stay awake for his protection. “Watch with me,” he said.
But the friends could not do it. In the moments where they most needed to be people who could sustain a long night of caring for their beloved, they fell asleep. They were not prepared for the grave injustice that took place because they could not bear the hard work of waking up and staying awake to what was happening around them.
What happens on the other side of that night, improbably, is the remaking of the world. It is the denial of Empire’s power to wield death as a final weapon. It is the victory of Love over domination. But the Good News cannot be rushed. Between Gethsemane and the empty tomb stand the darkness of Good Friday and the bleak silence of Holy Saturday.
In other words, there is still a long night to remain awake through. This is prime time for a people who have practiced being patient and still with grief long enough to make generative use of it. No thing has to be fixed, nothing produced or sold; instead, the void can become a canvas. What opens from the fathomless pit of grief is the space to reimagine the world, stunning in its beauty and shocking in its gentleness; a world radiant with light.
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