I have said once or twice that the past year and its problems are many things – stressful, harmful, dreadful, painful – but they have not been unprecedented. Every corner of the world has experienced a pandemic in its history. Why else is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse identified as Pestilence, even though that is one of the attributes of the Fourth Horseman, Death, in Revelation 6:7?
Hawai’i in the 19th century endured so many waves of disease that leaders despaired of the survival of their people. We have frequently compared the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to the influenza pandemic of 1918. Just a few years earlier, however, the United States had suffered an outbreak of actual bubonic plague in San Francisco. The five years of 1900 – 1904 included the political obstruction, outright racism, and unnecessary death we have known in 2020. There is a great video about the San Francisco plague.
Likewise we have known domestic turmoil, political polarization, and racial protest before. I wince every time these things are called “unprecedented” in a nation that fought a civil war, one which took the lives of more combatants than have died in all the other wars we have fought before or since: combined.
These are not unprecedented times. We call them such because we did not learn from the times before.
What should we learn from 2020?
Presence is Crucial and Irreplaceable
2020 brought great hardship: rising and falling and re-rising tides of illness, fear, poverty, death, and grief. Human beings aid one another in their need in a variety of ways. Nearly all of them begin with the simple gift of presence.
Is someone ill? Family and medical professional caretakers begin their treatment with presence. Is someone afraid? Comfort begins with presence. Does someone need food or shelter or housing? The first step is someone being present to their need. Is someone dying? We offer them presence. Does someone mourn? We make ourselves present.
Presence has been a risk factor in a pandemic. Actions we intended to bless have furthered the course of the curse.
Knowing this, we have drawn away from one another at great cost. Mental health statistics of anxiety disorders have climbed through the year. Holidays have brought a layer of sadness – even more than usual – to their invitations to celebration. For me, the great and terrible marker has been the aching gap of funerals. We grieve alone, but we comfort one another together. Ten people spaced apart in a big room, visibly holding themselves away from embraces, are starved for comfort.
We have tried to use technologies to fill the gaps with some success. There is relief to seeing the smiling unmasked faces on the computer screen or hearing the voices over the telephone. It makes things brighter. It is not, however, the same experience as physical presence. It has its strengths, but it is not the same.
Some day, I hope, we can be present to one another safely. What I hope we learn is to value that time in accordance with its actual surpassing worth.
Expertise and Competence Matter
There is a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Many people are smart. They can create things. They can calculate things. They can learn things. They can understand things.
Their ability to understand things – and create and calculate – depends a great deal on what they have actually learned. Without a base of knowledge, their understandings, calculations, and creations simply collapse in the face of cold, hard reality.
Examples of intelligence presuming expertise in the absence of knowledge and training are rife in 2020. In the United States, individuals contradicting experts had far too much sway, far too much authority, far too much power. The result has been that this nation has led the world in infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. We chose our unstudied ignorance over the knowledge of those who had studied. In a few cases those who did so paid the ultimate price. In more cases, other people paid the ultimate price.
Experts do not know everything, particularly when a situation like an emerging virus… emerges. Early statements from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization advised caution because of what they did not know. The researchers and scientists worked to learn about the new pathogen. Their success can be seen with the incredibly swift production of safe and effective vaccines. The point is that they did not quite start “from scratch.” They started with a knowledge of similar viruses, of tools to assess its characteristics, and for that matter with centuries of experience now that vaccines can work.
I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m probably bright enough that I could have done it… after spending years to learn the science of virology. I am no end grateful that others had already done that.
Can we learn to take expertise, training, and knowledge more seriously?
John Calvin… May Have Been Right
My theological tradition’s branch grows from the genius of John Calvin. He was a French Protestant who, in Geneva, Switzerland, developed the ideas which became the Reformed strain of Protestantism. Christianity in general holds to a doctrine of the inherent sinfulness of human beings. Calvin’s phrase expressed a somewhat bleaker view. He called it “total depravity.” “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace… Therefore simply to will is of man; to will ill, of a corrupt nature; to will well, of grace.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.3.5)
Well. That’s depressing.
It has also been widely illustrated by human action in 2020.
Darker skin color has been strongly associated with COVID-19 illness and death in 2020, mirroring the experiences people of color have had with the criminal system, employment system, housing system, and government system. Official violence has continued to receive unmerited protection and even explicit encouragement from some elected leaders. Political leaders ordered an assault on Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the White House, one carried out with well-documented brutality. They cleared a lane to a church from which their tear gas (tear gas is forbidden in war by international treaty) had driven ordained and lay staff from a medical station – a healing ministry – so that one politician could hold a Bible for the cameras.
Sexist and racist speech has re-emerged as “acceptable,” with those employing them using the tattered excuse that “they didn’t mean to offend,” as if motive really changed the impact of their words and deeds. As the year ended, a suicide bomber detonated a recreational vehicle filled with explosive in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Some days went by before there could be agreement that it would be labeled a “terrorist” act. Could it be because he had been male and white?
Well. That’s depressing.
I have spent most of my ministry career working theologically at the more generous end of the doctrine of Original Sin. I have tended to de-emphasize the Pauline and Augustinian obsession with sexuality (though I note that people hurt one another terribly through their sexuality); I have tended to assume good motives for people (despite the clear harm they inflict); I have tended to a theory that circumstance, not nature, underlies the impossibility of perfection (despite the evidence that evil acts tend to be done out of all sorts of circumstances). Now I have to re-think this. It’s not that people behave worse than I thought. I’ve studied enough history to know differently. It’s that people persist in their evil, that they justify their evil, that they embrace it in the face of ethical teaching, new information, the guidance of their religion, and even their own pious statements to the contrary.
It’s one thing to read of these things. It’s another to see them and hear them day after day.
Total depravity indeed.
I have no interest in turning to a theology in which there is no worth to the human soul – among other things, it is clear that God puts great value in human beings. Calvin knew this, too. “Yet God would not have us forget our original nobility, which he had bestowed upon our father Adam, and which ought truly to arouse in us a zeal for righteousness and goodness… so that sick of our miserable lot we groan, and in groaning we sigh for that lost worthiness. But when we say that man ought to see nothing in himself to cause elation, we mean that he has nothing to rely on to make him proud.” (Institutes 2.1.3)
I hope we learn more humility about ourselves and our rectitude from 2020. I hope we discard the easy dualism that divides the world into Good People (that begins with Me) and Bad People. I hope we can consider not just that I Might Be Wrong but that They Might Be Right. I hope we can learn that others have paid a price for our comfort that we never asked but have been loathe to relieve.
May we learn humility.
The Failure of Christianity
There are so many ways to take that phrase. Do I mean that Christianity has failed to assert its power against the coercion of the State? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to pray away the pandemic? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to retain the loyalty (and attendance) of its members? Do I mean that Christianity has failed to convert the world to Christ?
No. I mean that Christianity has failed to live up to the standards of its Founder or of its God.
Christians this year have spent too much time and energy in maintaining political and social power. The Christian voices summoning up care and compassion have been soft by comparison. Christian voices have issued calls for violence in the assertion of privilege. Christian tongues have invoked racial bias, sexist dogma, and homophobic prejudice. Christian guidance has encouraged deadly folly in the name of Jesus. Christian leadership has ignored the vulnerability of many for the benefit of a few.
As the year ended, for heaven’s sake, the Wall Street Journal published two opinion pieces. One argued in explicitly sexist terms that a woman’s own achievements should be disregarded in favor of the title conferred by her husband’s office. Translation: Courtesy and respect for education and accomplishment bow to sexism and “I’ll call you anything I care to” privileged rudeness. Another asserted the virtue of Ebenezer Scrooge (yes, the one from “A Christmas Carol”), praising his thrift and diligence as the foundation of the feast. Translation: Greed is good.
Neither article survives ethical review with a Christian moral lens. Both were written in a culture that proclaims its Christianity. Christianity failed to guide either one.
Christianity seems to have left Christlike-ness behind.
As 2021 begins, I hope we learn to discover Christlike-ness. I hope we can learn, despite total depravity, to encourage one another in doing better today than we did yesterday. I hope we can learn, in short, to repent, to reform, and to renew ourselves and our faith.
I hope we learn.