Being a Light Without Contributing to the Noise

Recently, a pastor said, “If some place is really dark, then you need to be the light.” He was talking about social media. Another pastor said, also about social media: “These are people who mean to do a lot of good—whether they’re on the right or the left politically, it doesn’t matter—but they’re just contributing to the noise, and it grieves my heart.” Both pastors are my friends, but it sounds like they’re saying completely opposite things. What to do?

Then there’s the classic Bonhoeffer quote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I’ve repeated some version of “silence is complicity” to explain why I enter the fray on social media, like when I speak out against personal and systemic racism or what I have viewed for four years as the horrors of the Trump presidency. Then last week, I listened to a well-known evangelical, whose current theology and political ideology I find abhorrent, claim the Bonhoeffer mantle to explain why he continues to speak out about his belief that the election was stolen from Trump because of widespread election fraud- which DID NOT happen. I feel like we’re living in alternate universes when people at opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum invoke the same Bonhoeffer quote to explain themselves.

In fact, almost exactly three years ago, I published a blog post called Alternate Universes. Near the end of that post, I said, “The problem with living in alternate universes is that it’s difficult to talk to each other.” And it has become even more difficult in recent weeks as we transition to a new administration.

If I want to “be the light” on social media, as my pastor friend put it, how do I do that? When my Facebook friends and I can’t agree on basic facts, such as the truth about who got the most votes in the recent presidential election or the truth about who was involved in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building, how in the world can we talk to each other? I wonder how people I know to be intelligent, generous, kind, and morally upright in their personal lives can possibly believe all kinds of conspiracy theories of the Q-Anon variety. I’m sure they wonder the same things about me, because when I’ve tried to fact-check from reputable and non-partisan sources I’ve used for a long time, they’ve called me “deceived,” discredited the fact-checkers, told me not to trust my media sources, and in one case even blocked me. What good does it do to keep trying to convince them, and what good does it do for them to keep trying to convince me?

For more than 40 years, I’ve worked within the church context to promote peace and nonviolence and social justice, most often by my writing and editorial work. I have felt compelled (or “called,” in Christian language) to use whatever writing and editorial skills I have to speak out. We all have our gifts, and if writing is one of mine, shouldn’t I use it to speak out on behalf of what I believe is true and right and against those things I believe are false and wrong, especially when real people’s lives and well-being are at stake?

Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a book for the Brethren in Christ Church called Perspectives on Social Issues.” In the preface I said, “I’ve been extremely conscious of how little I know and how inadequately I myself measure up to what I’m calling others to do. I feel somewhat like Paul in Romans 7: ‘I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.’ I know what’s right and what I should do, but it is often difficult and costly.”

More than 20 years ago, when I wrote the chapter on the “Pursuing Peace” core value for Focusing Our Faith: Brethren in Christ Core Values, I ended the chapter with this confession:

Pursuing peace . . . is a high value for me and one that I have worked at all of my adult life because I believe in the deepest core of my being that God calls Christians to peacemaking. Having said that, I am also painfully aware that I have not always acted as though I believe it; I have not always practiced forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation. . . . [B]y choosing the word “pursuing” to describe what we want to do about peace, we are acknowledging that it is a continuous activity. We are always going after or chasing peace. Sometime peace is elusive, sometimes there are complications, sometimes there are obstacles to overcome. Maybe we will never capture peace, but we are always pursuing, always following after Christ, who indeed is our peace. . . .

Those confessions still stand, and the realities of my own shortcomings and imperfections continue to haunt me as I speak out on social media in ways that frustrate and anger others who disagree with me. I ask myself: Am I engaging in the same kind of behavior that I criticize in others? How can I speak the truth as I understand it and challenge others’ thinking while also being willing to consider other truth, other perspectives? What might I be missing? How can I speak out forthrightly but also with humility, compassion, understanding, respect, and love for those with whom I disagree strenuously? Is it arrogant of me to think that I can in fact “be a light”? What is truth anyway?

Social media (in my case, Facebook because it’s the only platform I use regularly) can be a force for good. I enjoy the connections with family members, close friends, former colleagues, acquaintances – learning about their lives and seeing the photos they post. I appreciate friends who are careful thinkers and who use Facebook to challenge and inspire others. I am grateful to be part of several private groups where we can support one another and feel safe to discuss what’s on our minds. I like having a way to share this blog with others who might not otherwise see it. I like being able to follow a number of individuals and reputable news outlets that offer a variety of perspectives on current events and provide links to other sources of information. I am grateful for a platform that allows organizations “free” advertising by way of their Facebook pages.

But it must be said: social media can also be awful, bringing out the absolute worst in human behavior. I ask myself regularly: What is wrong with people?

I think about something else I wrote awhile back: “Speaking Truth With Words That Give Grace.” The title collapses several verses at the end of Ephesians 4. I concluded with these words:

I confess that many many times over the years I have struggled with “speaking truth” . . . .  I have remained silent when I should have spoken up (or written something). I have also struggled with the grace part, as I feel anything but full of grace for those whose words and actions I abhor or cannot support. Nevertheless, despite my failures, speaking truth with words that give grace remains a goal for the way I want to approach my life.

I take seriously my pastor friend’s challenge to “be the light” on social media, and I want to avoid what my other pastor friend said about many social media posts just “contributing to the noise.” Being a light and speaking truth without contributing to the noise is my goal. But is it possible?

 

 

 

The Angel Who Lost Her Starch

The angel atop our Christmas tree on Mulberry Street in Harrisburg, 1980s. Note Kitty lying in front of the tree!

In the 1980s, when I was home with young kids, I learned how to crochet. One of the few projects I completed was an angel intended as a Christmas tree topper. She is about 10 inches tall, and was crocheted in at least seven pieces – body/skirt, two arms, cape, head, halo, and wings – and then sewn together, starched, and stuffed. I was proud of having successfully made something crafty that turned out like the picture on the pattern. The angel graced the top of our Christmas tree for many years. 

Exactly when we stopped putting her on top of the tree, I can’t remember, but I’m guessing I decided at some point that she was beginning to look a little ragged, plus she required a tree that had one straight tall spire on which she could stand. We replaced her on the tree with a star that didn’t need one tall spire, but she stayed with the rest of the Christmas decorations and I found a new spot for her on the fireplace mantle. Every year, though, when the Christmas decorations come out and I reach into the box where she spends most of her year, I wonder, “Should I put her out, or is it time for her to retire?” She looks worn, a little dingy, and way past her prime.

But every year when I take her out of the box, I also marvel at what I accomplished in making her. I had learned how to crochet in adulthood and only did it for a short time (maybe two or three years?), so apparently the skill didn’t stick. In contrast, I learned to knit when I was a child (from my mother who was a very skilled knitter), knit off and on for quite a few years, put knitting aside for decades, and then picked it up again about 15 years ago. Knitting was easy to do again; patterns make sense, and I have even learned techniques I never used in my previous knitting lives. Crocheting, on the other hand, is still something of a mystery, except for a basic chain stitch and edging around something like a blanket. Even if I had the pattern for the angel, I don’t think I would be able to figure out how to make another one.

The view from the couch of the angel on the mantle above the fireplace, Holly Drive, 2020.

Is there a metaphor somewhere in this story? I have an aging angel who has lost her starch. Her wings are drooping. There are brown smudges on her face. Her stuffing is lumpy. She has been demoted from her lofty perch all alone on top of the centerpiece of our Christmas decorations to a spot on the mantle with other angels and the nutcracker. 

My angel’s condition is something I think people my age can relate to. We’re aging and past our prime. We’ve lost some of our starch; we have parts that droop and/or are lumpy; we have brown age spots and other blemishes that didn’t used to be there. Maybe we’ve been demoted from a place or position of prominence to something that makes us feel less worthwhile or useful. 

On the other hand, my angel is symbolic of a goal I accomplished that I’m proud of, even if I wonder now how I did it. I have to get her out of the box and display her every year because I love her and she represents something important in my life. She reminds me that even if I can’t do everything I used to be able to do, I am still useful and have worth, albeit in different ways than in the past.

And as far as demotion goes, my angel now occupies a space where I see her every time I sit down to knit, write in my journal, watch TV, or read. Maybe she hasn’t been demoted at all; maybe she has actually been promoted and is far more more valuable now than she ever was when she graced the top of our tree. I love my angel who has lost her starch; we are aging together with dignity and reminding each other of our worth no matter how old we are.  

A Pre-Election Declaration

I don’t expect to change anything by this post, although that would be nice. I know I’m not saying anything that lots of people haven’t said before, often much more eloquently than I can. But I feel like I can’t stay silent; I have to speak my truth in my own way and take a stand for what I believe is right based on my own long- and deeply-held beliefs and convictions. I hope that those who disagree with me will understand and respect my desire to write what I believe. My apologies for the length, but it takes awhile to explain myself and get at least some of what I’ve been thinking out of my system.

A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I wrote a blog post, “Post-Election Angst,” expressing my feelings in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise election to the presidency. Rereading it almost four years later, I’m struck by how much it still resonates and how I still feel much of the angst I wrote about then. I also remember how one person told me that I should give Donald Trump a chance. Believe me, I have tried, and I have especially tried to understand why so many people, especially my white evangelical Christian friends and family members, voted for him and still support him.

However, it has seemed like every. single. day. he has said or done something horrible that completely overshadows whatever good thing he might have said or done–and many times there have multiple horrible things on a single day. Now in 2020, facing another Election Day in less than 50 days, I have to say that NOTHING he has done policy-wise that I can support (e.g., he signed the First Step Act for criminal justice reform, and there are some small steps toward possible peace in the Middle East) makes up for all the things he has done and said that confirm my original opposition to his presidency. Many others have compiled lists that I could just copy and paste, but here is my partial list of things that confirm my opposition to Trump, divided into three categories. It’s important to point out that I have observed most of the items directly from his own mouth or tweeting fingers, and not just by watching/reading/listening to “partisan pundits” on various media outlets. (You can skip or skim the lists to shorten your reading time!)

Personal behavior and character

  • Bullying, name-calling, and demeaning comments about people he doesn’t like or who have criticized him.
  • Attitude toward women: admitting with pride how he sexually assaults them (Access Hollywood tape); numerous affairs, including with a porn star while his current wife was home with a newborn; labeling any woman who criticizes him a “nasty woman” and more.
  • Racist and xenophobic speech and behavior: attitudes toward immigrants and refugees, comments about “&#$hole countries, “very fine people on both sides,” racial dog whistles about “law and order” and suburbs disappearing, defending white supremacists and nationalists.
  • Desire to get even, to seek revenge, always to fight back, and never to genuinely attempt understanding, forgiveness, or reconciliation.
  • Disregard for facts and truth (something like 20,000 documented falsehoods since taking office, many of which he keeps repeating over and over again). Put simply, he lies and lies and lies some more. Sometimes, I think he lies or obscures the truth deliberately, but often he is simply saying what is convenient for him and he doesn’t care whether it’s true or not.
  • Encouragement of violence against people who are opposed to him.
  • Narcissism: everything is always about him. He strikes me as a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder.
  • Lack of simple human empathy (a major symptom of narcissism) and compassion.
  • Inability to take personal responsibility for anything, but instead always blaming others.
  • An astounding level of hypocrisy, projection, and “whataboutism.” It’s almost a given that whenever Trump accuses someone else of what he considers wrongdoing, he’s describing his own behavior.
  • Constant fear-mongering.
  • Pitting people against each other and sowing division rather than unity – he has never really tried to be the president for all Americans, regardless of political ideology.

If he were my child or grandchild, I would not tolerate this kind of behavior. But he’s not a child; he’s the President of the United States, the so-called leader of the most powerful country in the world. As many have said, he is temperamentally unfit to be president and constantly demeans the office.

Policies

  • Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee language, actions and policies, such as the travel ban, zero-tolerance policy that separated children (even babies) from their parents at the border, drastically reducing the number of refugees and asylum-seekers accepted into the US, and characterizing many immigrants as criminals.
  • Rolling back all kinds of environmental protections, opening up land for more drilling of fossil fuels, not supporting renewable energy sources in meaningful ways, and paying very little attention to the serious existential threat posed by climate change (essentially denying its very existence).
  • Pulling out of important international agreements, like the Paris Climate Accord and Iranian Nuclear Deal, and undermining long-standing international alliances like NATO and the World Health Organization.
  • Not being able to lead the development of a national strategy to address the COVID-19 pandemic, even when he knew (and admitted on tape to Bob Woodward in early February) how contagious and infectious it is.
  • Passing a tax cut bill that primarily benefited the wealthy and added significantly to the deficit.

Undermining the Constitution, the rule of law, and democracy itself

  • Attacking the free press, and labeling everything that is critical of him as fake news; calling the press the “enemy of the people/state.”
  • Not allowing Congress to exercise its legitimate oversight role of the executive branch; stonewalling Congress and not allowing members of his administration to testify.
  • Refusing to release his tax returns, despite the 40-year practice of all presidents (and even many presidential candidates) and his own campaign promise to do so, and engaging in a protracted legal battle on multiple fronts to prevent them from being handed over. Hard not to wonder: What is he hiding?
  • Misusing the Attorney General and the Department of Justice for his own personal and political purposes – to get him and his friends off the hook for crimes they have or may have committed, to conduct investigations into his “political enemies.”
  • Obstructing justice (as outlined in the Mueller Report), and encouraging others to obstruct justice.
  • Using the powers of the presidency to try to get a foreign power to investigate his political opponent (“I want you to do me favor though”).
  • Sowing doubt about the integrity of the voting process by intimidating voters (threats to call in federal troops or local sheriffs to monitor polling places), warning about nearly non-existent voter fraud, and suggesting that mail-in ballots are especially vulnerable to fraud (despite the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and he himself votes by mail).
  • Suggesting that he won’t accept the outcome of the election unless he wins. If he loses, it must have been rigged. Arguably, his own voter suppression tactics and refusal to allow his administration to provide information to Congress and the public about Russian interference again in 2020 are attempts to rig the election for his own benefit.
  • Financial corruption: never fully divesting from his business interests, using taxpayer money to fund his trips to his own properties which make money for him, and so much more.
  • Using federal property and federal employees (against ethical practice and/or laws) for partisan politics, most egregiously when he gave his Republican National Convention acceptance speech at the White House.
  • Cozying up to dictators and showing an alarming propensity toward authoritarianism himself.
  • Exerting pressure on agencies like the CDC and the intelligence community to issue reports that match what he says publicly even if it’s against the facts and the science.

These lists are by no means exhaustive, but you get my point.

I know that some of my white evangelical Christian friends and family members are also uncomfortable with at least some of the items on my lists, but ultimately boil their support for Trump down to the single issue of abortion (and relatedly the appointment of conservative judges). I try to understand and respect their point of view, but even though I am personally against abortion, I cannot limit myself to that one issue when I consider a candidate. In this case, Trump’s so-called “pro-life” actions are belied by all the policies, character traits, and behaviors that are not pro-life, do not respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and do not protect and care for people who are vulnerable and marginalized. Being pro-life is so much more than being against abortion.

Recently, Brian McClaren – author, speaker, activist, and public theologian – wrote a four-part letter to his white Christian pro-life friends. I resonated strongly with the letter and found it a helpful articulation of much of my own point of view: Dear White Christian Pro-Life Friends.

The bottom line is that abortion is not a game-changer for me in choosing a candidate to support. I don’t want to live in a country where abortion is illegal, but where democracy is dying and authoritarianism is taking over, corrupt people run the government, anyone who disagrees or dares to speak up is demonized and/or silenced, and other people who are marginalized and vulnerable (whether because of race/ethnicity, economic status, gender, nationality, or something else) are not also cared for and protected. From the evidence I see, that is I where I am worried we are headed (or soon will be) with Trump as president.

I also know that some of my fellow Anabaptist Christians choose not to vote at all. I can also appreciate that viewpoint and am in complete agreement that God is not a Republican or a Democrat, and that the Kingdom of God will not come through any political party or candidate or policy. I believe we are called to follow Jesus no matter who is president. For more on this, read my post, Voting Matters, from October 2018.

But, at this moment in time with so much at stake, I agree with Shane Claibourne’s analysis in his recent piece, Jesus Isn’t on the Ballot. But that Doesn’t Mean Christians Can Opt Out. I’ll bring this LONG post to an end with an excerpt from his essay (bold emphasis is mine):

I will be voting on November 3. But I will not be looking for a political savior. I will be looking to do damage control. I’ll be trying to harness the principalities and powers of darkness that are hurting so many children of God. I’ll be voting for the politicians who I believe will do the least amount of damage to the world, and alleviate the most suffering for the most people. Though that may sound cynical, I think that’s an appropriate theological posture to have.
There are those who will opt out because they don’t want to “hold their noses” and vote and still others who refuse to choose between the “lesser of two evils.”
But opting out also has consequences. Privilege is being able choose which issues matter and which ones do not. Privilege is being able to opt out of decisions that have life and death consequences for other people. I believe this election is a referendum, and we have power that we can steward on November 3. I want to look back and say I did everything I could to stand against fear, and racism and violence . . . including vote. We need to use every tool in our toolbox.
As a Christian, I’m convinced that the issues – things like immigration and health care, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor – these things matter to God. Abortion also matters, but for too many of us it is the only issue we voted on. To be pro-life is not just to care about abortion but to also concern ourselves with other issues of life – ending the death penalty, standing against racism and police violence, welcoming immigrants, providing access to healthcare, ending gun violence, defunding the war budget, responding to the environmental crisis. We can’t forget that there are over 2000 verses in Scripture that talk about how we care for the poor and marginalized.
If you have a hard time voting for a particular candidate this year, perhaps consider what it means to vote for the people Jesus blessed. Vote for the poor. Vote for immigrants. Vote for families separated at our border and for the kids in cages. Vote for those without health care. Vote for those who are incarcerated and those who aren’t allowed to vote. Vote for the victims of violence. Vote for Breonna Taylor. Vote for Black Lives.
Vote for love. When we vote for love over fear, we can rest confidently that we voted our faith and put flesh on our prayers.

And so I will vote in the 2020 presidential election, and I will not vote for Donald Trump. 

On My Mind These Days

Making it easy for people to vote

Last year, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed and the governor signed a comprehensive election reform bill. One of the provisions of the bill was to allow absentee ballots without a well-defined reason (like travel or illness), the end result of which is that anyone can now vote by mail. The passage of this bill came just in time for the COVID-19 shutdown, resulting in a huge upsurge in people choosing to vote by mail in the June 2nd primary election.

My husband volunteers at the polls, and he chose to continue to do that again this time. However, I decided to apply for an absentee/mail-in ballot. I applied online, giving information about myself to verify my identity, and shortly after received an email confirming my application. Several days later, I received another email indicating that my application had been accepted and I could expect to receive my ballot in the mail within a few days. The ballot duly arrived with clear instructions for how to do it correctly so the ballot would be accepted. There were two envelopes enclosed: one with no identifying information on it in which to place the completed ballot, and one in which to place the envelope with the ballot. On the back of the outer envelope, there was a form to fill out, confirming my identity and requiring my signature. I filled out my ballot according to instructions, filled out the form on the back of the outer envelope, signed it, stamped it, and mailed it to our county board of elections. Several days later, I received a third email confirming that my ballot had been received and accepted. Had I wanted to, I could have applied to vote by mail from now on, but I chose not to exercise that option for now, because I still like physically going to the polls on Election Day. But it’s nice to know I can vote by mail if I want.

I describe this whole process to make the point that it was highly unlikely that fraud of any kind could have happened to my ballot. Of course, the possibility always exists, but I received three emails, confirmed my identity twice, and provided my signature which they could compare to the one they have on file from when I originally registered. Regardless of what many people (including the president himself) would have you believe, voter fraud – while it does exist – is not at all widespread. Saying it is widespread is dishonest and will likely result in some people not having as much access to the polls as they should. And of course, opposing vote-by-mail measures is just one of a variety of efforts to limit equal and easy access to voting.

If we truly value our democracy and the concept of one person-one vote, then why in the name of all that is right and good do so many go to such efforts to suppress the vote? Why would we not want to make it as easy as possible for all eligible people to vote? One obvious answer is that not everyone does in fact want to make it easy to vote, perhaps because they fear losing power or fear that the “wrong” people will vote or be elected. But that’s the way democracy should work: Everyone should be able to have equal ability to vote their preference, to have their choice(s) count, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the election. Elections do indeed have consequences, but that’s why we have regular elections to give everyone an opportunity either to make the same choice or to change direction.

Why it’s not helpful for a white person to say, “I am not a racist” 

Long ago, I realized that it is not up to me to decide whether I am a racist. I often want to say that I am not a racist, but I know enough about myself and the nature of racism to understand that even though I don’t want or intend to be racist, sometimes my words and actions have resulted in the perpetuation of systemic racism or racist policies. In his 2019 book, How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi says this:

What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy, as an racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask of racism. This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not . . . a pejorative. It is not the worst slur in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it.

I quote Kendi at some length because this is a point that bears repeating:

  1. When the president declares himself the “least racist person you will ever meet” but then doubles down on the dog-whistle language of “thugs” and “law and order,” he is not being actively antiracist.
  2. When a white person declares, “I am not a racist.” but isn’t interested in a conversation about white privilege and systemic racism, he or she is not being actively antiracist.
  3. When, just eight days after the brutal murder of George Floyd and while protests against police brutality and systemic racism are still going on, a white White House official says that law enforcement officials saw the problem, came together, fixed it, and the reforms have made our systems fairer, that person is minimizing the long-term and deeply-rooted nature of racism and acting as though it can be magically and quickly fixed.

An iconic photo

A few days before this photo of my granddaughter was taken, the streets in front of the White House were cleared of largely peaceful protests (using chemical irritants, flash bangs, and rubber bullets) just in time for the president to walk across the street to St. John’s Church where he posed for photos while awkwardly holding a Bible. (I can explain why this episode was contrary to my understanding of Christian faith and practice, but I won’t take the time here.)

This photo of my granddaughter is from a few days later in Philadelphia, where there had been protests that turned violent. My son-in-law Nes’s construction business was vandalized and his work van stolen, yet he and Dana and their three children participated in a prayer vigil near where it happened. It’s a neighborhood they care about deeply that has suffered much over many years. Military personnel were on hand to keep order, an unusual and unsettling sight (Dana said it felt a little like a military occupation.) Nes and Dana and the kids all dutifully wore masks (we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, after all!), but each of them attached a single word on a piece of paper to the front of the mask. Selena, my eight-year-old granddaughter, chose “love” for her word.

This photo feels iconic to me. There’s this sweet, innocent, and smiling eight-year-old child, with love taped to her face and radiating from her eyes. Behind her stands a military person in full combat gear beside his military vehicle. I don’t know what was in his heart, but he was likely under orders to stop any violence that might  break out (at a prayer vigil?!) in whatever way he could, including with more violence. And behind him is one of Philadelphia’s famous murals. You can’t see much of the mural, but what you can see shows two Black women engaged in some kind of collaborative community activity. Selena exudes love – redemptive love – and the mural focuses on community collaboration rather than violence to solve problems. The juxtaposition of the message on Selena’s mask with the heavily armed military presence feels jarring, especially against the mural backdrop of what this particular community strives to be – a place where people work together peacefully to be agents of reconciliation, hope, and healing. We need more people in this world showing love not just on their faces but by their actions.

No One Is An Island

Let me start by acknowledging the difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. More than two months into social distancing, stay-at-home restrictions (which are being lifted gradually), and the resulting historic economic meltdown, we are all understandably becoming impatient and eager to resume normal life, or whatever might pass for normal in the foreseeable future.

There are questions about how serious COVID-19 really is; whether the counts of cases and deaths are accurate, or inflated or under-counted; whether lockdowns have been necessary and/or effective; when and how full re-opening should occur. Further, I know that many people are in dire straits financially. Working from home while home-schooling one’s children is really hard. Being physically separated from people – especially other family members – is hard. Not being able to come and go when and where we like is getting old. Many people are suffering alone from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. We really can’t stay shut down forever. Meanwhile, however, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and confirmed deaths from COVID-19 keeps ticking upwards, and this week we passed the grim milestone of 100,000 confirmed deaths from the virus. It feels like any choice about how to move forward is fraught with pitfalls.

Then on top of everything else, this week yet another black man is murdered by white police, exposing yet again the awful 400-year-old original sin of systemic racism in this country.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social compacts and the common good, about how being able to survive on this planet and practice basic human decency amid our common humanity requires giving up some of our own desires and even rights for the sake of others.

Two pieces of literature coming out of seventeenth century England help put this into words.

Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Year of Wonders (2002), is set during the time of the plague (known as the Black Death) and based on the true story of a small village in Derbyshire in 1666. The plague entered the village when a tailor brought a bolt of infected fabric from London. The tailor became infected and died of the plague, and the town minister convinced the entire village to quarantine itself to prevent the plague from spreading to surrounding villages. Arrangements were made with the outside world for supplies to be dropped off at the town border, where villagers would pick them up.

For a year, the village self-quarantined; many people died horrible deaths from the plague, but they did not infect anyone outside their borders. Their deliberate act to self-quarantine was not so much to save themselves, but to protect others. They sacrificed their own comfort and safety to save others.

In the midst of our current pandemic, many people are sacrificing their own comfort and safety to save others (especially front-line health workers), but many are refusing to do something as simple as wear a mask or give up an in-person worship service to protect others.  

The second piece of relevant literature is John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which includes a number of meditations. In “Meditation XVII” is the well-known one-sentence paragraph in the image above.

Let me unpack the three parts of this sentence:

No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. No one is in this world alone. We are all part of each other, inextricably interconnected, no matter our skin color, race, or country of origin. The coronavirus began in China, but since it knows no borders, it spreads anywhere and everywhere unless the whole world works together to prevent it from spreading.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the loss, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends, or thine own were. When something bad happens to one person, it happens to everyone; we are all in some way less than we were. The suffering and death of people – whether by COVID-19 or kneeling on a man’s neck until you snuff the life out of him for no reason other than as a black man he might have deliberately tried to pass a counterfeit bill – are in some way our suffering and death, because we are all members of one human race.

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee. Any death affects me because I am also a human being. Because I am part of humanity, whenever another human being dies, a part of me also dies. Because I as a white person am part of one humanity, I am partly responsible for George Floyd’s death, and for the same reason, part of me died with him. Which part of me (or you) is responsible for this death or which part of me (or you) died on Monday when George Floyd was murdered?

For someone who thinks a lot about words, I feel like I have run out of words that adequately express the depth of my emotions about so much that is happening right now. This week has been particularly difficult, not only because of the increasing COVID-19 death toll and partisan rift over something as simple as wearing a mask, but also because of the murder of George Floyd.

I want everyone, especially my non-white family members and friends, to know that I am unequivocally opposed to the systemic racism that caused George Floyd’s death and so many black people before him. I may not always know what to say or do that doesn’t seem trite or inadequate – and quite likely I’ll do or say the wrong thing again (or not say or do anything), as I have unintentionally or out of my white privilege done or said (or not done or said) in the past. But please know that I want to do the right thing; I long for the justice and equal opportunity and treatment that have been denied to African-Americans for 400 years. It’s WAY past time for all of us to be intentional about naming and rooting out systemic racism. We absolutely must do so for the sake of our individual and national souls.

And it’s way past time for every individual to behave as though we realize that we are not on this earth alone; we don’t live or die alone. What I want individually may not be what’s best for all of us; what I have the right to do as an individual citizen may not always be in the best interest of others. No one is an island – not someone who is or is not infected with COVID-19 and not George Floyd or the man who killed him.

What happens to one happens to all of us.

 

For another take on this idea of the interconnectedness of everything, watch this commentary by Trevor Noah.