By PASTOR RICK FRY
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended everyone’s best-laid plans for 2020, and perhaps beyond. It is truly global in scope. It is paradoxically a phenomenon that is isolating us from one another, while at the same time drawing the world together under a common threat.
I’ve followed various news reports of the lessons people are drawing from this pandemic. Particularly, as a pastor, I’ve heard how God is trying to wake us up or get our attention in some way through COVID-19. If this pandemic teaches us to appreciate what we have and develop a greater gratitude for family and life itself, that would be great. I also hope and pray by a combination of vigorous research and God’s grace that medical researchers find a vaccine quickly to prevent further loss of life.
However, the belief that God is somehow responsible for sending this virus to the world troubles me. Recently, Christians observed Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Christians celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The people who celebrated his entry may have hoped that he was going to establish an earthly kingdom that would vanquish their oppression and suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire.
But one of the ironies was that people drew the wrong lessons about Jesus’ intentions. Jesus came with a radical message of what our collective life could be like lived under the merciful reign of God’s kingdom. And the human response, particularly among the religious and political elite, was to kill him in one of the most brutal and humiliating ways possible through crucifixion.
With this in mind, what if the lessons to be learned about this pandemic are not about God, but about ourselves? For example, what if this pandemic exposes with greater clarity the problems of income inequality and the wide disparity of medical access in the United States? People in working class professions such as farm laborers, grocery store workers, or bus drivers are more susceptible to infection from COVID-19 than wealthier people. To compound the dilemma, the working poor and many communities of color have less access to medical care and treatment than wealthier or predominately white communities.
Or consider detained asylum seekers, the incarcerated and the homeless. Those who are imprisoned in crowded and unsanitary conditions in for-profit detention centers are much more vulnerable to infection, as are homeless communities with little access to health care.
Along with these disparities, this pandemic is revealing our interconnectedness with all people. Just a short few months ago, it was easy to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals. Now we know how vulnerable we are. It has made us think deeper about our own mortality. This pandemic shows us that our wellbeing is tied to the wellbeing of our neighbor, of the homeless and those incarcerated, of those in other nations who we will never meet or know. It has shown us that we are deeply intertwined with every human being in the world, in beautiful and startling ways we can barely begin to imagine.
None of us can predict the ways in which the world will change as a result of the COVID-19. It has led to massive job loss and economic devastation. We also see the negative aspects play out in acts of racism toward Asian-Americans, or a generalized social unrest geared toward scapegoating the most vulnerable communities. Given these grim realities, it seems naïve to hope in a greater solidarity that comes together to combat income and racial inequalities.
However, this crisis gives communities of faith an opportunity to bear witness to the deep intuition we hold about the ultimate purpose and destiny of humanity. What if we come to recognize that we are all deeply interconnected and created for one another? What if we come to realize how closely our fate is bound together with the whole world, that none of us are truly safe until all can live in safety and flourish? What if we learn to care more deeply for the wellbeing of people we don’t know, or even view with suspicion, knowing that our own welfare and security it tied to their own wellbeing?
Perhaps these lessons will inspire us to work toward creating a more just and merciful nation that uses its freedoms not for its own self-indulgence, but for the well-being and care of the most vulnerable individuals and populations among us.
May our hearts and minds be opened to such a radical and magnanimous transformation.
— Rick Fry is pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church in Allied Gardens.