The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this country in ways that will take decades to understand and address. A year and a half into this historic time, the world is exhausted and operating on reserves with no clear end date in sight.
Over the past year, I have been reflecting on two incisive quotes from staff writers at The Atlantic, George Packer and Ed Young. The first is short and to the point. Packer said, “The coronavirus has revealed a sick and unequal society incapable of self-government.” As a scholar of Bible and religion, the idea of the pandemic acting as a catalyst, exposing the realities of our sick and unequal society, resonated with me. In scripture, God reveals and exposes truth about humanity in unorthodox ways. Throughout history, societies get locked into unhealthy and oppressive patterns and refuse to change. The Sovereign One reveals the true character of these nations. God uses nature, animals, disease, even corrupt neighboring nations to bring judgment. No one knows the mind of God or can anticipate the ways the divine will engage in the world. But, I cannot help wondering what broader role God is playing in these current events. Is God using the COVID-19 pandemic to expose America? If so, why?
The second quote is from Ed Young’s article titled, “Anatomy of an American Failure.” Young offers a harsh yet accurate critique of our crisis management.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in themoment, to truly fathom…Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages – immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise – it floundered.
We have and continue to mishandle this virus, at incredible cost. Much of the damage and loss we have faced was entirely preventable. It is both baffling and shameful. Much attention has been given to the failure of the government on all levels from federal to state and local. However, we all share a measure of blame. It is easy to blame others, especially politicians. It is much harder to examine ourselves and how we may have contributed to the chaos. It is painful to recognize the ways our behavior and response might have led to job loss, small business closures, the suffering of others, and even death. In hindsight, it is important to acknowledge that we all could have done better. We all could have been more selfless, gracious, and wise in our decisions as we navigated the challenges of the pandemic.
The Covid Pandemic Exposed America
The world has experienced staggering loss of life and the loss of our way of life. In the face of that loss, too many leaders and citizens were and are prioritizing petty partisan squabbles, trafficking in misinformation, and politicizing public health issues over saving lives and caring for others. We often lament the lack of civility today, but political scientists have been warning that we are becoming ungovernable. Over the past year, we saw that reality play out in disturbing ways.
2020 was a time of social upheaval. America’s demons – racism and deep social inequities linked to poverty – manifested on a grand scale. We all saw horrifying examples of how racism and poverty kill. Yet, rather than addressing these longstanding blights on our national character, we waste precious
mental and moral energy justifying the very grotesque policies and systems that perpetuate this violence. We witnessed the culmination of decades of decisions by leaders on both sides of the aisle that severely weakened our infrastructure. While we have poured funding into weapons and defense technologies, critical agencies like the postal service and local health departments did not have the resources and support needed to deliver essential services to citizens. These agencies lack core technologies for streamlining work and eliminating redundancies. In the face of the pandemic, they were crippled by gridlock making it nearly impossible to efficiently create and implement testing and vaccination programs. No one was ready to meet the challenge of Covid-19. From our government leaders to our local citizenry, we were unprepared. Our disastrous attempts at responding to the pandemic impacted millions of lives around the globe.
So, my question is, “Are we ready for the next crisis?”
My preliminary answer is “No, we are not.”
It may feel distasteful to talk about a new crisis while we are still dealing with this one. However, visionary leadership requires us to plan for the future while addressing the present. One way to plan for what’s next is to stop blaming everyone else for what went wrong. Too many of us abdicate our responsibility to others, from politicians to neighbors who stand on the other side of our beliefs and opinions. We refuse to pause and take stock of the role we played. Unless we reflect on our own personal missteps and the lessons we learned as a result, we will not be able to navigate through the continued challenges of this current crisis. We need to weave critical self-reflection into the fabric of our society as a social value practiced by all. Only then will we have the wisdom, courage, strength, and unity needed to survive, eventually heal, and be ready for whatever comes next.
Time for America to Reflect and Correct
As difficult as moments of social upheaval are, there is hope. We have a choice in what kind of nation we want to be moving forward. America can be better than who we have been if we take time to reflect and course correct, practices rooted in the Christian tradition.
On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. At the end of the meal, he took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine instructing the disciples to view them as symbols of his sacrifice and love. “This is my body broken for you…this is my blood poured out for many.” He urged his disciples to remember his sacrifice and be guided by these symbols in the days to come.
Years later an apostle named Paul instructed a church at Corinth to remember the death of Christ and reflect on oneself in relation to fellow members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-32). The Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist in some church traditions, is a Christian practice that communicates a deeper value about the sacredness of life and the importance of examining the ways our lives intersect with others. Due to this practice, Paul and many other Christian thinkers use imagery of Christians as members of one body. Dr. King said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” These leaders understood that to honor the example of Jesus is to recognize the value of our individual lives and how our lives impact others. When we see shortcomings, and we certainly will; we confess them to God and others and then do everything we can to correct them. This practice is not only personal, but also communal. Jesus taught us to pray for forgiveness of our trespasses. The practices of reflection and correction can keep any community grounded, healthy, and growing.
I am not under any illusion that America is a Christian nation. It is not. However, there is no escaping the influence Christianity has played historically and today. A large number of Americans are Christian or have been influenced by the Christian religion in some way. The church and Christians in America have significant influence on our society, and I am horrified by their response to the pandemic. As a whole, they have shown a gross misunderstanding and complete betrayal of Christ’s character. In no way hasthe church reflected and corrected according to the example set in the Lord’s Supper. As we say in the street “check yourself before you wreck yourself.” You don’t need to be a church member to know this is an important life skill. We all need to reflect and identify ways we can do better so we are prepared for the next crisis. Here are five lessons I have learned from the pandemic followed by a word about why I believe the pandemic is a wakeup call for America, one we cannot ignore.
Five Lessons from the Covid Pandemic
1. We can all be better neighbors than we were in 2020.
Imagine if we use the language of neighbor as a way to think about all citizens in this country. Scripture teaches us to love God and our neighbor and both commands are linked. Love and care for neighbors is a Christian value that can help us recover from the current crisis and prepare for the next. Last year, the pandemic showed we are not good neighbors.
We could have been more selfless. Think of those in the first weeks of the pandemic who ran to the store and purchased more supplies than they actually needed, leaving others to fend for themselves. Many people live paycheck to paycheck. They have to wait for payday to go shopping. Motivated by fear and self-protection, some families quickly emptied the store shelves and had enough toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies to last a decade leaving other families to find empty shelves when payday arrived.
How many of us paused before raiding those shelves? How many of us thought outside of ourselves and our fear? Did we even consider our neighbors who might need some of these supplies? Or were we consumed only by our own needs? Did we buy any essential supplies for others? Did we send a donation to the Salvation Army or organizations working directly with disenfranchised populations? Some of us did. Many of us did not.
This is just one example. There are so many more. From unnecessary stock piling to masking and quarantining, we need to take time to reflect on whether we lived out Jesus’s example of loving others during this challenging season. When Jesus taught on loving our neighbors, he held up the example of the Samaritan who had compassion for someone in need and went out of his way to help him. The Samaritan was not commended for doing what was best for himself but for a complete stranger. Wearing a mask is a way we can show our love and care for others. This simple, easy act can help protect our neighbors from a virus that could cause illness or even death. Yet, so many Americans, including many claiming to be Christian, refuse. Why? Is our personal comfort or preference so much more important than following the example of Christ? Let us reflect and correct. When the next crisis comes, let’s do better. Let’s be like Jesus to our neighbors.
2. Don’t know everything? That is ok!
What is not ok is thinking you do know everything. Intelligence should always inspire humility, not arrogance. Why do I say this? Because the more you know, the more you should realize all you do not know. A truly educated person should be acutely aware of the limits of their knowledge.
Our public schools, colleges, and universities have failed to produce a citizenry that knows and respects the boundaries of knowledge. We are decades into the information and technology age, yet our educational models and philosophies have not kept pace. We have produced citizens intelligent enough to engage ideas and issues but not always with the discernment needed to process sources and find facts. Many folks are ready to tout the latest “information” they read on Facebook but lack the wisdom to see the reality of their own echo chamber. The ability to wrestle with ideas and expand our minds requires curiosity and openness. But too many people are unwilling to admit they have anything to learn. They lack the humility needed to recognize when they’ve reached the limit of their own knowledge. Their hubris doesn’t allow them to acknowledge or respect others whose education,experience, and expertise extends beyond their own. People who barely made it through high school science class believe they have the knowledge to question and argue about viruses and vaccines with scientific experts who have doctorates and years of careful and rigorous research under their belts.
While I applaud people’s desire to make informed decisions about their health, pretending to be a medical expert or public health official is reckless, foolish, and could cost you your life. It is ok not to not understand the science behind these things. Not everyone is a medical expert! Where we get in trouble is when we can’t admit that our knowledge and understanding of complex scientific and medical information is limited.
3. It is ok to admit we were wrong.
Our social “insistence” on being right about everything traps us into obstinate thinking. So many cannot admit to a single wrong, especially about systems that have a negative effect on minority populations. This dangerous line of thinking has become a social value among U.S. citizens and a leadership trait employed by our politicians, religious, and business leaders.
Being right has become an American idol deluding us into overestimating our objectivity and overvaluing our opinion. When I was a very young man, a good friend named Anthony Hull told me, “All you know is what you have been taught but what you have been taught is not all there is to know.” This simple proverb is a recognition of what we do know and a reminder of all we do not.
Knowledge gaps are places of unintentional ignorance that cause us to be wrong about or misunderstand some things. We all have knowledge gaps! No human can know everything. Why is this so hard for people to recognize this universal truth? Whether it was the pandemic or issues of systemic racism, too many refused to admit they misunderstood things or didn’t have the full picture when making a statement. Instead of admitting to a wrong, too many dug in as if the little they know is all there is to know. In the end, this behavior highlights our foolishness and makes social change nearly impossible.
4. It is time to bring science and research into the public square.
In fact, it is past time. The academy bears some responsibility for what has unfolded in this country over the past decade. College and university scholars and researchers have hidden away in the ivory towers of academia for too long. We have been busy sharing our complex and highly sophisticated theories and ideas with each other, but we have forsaken the public square.
By the day, it is abundantly clear that most Americans do not understand how the scientific process works and how research advances knowledge and public policy. Americans have been getting vaccinated
for years but today some have suddenly become “experts” on vaccines and side effects and the efficacy of vaccines for masses of people. Sparked by distrust of the medical community and science, Americans are demonstrating widespread ignorance while clinging to their own poorly informed and fear-based beliefs. Members of the scientific and scholarly community must address this knowledge gap. We need a continuous and evolving public education campaign that proactively equips people with tools to learn and grow as humans, to be open to new ideas, to trust science and scholarship, to develop information literacy, and to combat misinformation.
5. We need to do a better job valuing human life.
Our social tendency to take a reductionistic approach to people dying is callous, immoral, and counter to the example of Christ. This hard heartedness is a byproduct of our legacy as a nation built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. America has always had an appetite for death. Our society has been built on the necessity that some must die so others can have a better life. Any country with this nihilisitic approach will eventually unravel, as we are witnessing in America daily. A global pandemic could not curb our appetite for death. How easy it has been for us to minimize the loss of life around us. We see people as numbers and statistics not living, breathing persons who are valued by family and friends, beloved by God.
We have significant work to do in this country. We must recover a sense of the precious value of human life before the next crisis or how many more will needlessly die.
The Covid Pandemic was a Wakeup Call for America
What the pandemic has exposed about us is our inability to recognize and understand a global problem and manage it on the national and local level. It revealed the deep divisions in our country and our inability to bridge those divides to work together with the shared goal of keeping our country strong, safe, and healthy. On a more troubling level, it also showed that most Americans cannot be galvanized around anything today, even something as basic as trying to keep people from getting sick and dying. We are losing touch with our humanity and weakening our nation by the day.
Is God using the pandemic to expose America, to show us how deep our selfishness and our disunity runs? Maybe God has exposed these things not just to indict us or embarrass us but to grant us an opportunity to reflect and correct. Maybe it is time we identify what changes we need to make to heal and do better another crisis envelops us. A statement in the Bible describes this moment in graphic detail. The prophet Hosea said, “My people perish for a lack of knowledge.” Millions of people died because of mass ignorance and reckless group thinking that playing out on social media. They died because of our arrogance. The apostle Paul described the last days as “perilous times” in a letter to Timothy when people would be “ever learning but not able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Those words resonate in powerful ways today. Hiding ignorance under the pretense of intelligence is the epitome of arrogance. As citizens we have to be more than smart or even passionate, we need enough understanding, curiosity, discernment, and wisdom to acknowledge what we don’t know and the humility to listen and learn. If we cling to this arrogance rooted pride, it will not only compound our current challenges, it will be our undoing.
The Bible talks about knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We need all three today. People are surrounded by information but do not always have understanding. Socially, we are drowning in confusion, sickness, strife, poverty, and death because we lack understanding and wisdom. We do not
know how to apply knowledge to complex situations. We do not know how to discern and weigh the competing interests, strengths and weaknesses, and varying risks in a way that benefits the greatest number of people. We do not stop and consider the consequences a given course of action might have on different groups. All of these deficiencies have been on display throughout the pandemic.
There are environmental, biological, and militaristic threats on the horizon that will have real-world economic, social, and public policy implications. Covid-19 was only the latest reminder. The behavior and response of leaders and citizens offers clear evidence that we were not prepared for this crisis and we are certainly not ready for the next. We have important work to do in what I call “the public square” and we have to begin now. Let’s reimagine our public life and learn how to work for the “common good,” not group interests. I hope these insights and lessons assist us in the work of reimaging our public life and preparing us for whatever crisis the future holds.
Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Associate Professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky.