Lent 2020 — Day 31


(Quarantine Essay #9)

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr King wrote: ““In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is putting this perspective to the test; and it is being vindicated once again.

If we attend to the virology of this moment our unity is dramatically highlighted. Within just a few weeks this disease has travelled the globe, infecting thousands, regardless of race, color, or national origin. No one is safe. All are vulnerable. It is a great equalizer; posing a threat to all.

But it is also highlighting the divided ideologies of this moment.

There are differences in how nations are responding. There is much commonality in the practice of lockdowns, testing, and social distancing. But it is not unanimous. Sweden is going its own way, with a less restrictive policy. Brazil seems to be doing nothing whatsoever. The consequences are ominous.

There are regional differences that are breaking down as the virus progresses. A few weeks ago there were states that had no cases, now there are cases across the country. But the intensity of the crisis in New York versus Arizona is stark. New York state is the epicenter of the disease; but according to disease experts also a harbinger of what might lie in the future for other states.

There are urban-rural differences. Affluent urban dwellers are fleeing the city for their country homes and the people in these rural refuges are pushing back; resisting this influx of city folk their regional hospitals will not have enough resources to care for.

There are class differences. The ability to stay home, shelter-in-place, is more of a burden to some than to others. Many do not have the type of employment that allows them to work from home. They don’t have the finances for a month of not working. And those who are most vulnerable financially often don’t have the health insurance to protect them if they do get sick. The divisions in this country between the haves and have-nots is dramatically illumined by this crisis. And as always the federal government is dispositionally attuned to the needs of the haves.

All of these differences are also fueling political and religious differences.

There is a “social distancing culture war” expressing itself. Many refuse to heed the warnings about contagion either out of political disagreement or sheer irresponsibility. Despite the clear evidence of this being a global epidemic claiming the lives of thousands some have asserted that it is a politically motivated overreaction.

Some religious conservatives have refused to stop meeting in large gatherings viewing this crisis as a test of their faith versus the anxieties for public health.

I have opinions about all these divisions as I’m sure you do.

Meanwhile, the virus spreads, more people die (as of March 31 over 3,000), hospitals are already overrun or about to be. Equipment is lacking. But time is long and this particular virus will take as much of it as it wants.

A pandemic has a rare ability to demonstrate the inter-relatedness of our lives. Despite our many differences we are indeed “caught” in an “inescapable” relationship. We are “tied”.

What is being aggravated is not just our immune systems, but the embeddedness of so much of our lives in an individualism that stands in contradiction to our biology. Many squirm with the impending threat to their individual liberty.

The divorce between our biological identity and the ideological postures we assume in this world is being brought to a dramatic confrontation. We are not individuals. We never have been. We are each a community of communities immersed in communities.

Contrary to Shakespeare (who survived a pandemic) we are not such stuff as dreams are made of. We are dust. And to dust we will return.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” wrote Wendell Berry.

Many in our country right now are squirming under the enormous pressure of “Nature’s” stern justice. Churches can choose to meet on Sundays and the virus will be happy to attend with them. They can claim a religious exemption from social restraints and still catch the virus, transmit the virus, and die. I do agree that this will be a testimony to their faith. But it is a misplaced faith; unworthy of the world they believe their God created for them.

Regions of this country may resist the implication that they are just as vulnerable as those city folk they despise. Republicans may suspect another conspiracy behind every recorded death. The affluent may flee to distant retreats.

And yet there will be no appeal; no resistance to the force, persistence, and deadliness of this pandemic.

It is these unavoidable, frightening, limits of our lives that confront us with big questions. Questions, as the poet David Whyte says, that have no right to go away.

This pandemic is trying to teach about our interrelatedness. It is unclear if we can be taught.

Post-pandemic there will be the possibility for all of us to align our ideologies more with our biology. In order to do that we will have to affirm the interrelatedness of all beings. How whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This has been till now a countercultural conviction. It is not the belief America was founded upon. It is probably not a premise that many of us have lived our lives in harmony with.

This pandemic is no patriot.

Only when we do this will the voice and vote of “Nature” begin to make it’s beneficent weight felt in our culture. But if we continue to resist (as we are doing politically, economically, and religiously) we will continue to feel the weight, and dare I say the wrath, of this unforgiving god.

Ric Hudgens

March 31, 2020

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