Grace to you from God our Father and Our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ in the power of the Spirit. Amen
COVID-19 is non-discriminatory. This may seem so obvious as to be self-evident. After all, aren’t people in all communities, throughout the world, in every demographic coming down with this disease? And aren’t people in all communities, throughout the world, in every demographic dying from this disease!? Thus, COVID-19– in this way, at least– functions like any other disease but destroys worse than most of them.
Why, then, do we see a much higher incidence of the disease among Native Americans, Latinx people and people of African descent? And, not surprisingly, a much higher mortality rate!
As your pastor and the one charged with the responsibility to “interpret and advocate the mission and theology of the whole church” (Synod Constitution S8.12.g), I believe these are questions the Church, our Church, needs to be asking. I am aware that there are other deep concerns around the implications of this disease for our communal life. But for this article, I want to engage you in grappling with the question that forms the paragraph above. Please walk with me in this for a little while.
Actually, we know the answer to the question about higher incidence and mortality: Native American, Latinx and African descent people generally live in more densely populated areas, have less access to adequate health care, tend to have a higher incidence of medical conditions known to increase the severity of the infection (comorbidities, which are themselves a result of systemic oppression and marginalization) and their depressed economic situation makes it less likely that members of these groups can self-isolate, i.e. not work from the relative safety of their homes. In other words, while COVID-19 is non-discriminatory its effects are not. As I have said before, this disease is exposing deep and long-standing fault lines in our world and in the United States in particular that we, as followers of Christ, must find intolerable and contradictory to the kingdom Jesus announced and established in his life, death and resurrection. Or, to put it more plainly, the fact that the consequences of this disease fall more heavily on certain predictable groups are manifestations of the persistence of racism and white privilege in our society.
Put in this way, we see the answer to what at first appears to be a riddle: What has COVID-19 got to do with Ahmaud Arbery? Just as COVID-19 is not “just” a disease but an exposure of racism in our communities so Ahmaud Arbery is not “just” a jogger but a young black man pursued and murdered by two white men for the “crime” (in their estimation) of being black, an occurrence (the exploitation and killing of black and brown and, while we’re at it, female and queer bodies) tragically common throughout our history. In other words, Ahmaud Arbery’s death is –or ought to be– a shocking and repulsive manifestation of the persistence of racism that, like COVID-19, disproportionately takes the lives of African descent, Latinx and Native American people in our so-called “egalitarian” country. This is the continuing crisis.
If you’re still reading this far (and I pray you are), you may be asking, “Why are you bringing this up? What’s your point?” Partly to follow the lead of our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in calling out the sin of racism and white supremacy in her pastoral message of May 13th. But, more importantly, this pandemic is forcing us to reevaluate what it means to be Church, the Body of Christ in the world. Personally and pastorally, I am looking at this from two points of view, one negative and the other positive. The negative is that some are saying this is the end of churches and the Church since we, at least for the foreseeable future, cannot worship and gather as we want to and have for centuries. I do not believe this assertion for a minute because the existence (or non-existence) of the Church is totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit: “[The Holy Spirit] calls, gather, enlightens, and makes holy the Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” (Small Catechism, Explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed) But this pandemic is causing deep questions of identity: What does it mean to be Church? Who are members/worshipers? If I can’t visit people in person or preside at the altar, am I less of a pastor? What is our mission in these times? Etc. And it is in pondering these deep questions that I believe the positive comes in. Given that so much of what we have known and taken for granted about our identity has been called in to question, we have an opportunity – a rare and, I believe, God-given opportunity – to rediscover and reinterpret for our time what it means to be disciples of this radical and radically loving Jesus, individually and communally. In other words, business as usual is not possible and, thank God in some respects, shouldn’t be. If what we are yearning for is a return to what was, to the predictable and comfortable, that is, in my humble opinion, a missed opportunity. Put another way, if the Church or even just the Lutheran Church or even just the ELCA or even just our synod or even just your congregation is dying (but see above), how do you want to spend your last breath? I might suggest Jesus here as a model for dying in forgiving, self-emptying love (Philippians 2) in which we die for the sake of “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” (Philippians 4)
And if the Church, in any of its manifestations mentioned in the previous paragraph, is being reborn –and it is fundamental to our Christian theology that death and rebirth are not mutually exclusive but rather go hand-in-hand– then what kind of Church do we want to be or, more crucially, what kind of Church does God want us to be?
This is a huge and evolving question. Minimally, however, especially given the diverse context we find ourselves here in the Metropolitan New York area, to be the Church means to confront the sin of racism and any sin that demeans and denies the equally valid and persistent image of God in any of God’s children (saints). It means to reject white supremacy, in others and ourselves, so that no one is privileged over another based on what we, in our narrow and self-centered way (sinners) consider determinative and consequential, which is idolatry. “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” (Acts 10)
Finally (and I know you thought I’d never get here!), we can take our renewed vision for Church from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he compares the Church to (appropriately for these thoughts) a body. He writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12) With this vision, we can find our way forward in these challenging times to a stronger sense of who we are called to be as pastoral and prophetic, loving and justice-oriented, transformed and transformative for the sake of the world God so loves…
Your servant in Christ,