The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought our collective worlds to a screeching halt, and now the world that is emerging looks very different as all of us learn to navigate new realities. While many clamor for a return to normalcy, others caution it is better to be safe than sorry. It is interesting to observe the myriad responses this outbreak has solicited from various segments of our society. Believer and nonbeliever, capitalist and socialist, conservative and liberal, black and white have all been impacted by the virus. But not all have been impacted equally, and measuring their responses as individual groups is an instructive revelation of just how fragmented our priorities have become.
For instance, according to one study, black Americans are 30% more likely to have health conditions that worsen the virus’ impact. And 33% of the African American population work on the frontlines of healthcare, where their livelihood puts them at greater risk of contracting the virus. At the same time, many in white conservative populations are now appropriating the anthems of those actually oppressed to protest against perceived oppression and tyranny. The virus has pitted those advocating for economic concerns against those advocating for health and safety concerns. The social distancing guidelines have stretched the fabric of our union with no indication that things will ever be as they were.
With these disparities in mind, it should be evident, if it was not before, that there is nothing extraordinarily special about our nation. American exceptionalism is based on the idea that the United States enjoys God’s “special favor,” and that no matter what the obstacle or adversity, America will survive and flourish. And while I certainly want to believe this is true, I am hard-pressed to find any evidence it is actually true. For most evangelicals, this perceived special blessing is linked to the notion that God is “on our side” because of a majority who would lay claim to the Christian faith. In fact, it seems while we love and even worship our ideas of American and religious exceptionalism, for many there is no difference between the two. As James K.A. Smith points out in Desiring the Kingdom, “many Christians experience no tension between the gospel according to America and the gospel of Jesus Christ because, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have, in many ways, trumped other liturgies. Thus, we now see and hear and read the gospel through the liturgical lenses of the “American gospel.”
This is why some American pastors insist on keeping their churches open in defiance of guidelines while claiming that any effort to curtail their gatherings is a persecution of their faith. Simply put, they view their individual rights to gather in the name of religious liberty as more important than the collective interest of health and safety. This religious ruse, often amplified by political leaders, is the reason why thirty days of quarantine makes some feel as if they are now victims of a tyrannical government. Yet many of these same people would deny the existence of over 400 years of real tyranny against black people in this country. These perspectives fuel the nonsensical political and business mantra “the cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease” in advocating for a reopening of the economy—an economy that was never equitable in its distribution of reward yet widespread in its ministration of malaise.
What the novel coronavirus has demonstrated in America is our idolatry. Idols of self. Idols that seek to replace the one true and living God.
Suffering has a way of crushing the façade of our lives and revealing the foundations underneath. But the majority of us in America have yet to really suffer. But our mere inconvenience has only revealed the true motivations in our service to our idols, the prevenient motivation is a self-interest that informs our perspectives—a perspective that robs us of empathy and fuels our affinities.
This crisis has revealed that we aren’t all in this together, at least not in the same way or to the same degree. And indeed, unless something drastically changes, we may emerge more divided than ever.