Coronavirus, Historical Amnesia, and the Tyranny of “We’ve-Always-Done-It-This-Way” Thinking

Recently, I heard a cable news pundit explain the United States’ tepid and ineffectual response to the coronavirus pandemic in terms of brittleness.  He cited a familiar aphorism: if your only tool is a hammer, you will likely define every problem you encounter as a nail.  The United States has been the world’s preeminent military power, he noted, and as such, it has viewed many—or perhaps, most—crises, both global and domestic, as amenable to military solutions. But our country is not very good at caring for its citizens and guaranteeing a high quality of life for all Americans.  Indeed, journalist George Packer went so far in the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic as to call America “a failed state” (“We Are Living in a Failed State).

After listening to the cable news pundit and reading Packer’s article, I wondered: Why is the United States so brittle? And how did it become a failed state?

According to the New York Times, an important reason why President Trump’s response to the pandemic was so slow and halting—Center for Disease Control epidemiologists had warned him about it back in January 2020, but he did not start taking those warnings seriously until March—was his “suspicion of and disdain for the ‘Deep State,’ the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and save lives” (Chris Cillizza, “The Single Most Damning Sentence in the New York Times Coronavirus Exposé,” CNN.com, April 13, 2020, and Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael D. Shear, Mark Mazzetti, and Julian E. Barnes, “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus,” April 11, 2020.

Trump’s suspicion of those who make the government work is difficult to understand considering that he is their boss and Chief Executive. The FBI, the CIA, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Department of Justice—nearly all of the government agencies and departments that he has attacked—are part of the Executive Branch, and therefore, part of his administration!

Underlying both the President’s suspicions and the U.S. government’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic, I believe, are two social maladies—first historical amnesia, and second, wishful thinking and “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” reasoning. The former is evident in the ease with which we have forgotten other infectious diseases that have swept through our country and world over the past century; indeed, epidemiologists have told us that we were long overdue for a global pandemic. “We’ve-always-done-it-this-way” reasoning and wishful thinking are apparent in the fact that after a month of sheltering in place, many Americans have grown impatient with masking, social distancing, and staying home—and want to go back to “the way things were,” by “opening-up the country” prematurely.

By mid-April, 2020, thousands of people were defying common sense and safety by showing up at “You Can’t Close America” rallies, flocking to beaches, attending sports events and parties, and going to church without masking or maintaining a six-foot distance from others (Zachary B. Wolf, “The Social Distancing Deniers Have Arrived,” CNN.com, April 16, 2020).

President Trump added fuel to the “lockdown rebellion” fire by demanding that governors “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia” (Nikki Schwab, “Trump tells governors to ‘liberate’ Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota,” Daily Mail, April 17, 2920). Meanwhile, a number of governors across America announced that they would “re-open” their economies before May 1.

According to CNN, Just as COVID-19 cases were “starting to plateau in big cities and along the coasts, the coronavirus [was] catching fire in rural states across the American heartland”—particularly in states whose governors had not issued, or have recently relaxed, stay-at-home orders (Michael Warren, “Heartland hotspots: A sudden rise in coronavirus cases is hitting rural states without stay at home orders,” April 17, 2020).

This was historical amnesia and wishful thinking run amok. As Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen noted, “on 9/11, Americans discovered [that] we are vulnerable to calamities [that] we thought only happened in distant lands. The 2008 financial crisis told us we can also suffer the calamities of past eras, like the economic meltdown of the Great Depression. Now, the 1918 [Spanish] flu pandemic is a sudden specter in our lives” (Deborah Tannen, in “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How,” Politico, March 19, 2020).

Historical amnesia and “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” thinking are evident throughout the scriptures. Recall the story of the wilderness wanderings in the Book of Exodus, and how the Israelites grew impatient with God’s provisions and yearned for the rich foods and the predictability of their years in Egyptian slavery.

Similarly, in the epistle to the Galatians, Paul excoriated his readers for having forgotten the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and “turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6-7).  And in Revelation 2:1-7, the risen Jesus criticized the church in Ephesus for having “forgotten her first love.”

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders could not imagine that Jesus was the Messiah and the savior of the world because they were wed to their old ideas of how God worked. Jesus did not fit their mold.

And after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many of the apostles believed that the Gospel message was exclusively for Jewish audiences—because Jews had been God’s special people in Old Testament times. They could not imagine that, in Jesus, God was doing a new thing—inviting Gentiles into God’s blessings!

These maladies are also found in the church. Family Systems theory, which most Mainline ministers study in Clinical Pastoral Education, or in seminars offered by Healthy CongregationsLombard Mennonite Peace Center, or the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, focuses closely on the incidence of historical amnesia, wishful thinking and “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” reasoning in the family, in governmental organizations, and in the church. One of the most important concepts of the “human emotional system” is self-differentiation—which determines how individuals respond to crises, including the coronavirus pandemic.

Self-differentiation is related to the idea of being a “non-anxious presence.” It has to do with an individual’s ability to articulate their views independently of the perspective of others, and even to disagree strongly with family members, colleagues, and important others on various issues, while at the same time continuing to stay engaged with those family members, colleagues, and important others (“The Eight Concepts,” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family).

Indeed, it is relatively easy to placate others, to pull our punches out of fear of offending someone, or to submerge our authentic self in order to “get along,” and not damage our relationship. Reciprocally, it is also easy to disagree sharply with someone, to tell them to go to hell, and then to cut them off and never see them or speak to them again. What is much more difficult is to be self-differentiated—to be our authentic selves, and even at times, to disagree sharply with others, but to maintain our relationships with them.

Bowen’s family systems theory is premised on the idea that if we don’t know our history, we are destined to repeat it. If we don’t do our individual family-of-origin work, we will continue to respond to crises as well as to ordinary life situations as we always have— by doing the same old thing, by doing what we’ve always done, even if it is a dysfunctional or inappropriate response.

Church leaders and congregants may exhibit historical amnesia and “we’ve-always-done-it-that-way” thinking when they:

  • Employ divisive rhetoric, and/or engage in destructive “scorched earth” campaigns, either on religious or on political grounds, against those with whom they disagree;
  • Use sexist, homophobic, racist, and classist language or policies to exclude others;
  • Fear or resist change;
  • Complain about their church or denomination, but refuse either to leave it (and find another church or denomination that is more to their liking) or to stop criticizing it every chance they get.

What does all this mean for church leaders and congregations?

First, “the new normal,” once stay-at-home orders are lifted and worshippers can return to their buildings, may not look anything like “the old normal.” Returning to our churches may require dispersing big crowds and high concentrations of people;  taking peoples’ temperatures upon entering the church; spacing people six feet apart and encouraging them to remain masked during worship (and other) gatherings; holding more church events outdoors, and permanently incorporating Zoom and other teleconferencing technologies into our church programming. In addition, some congregations may never “open up” their buildings again—they may simply close.

Second, an important lesson that Americans will learn from the coronavirus pandemic is that, in U.S. Naval War College professor Tom Nichols’ words, “expertise matters.”  The pandemic may lead to “a return to faith in serious experts. Science doubters will be able to see the impacts of the coronavirus immediately” (Tom Nichols and Sonja Trauss, in “Coronavirus Will Change the World”).

Third, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Jonathan Rauch argues, “plagues drive change. Because our government failed us [during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s], gay Americans mobilized to build organizations, networks, and know-how that changed our place in society. The epidemic also revealed deadly flaws in the health care system and awakened us to the need for the protection of marriage—[leading] to landmark reforms. Analogous changes [will occur] in the wake of coronavirus” (Jonathan Rauch, in “Coronavirus Will Change the World”).

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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