Rev. 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.
It all happened so quickly. One moment, as interim minister and blogger Thom Shuman has noted, we were putting ashes on our foreheads, commemorating the start of Lent, and beginning to think about Holy Week and Easter—and the next moment, we were canceling church services, quarantining ourselves, and trying to figure out how Zoom works (Thom M. Shuman, “Lectionary Liturgies,” Lent 4 – A, Wednesday, March 25, 2020).
The coronavirus pandemic and its health-related and economic consequences are a national tragedy that will long be remembered—just as the 9/11 attacks were a generation ago, and the Great Depression and the attack on Pearl Harbor were in the 1930s and 1940s. Millennials and “Gen-Z’ers” in particular will be deeply influenced by what is happening now. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo remarked recently, “this is going to transform a generation. Our children [and grandchildren] face real, national adversity for the first time” (Andrew Cuomo, Governor’s Press Conference, March 26, 2020).
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to re-examine our lives and our priorities. To consider what matters and what doesn’t.
It is probably too soon to tell, but the pandemic may upend many of the established assumptions and verities that sociologists of religion and social scientists like me have entertained about America and the church. For example, I have long believed (and written on this blog) that globalization, and the diversity, social mobility, and multiculturalism that globalization produces, are fait accompli realities that are good for America. But as British historian Niall Ferguson reminds us, globalization leads not only to positive innovations, in the speed and ease of global communication and transportation, but also hastens the spread of diseases from one country to the next, and across continents (Niall Ferguson, “Networld War,” Niall Ferguson’s Networld, Public Broadcasting System [PBS], March 16, 2020).
Today globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity can be infectious—and I don’t mean in a good way. I hope it doesn’t happen, but the coronavirus pandemic may convince some Americans that President Trump and like-minded xenophobes and white supremacists are right: that strangers and people of color are to be feared, and that immigration should be halted.
I have wondered if there might be some “silver linings,” as one friend recently put it, in the coronavirus pandemic—for example, if the number of “Nones” in American society might decrease, and if more Americans might adopt religious faith and values because of the crisis—in just the same way that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”
I also have wondered if the influence of “prosperity” televangelists, who insist that good health and material gain is the will of God for all pious Christians, might diminish as people begin to experience the core lesson of the Book of Job—that godly faith and righteousness are no guarantee of a long life or of material blessings.
The coronavirus pandemic is a tangible reality, and as such it may brush aside the epistemological relativism of some politicians and cable television news pundits, who talk about “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and suggest that “truth isn’t truth” (e.g., Caroline Kenny, “Rudy Giuliani Says ‘Truth Isn’t Truth,’” CNN.com, August 19, 2018). Such claims go by the wayside when they are confronted with dying people.
I have even wondered if the coronavirus pandemic might distract Americans away from tribal and uncivil forms of expression and behavior. I have wondered if Americans of all ethnicities, races, and political and religious persuasions might forget their differences, and abandon their homophobia, their sexism, their Islamophobia, and their white supremacy—and join together in their common humanity in the struggle to overcome this virus and fix our flailing economy.
But sadly, the lessons of the past suggest that people get ugly with each other during pandemics and economic crises. They do not hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
In biblical times, lepers were condemned to forced isolation and were considered to be ritually unclean. In our own country, pandemics have triggered hoarding, selfishness, and conspiratorial thinking. Hucksters (religious and otherwise) have sold worthless “miracle cures” to those in need of effective treatment. And many Americans became xenophobic—they blamed other nations, cultures, races, and ethnicities for their suffering.
I have wondered if the coronavirus might spur creativity in our churches: Although many houses of worship have closed their doors during the pandemic, congregations and ministers are using Zoom and live streaming for the first time. Churches and denominational entities are discovering new ways of connecting and doing ministry.
Not meeting “in-person” for a few weeks is probably survivable for most churches, but with businesses and the national economy paralyzed, I have wondered if charitable giving and donations might dry up. Time will tell how or if these lost revenues will be made up, and our churches and denomination will recover.
I also wonder if Americans’ faith in capitalism might wane as people begin to realize the inherent harshness and social Darwinistic nature of our economic system.
In my darkest moments, I have wondered if any of these things really matter.
I wonder about the doctors and nurses fighting the pandemic. And I wonder about those suffering from coronavirus. I wonder how future generations will look back on all of us.
I have known many people from Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”—the generation that fought World War II and lived through the Great Depression, and I have even known people from the World War I generation, who survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. They had a certain hard-to-define quality about them, a kind of quiet courage or self-confidence that I could never quite describe.
What I feel about them is not the mawkish patriotism that is on display in, say, the ending of Saving Private Ryan. You remember that final scene—a young, battle-weary World-War-II soldier, Private Ryan, morphs into present-day Ryan, a senior citizen, visiting the Normandy American Military Cemetery, and standing solemnly over his Captain’s grave. He tells his captain that he hopes he’s lived up to his example and has been worthy of all that he and his men did for him. He asks his wife to tell him that he’s led a good life and that he’s a good man. He salutes his captain’s grave as an American flag, back-lighted by the sun, gently flaps in the breeze.
I don’t feel that. I also can’t relate to what “Coach McGinty” says in a voiceover in the closing scene of The Replacements, a comedy about the 1987 National Football League strike, and how a fictionalized team, the Washington Sentinels, played half of its season with replacement players. In the closing scene, McGinty memorializes those players by noting that “their lives had been changed forever because they had been part of something great. And greatness, no matter how brief, stays with a man.”
Somehow, those words seem to trivialize those fighting the pandemic. Writer Allison Glock gets closer to what I feel when she writes of trying to console her 19-year-old daughter, whose eyes are “heavy with dread,” and who “has been struggling like all of us with the essential purgatory we find ourselves wading through. The not knowing of when this will end, or how, or what we as a culture, a country, [and] a community will be when it does” (“Now I Finally Understand What My Grandparents Knew,” CNN.com, March 28, 2020).
She and her sister have recently “moved back home” from college, which has closed for the semester due to the coronavirus outbreak. “My girls,” Glock notes, “like countless children, have been wrenched from routines and friends, the architecture of their lives dismantled and replaced with a return to the orbit of [their] parents.”
“I tell my [daughter] that I understand her feeling lost, empty. I remind her how lucky we are to be together.”
Glock remembers her grandparents. “When I was [young], I’d watch them play cards, do crosswords, dance together in their cramped living room, taking care not to topple the miniature, boxy television set that was only turned on for baseball games.”
They “spent their lives in a tiny house in a tiny West Virginia factory town. They cooked Sunday suppers, sang as they hand-washed the dishes, groused and gossiped and found contentment in the simplest” of activities, their lives having been diminished by circumstance and “poverty and lack of opportunity.”
Even so, their lives “held beauty [and] profound meaning. My grandfather served in the war. So did everyone he and my grandmother knew. They’d seen death and futility and heroism and loss. They knew what mattered.”
Glock recalls a line from poet Theodore Roethke: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
“We will need to find our purpose in the minor things, I tell my daughter[s]. The moments. [The] moment by moment. And in those long, vacant hours, free of clutter and busyness and traditional validation, we will have to learn how to sit with ourselves and discover the glory and meaning in that stillness.”
Glock’s daughters go outside, “in the yard. [They are] lying on a blanket, reading.”
“The sun shines bright on their skin. The birds chatter above. The buds bloom on the trees around them. As if to say, we can’t be contained.”