Serving my first parish in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (where Vanna White was in my church youth group, but that’s another story), I read Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Random House, 1978). It only took four decades before that book became relevant for my ministry. Tuchman follows a medieval family through an age when the European world fell apart. One chapter says it all: “‘This Is the End of the World’: The Black Death.” Plague changed the course of history, leading medieval Europe to widespread, agonizing self-examination, dramatic penitence, and some major mistakes. Entire cities wiped off the map, a generation lost, economies destroyed, bloody Crusades. What have we done to make God curse us? The world as we know it is ending.
As we shut our doors and isolated, praying that Covid-19, angel of death, would pass over, I thought of A Distant Mirror. I heard lots of blaming, denying, and a modicum of recognition that deep American inequalities have been exposed, all made easier to swallow by saccharine, syrupy sentimentality: “We are all in this together,” and “Our social isolation is a time to reflect, and to focus upon the love of our families.”
Contemplative isolation is easier if you can afford it. Only twenty percent of African Americans have jobs that enable work from home. The person who gazes at me from behind the glass at the supermarket would give anything not to be forced to be serving me. Though I’m asymptomatic, I could still be her executioner. Not much togetherness in that.
Unlike the fourteenth century, I’m hearing little self-examination, and no penitence. The president is not the only one who refuses to apologize. We’re not medieval, after all. Victims, not perpetrators. The evening news is a litany of death and disappointment, political clowns in high places, bureaucratic screw-ups, all set right with a concluding sappy sermonette about a little girl who gave a thank-you note to the nice lady who delivers Grubhub. Put a teddy bear in the window. Show that you love me by keeping your distance. Text somebody who’s trapped in a nursing home; you’ll feel better for it.
That’s the best that the evening news has to offer. Can the church say better?
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