Cracks: A World Shaped by COVID-19

Below you will find a short piece I wrote for Look Closer Podcast in April 2020. You can find the audio version of this piece on iTunes or Spotify.

Cracks: A World Shaped by COVID-19
For Look Closer Podcast — Episode 29

Cracks.

On a normal day, you may not notice them. In a car, you drive right over them. On foot, you just step around them. Perhaps the danger of jagged road canyons is more evident for the tip-prone design of a bicycle. But we find a way to coexist with them. And then one cold winter day, a bitter rainstorm brings danger to the roads. Water seeps in and in the darkness of night, it freezes.

8th grade science class taught us that when water freezes, it expands, and causes considerable damage to anything around it when this happens. The cracks become wider. Tiny fault lines scrawled across concrete and asphalt become great chasms that threaten to harm anything that moves over them. Once virtually ignorable, the cracks in the road are now hazardous and must be dealt with.

The world before COVID-19 was one with deep, dangerous “cracks”, we will call them, from the start. We’re trained to avoid deep potholes that have littered the landscape of life from the moment we’re born. The crack of inequitable education—before the virus, just by looking at data, we could anticipate a great number of students in our country would not receive a great education just by analyzing the zip code they were born in. Or the crack of generational poverty—it has always been difficult for the working poor to move out of the lower tiers of the social ladder; but in recent years we have seen that sometimes just one unexpected car or health-related expense is enough to throw the entire machine out of sync for them for months or years on end. Surely it can’t just be the work of poor financial planning when we hear that 4 out of the 10 of us couldn’t cover a $400 unexpected expense? Consider the crack of the rising costs of higher education, which have promised “up-and-out” results to a generation of young families, only to saddle them with crippling debt when that dream has to be put on hold to care for a greater need. A country whose stock market has created a narrative that we’re all beneficiaries of living in “the richest nation on earth”, but to many, that reality has been nowhere to be found. Basic requirements of life—housing, food, education, healthcare, access to credit—have become luxuries. These are the cracks laid bare by COVID-19.

Enter the coronavirus—the once-in-a-century ice storm that threatens to wreak havoc on our cracks and potholes… Sparing no one and seemingly unaware that it was not invited to traverse the Atlantic and make its way into our great nation, it crossed every line we’d drawn up. From Asia to the Middle East. From Iran to Italy. From Italy to America. It was not someone else’s problem anymore. It was now ours, too.

Meteorologists will tell you there are few ways to prepare for an ice storm. With enough warning, Transportation departments may lay salt in the hopes that it will lower the freezing temperature of the impending surge of water. But even the strongest salt solutions struggle once the temperature dips below 0ºF. With COVID, we missed the boat on preparing (there was no time for salt) and “The Great Freeze” came. For many affluent or white-collar workers, this meant heading home indefinitely and venturing out only for supplies like groceries or take-out. For most of the entertainment industry, The Freeze brought unemployment and income insecurity. For service workers now considered “essential”, it hastened the arrival of a wrenching conundrum: “Do I choose between looking out for my family to be able to earn enough to make ends meet? Or do I stay home and forfeit pay to be more cautious of my health?” Can you imagine such a decision?

For those who spent their lives before The Freeze trying to make a living while facing the brunt of the countless cracks in our society, this season has been catastrophic. Public transportation workers have fallen ill on the job and become hospitalized or died, as have those living in nursing homes, prisons and crowded tenement apartments. Black and brown people with underlying health conditions (no doubt brought about by the difficulty and stress of navigating crack after crack in society for a lifetime) are terribly vulnerable to falling ill and passing away even in 2020. Today, the official worldwide toll of The Freeze is this: 2.5 million people have been infected, 172,120 have died, and the lives of billions of others have been disrupted or displaced. The numbers are numbing to comprehend. 14,000 dead in New York. Nearly 5,000 in New Jersey. Almost 2,800 in Michigan. While the virus has spared no group, it has torn apart our most vulnerable communities. A total of 40,000 American lives have been cut short by this Great Freeze.

Who knows what the final toll will be? But we know what task will befall us next—the task of fixing, filling, re-paving, patching all of these cracks turned into chasms by The Great Freeze. Things will be different now. We will grow used to health screenings at football games and concerts, and perhaps even at weddings and funerals. Until a vaccine arrives, we’ll oscillate between closings and quarantines, re-openings and more shutting down. “When will normal return?” will give way to a reluctant acquiescence to the “new normal” that awaits on the other side of this crisis.

The widened crack of K-12 education has been laid bare for all to see. Distance learning has proven inconvenient and challenging for the most privileged among us. But it has been woefully ineffective in serving the needs of the most vulnerable. Who knew that education platforms designed for a desktop internet browser were so much harder to use on a phone with an unstable internet connection? Perhaps we knew that before all this, as that teeny little “crack” was easy to step over. But a small, barely noticeable crack like this has been widened and exposed by the Freeze.

The crack that runs through higher education is just as terrifying. College students paying thousands of dollars to attend classes on campus and living in crowded dorms and apartments before the virus will be affected by the financial costs of the Freeze for years to come. How many will choose not to return in the fall? Some who are faced with the new reality—College-as-Zoom-calls—may tolerate the high price in the short run for the reward of the long run. But how many among us will justify taking out loans of $5,000-$10,000 per year when the burdens of work and family threaten to distract us from the learning at hand? Perhaps the widened crack in high education will foster new kinds of innovative educational options and programs. But it surely will never be the same.

The cracks running like capillaries through the gig economy and “One Day Shipping” have been laid bare for all to see by the terror of The Great Freeze. Working as an independent contractor without healthcare benefits was perilous before the freeze, but it has been shown to be terrifyingly inadequate now. In the coming years, pandemic-proof jobs will be praised by recruiters and employers around the world, and some may choose to trade a different career path for the security of knowing they’ll be safe when the next Freeze comes. There were many who warned of the human toll on warehouse workers who make possible fast, convenient online shopping when the crack was still barely noticeable. But now, consumers are ever more aware of the ways they are contributing to the risks of distribution center and parcel service workers every time they click “Buy Now”. Will The Great Freeze lead to a new wave of workforce protections? Who knows?

There are countless other cracks to consider. What will become of our political system and hospitals? What will happen if millions of people can’t pay the out-of-pocket costs of the care they received to survive the Virus? What will happen to people who lose their jobs due to something completely out of their control and can’t pay their mortgages anymore?

Will companies and churches and birthday parties and conversations return to their traditionally offline tendencies? Or will this moment forge new and lasting ways to connect without being physically close? Will we want to get on a plane again after all this? Or enter an arena for a concert with 17,000 other people? Will we willingly take on debt that will be impossible to repay in the event of a sudden, unexpected complete loss of income?

Will we consider the value added by the vulnerable immigrants in a year or two when we recall that their “essential” work had to continue during The Freeze so that our construction projects and regular lawn maintenance were able to stay on schedule? Will “essential workers” still get the applause and attention they’ve received during The Freeze? Will we go back to barely acknowledging the bagger helping us with our groceries while we focus on whatever frivolous thing is filling our screens?

Or will we forget?

Will we fix a couple cracks here and there, patching them haphazardly and promising to buy more salt in the future? Or will we repave entire roads like the ones just described?

Whatever comes next, know this. The world will not be the same. Our children’s children will be affected by The Great Freeze. And we have the chance to make sure the world they live in is better for the people who hop over cracks every day. This is the American spirit. To take this opportunity to build better roads, create stronger foundations and pave over any crack that makes it difficult for one of us to succeed. For another threat will return. And we must press forward.

We can be ready for the next Great Freeze.

But will we choose to be?

Where is Courage?

Where is courage?

Who have we become? Once called to be “salt” and “light”, we have lost our saltiness and our capacity to shine bright. We have become the very thing Jesus warned us about. We are tasteless. Lukewarm and without flavor, worthy of being spit out.
Where is courage?

We have traded moral influence and a trusted voice at the table for power-at-all-costs, and in doing so, our witness and gospel of life, grace and forgiveness has been masked by a terrible kind of hypocrisy that oozes from the pores of our speech and actions. We are the Emperor without clothes.

Where is courage?

Once proud of our legacy of faith that stood up to dictators, autocrats and other terrible people who refused to recognize the God-given value of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we have now chosen to marry our faith to a man and a political movement who have built their base on mistrust of “the other” and a clear lack of regard for choosing right over wrong.

Where is courage?

We have become unrecognizable from the man in the gospels whose grace, mercy and kindness softened each of our hearts and called us to follow Him at one point in our lives. We follow leaders whose primary character traits are boldness and brashness while claiming to follow our Lord who was known for his gentleness and meekness.

Where is courage?

What will we say to the next generation of Christians who ask us to share our role in the rise of Trumpism in the 2010s? Is it too late to turn back?

Where is courage?

We are at risk of losing in a moment what took a lifetime to build. Whereas our parents and grandparents appear content to trade long-term evangelical witness for short-term political influence, we, the younger, still have a chance to write history by choosing what we will stand for. To not “let anyone look down on us because we are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity”.

And we long to welcome our brothers and sisters of faith back home as they choose to stand for what is right. We long to do so like Lincoln said years ago, “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

Where is courage? Can anyone find it today?

We claim that Jesus is on our side, but do we really believe that? If Jesus were to walk this earth once more, what would he say to us at this moment in time?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”

Is there hope that our faith, once known for its unwavering courage in the face of the threat of The Empire, can once again be known as a faith that speaks truth to Power?

Or will we become like those who are left stumbling as they seek to justify their actions without any moral ground to stand on?

Like a homeowner desperately patching cracks in the foundation of her house built on sand.

Where is courage?

Where, O Lord?

A Letter to Other White, American Christians

What have we become? Would Jesus recognize us as His own if He came back to earth today?

Have we learned nothing from MLK’s scathing rebuke of “the white moderate” written to white evangelical leaders nearly 55 years ago? Are we, the Christians of 2018, in danger of being the next generation of evangelicals to find themselves on the wrong side of history?

Shame on us. Shame on the millions upon millions of people just like me who are content with pursuing “a negative peace which is the absence of tension rather than a positive peace which is the presence of justice“.

Shame on us for being content with walking into our churches Sunday after Sunday, brushing shoulders with people who look just like us, filling ourselves up with positive messages and a sense of goodwill… only to go back into a dark, unjust world full of people who are desperate for help, and when we see them, choosing to look the other way.

Shame on us for spending so much of our money, time and energy to make sure that we are secure, safe and insulated from the problems that affect poorer communities. For willingly and publicly flying across the world for a week at a time to serve kids in other countries, but choosing to look the other way at the same problems and injustices that affect other children in our community just a few miles down the road.

Shame on us for hiding in our nice cars, our nice homes, our nice schools and our nice neighborhoods, patting ourselves on the back for how skillfully we managed our resources and networks in order to create positive outcomes for ourselves and our families… conveniently forgetting the help we got along the way from our parents, grandparents, family members, friends and our government who all played a part in subsidizing our educations, our down payments, our lifestyles and our retirement accounts.

Shame on us for hiding behind our political parties and ideologies, claiming that they don’t value education or hard work. That they should be fine with being separated from their kids at our own border while trying to flee violence and seek refuge in a safer place… after all, they “are not our kids”. That their reasons for immigrating to our country are somehow different and less virtuous than the reasons of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents… somehow conveniently forgetting that roughly 2% of people in America are truly native to America. Have we forgotten that we were once foreigners in our own country as well?

Shame on us for cleverly absolving ourselves of responsibility to do anything about the harsher living conditions of our brothers and sisters. How clever of us to bundle every single “controversial” issue related to social justice, educational equality, housing reform, immigration and racial equality into a “liberal issue” package that is socially acceptable to discard, ignore or demonize when we’re with other people like us.

Shame on us for trying to use to our religion to justify these behaviors. For implying (but not directly saying) that following Jesus the right way means being a “good American”. For putting our faith and our pride in our patriotism rather than the cross.

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We have sinned. We have become like the Pharisees, turning our noses up at injustice and the poor. We are content to blame their condition on their own faults rather than choosing to take a hard look inward and ask how we might have contributed to their present state. We look down on the urban community, insisting they “fix themselves” before we entertain the thought of welcoming them in as part of our “safe”, gated communities of privilege and power. Is it any wonder that people are hesitant to listen to us when we try to share the gospel with them?

To other white, Christian Americans: do we look like Jesus? Do we burn for justice like Jesus did? Do we stop our busy routines for one minute to listen to the stories of those who are suffering and then help them like Jesus did? Do we listen to his teaching to “sell our possessions and give to the needy”? Do we ignore God’s command to love the foreigner, the immigrant, the migrant and the refugee? Do we somehow forget the vivid, clear, foreboding and harrowing warnings from our own Bible about what God will do to anyone who deprives justice from the poor and the oppressed? Are we blind to the fact that “the oppressed, the fatherless, the widow and the orphan” includes immigrants and people whose skin doesn’t look like ours?

We can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. Either we repent of our shared sin as it relates to how we’ve idolized “American” values at the expense of helping our neighbor… or we become even more unrecognizable from the creator of our own faith.

Oh, how we’ve drifted from what’s really important—that we were all dead, poor, without hope and without life before Jesus worked some amazing act of grace in our lives. Have we forgotten that Jesus loves us independent of our social standing, our yearly earnings, the value of our cars and homes, and the perceived “quality” of our neighborhoods and schools? Or do we follow a Christianity that is more American than Christian — one that is more concerned with security, status and individual (or family) success than sharing the grace and love of our Lord with those who are in desperate need of hearing and receiving it?

We must repent. I fear that if we don’t change and repent of our shared ignorance and refusal to pursue and support and fight for justice for everyone in America, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of a harsh lesson about God’s justice and judgment.

Oh, Lord, help us. We need you and desperately want to look more like you. Forgive us and show us how to use our resources and privilege to lift others up, and not just those who look like us. Give us courage to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard. Make us look more like you.

Help us, Jesus.