How our suffering during the pandemic can grow our faith
An opportunity for unity dashed to bits
A year ago, I was writing about how Christianity was made for a time such as this. The church started in tumult, and survived, and thrived through it. I was hopeful for how our church would survive the pandemic, and for the most part my hopes were realized. Our cell movement remains strong, and financially we are in good shape too. It is a miracle. But I have to admit that last April we really had no idea what we were facing. There was a strange mystery and uncertainty to it. I mean, last April we weren’t even wearing masks (and yet, this April, we’re wondering if the vaccinated should wear masks in public). One thing feels comforting to me at this time: no matter what, we’re in this together. The shared experience of suffering and the collective difficulty in some ways has built our very humanity and commonality. That made the suffering easier. Everyone did it together.
That didn’t last for long because the culture warriors took over the discourse and starting talking about how covid-19 was nothing more than a common cold, how mask mandates were an infringement upon their freedom, and why singing indoors was a good thing, actually. These days, they’re telling us why vaccine passports are a further infringement of their rights. Despite the possibility for commonality and unity fighting a deadly scourge that’s taken 555,000 Americans and 2.86 million people worldwide, we ended up without the unity I wish we had. Christians, nationwide, were divided. Half of white evangelicals won’t even get vaccinated. The lack of unity was frustrating for me, and our polarized society isolated me further, and not because we’re so divided, but because we simply saw how self-centered and willfully ignorant so many people were being. I don’t get any joy out of saying that, and I wish things were different.
Our year-plus of isolation was tiresome, discouraging, and made even worse by the abstract nature of the fruits of our sacrifice. We were isolating, socially distancing, and masking up. People were dying everyday, still. We encountered three (and maybe four) waves of the pandemic. How many lives did I save through my discipline? It’s hard to know. And it’s hard to do the right thing without seeing the fruit born from that action. It’s not good enough to do what’s right. I want to see dividends on my investment. And as we remain in this dreaded pandemic, I have to admit, it’s hard to keep going, hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hard to believe what I said a year ago, that Christianity was made for a time such as this.
We are still in the in-between time
I think it struck me on Palm Sunday. Right after we were finished broadcasting the Sunday meeting that night, I hauled over a decorated cross (replacing old, dead flowers with new, fresh ones), and declared He is Risen! I’ll admit doing that in an empty room is hard, and it was hard to do it on Zoom the day of. There were even some limitations to the congregations that chose do it in-person, outside. None of this feels like it should. Resurrection is real, but it feels lacking in this dreaded time.
We celebrated the resurrection of the Son of God on the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on 1968. Martin Luther King died in the name of resurrection; he died for the cause of civil rights, a cause for which Jesus would have marched alongside him. But the backdrop of these last two weeks was the murder trial for Derek Chauvin, the cop who killed George Floyd, and sparked national outrage. And even then white people became aware of what people of color everywhere already knew, we had a reminder that the worst things need to happen to open the eyes of some folks. And still, some white Christians are still in denial about our racialized society, and the movement for racial justice, arguing about critical race theory and the “world” influencing churches (instead of simply listening to Christians of color). All of that is a painful experience for me, and even as I celebrate the Resurrection, I realize I am still in the in-between time, in my own Advent, still, as I await the return of Christ. I find comfort in the words of Jesus in John 17:
I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one. When I was with them, I watched over them in your name, the name you gave to me, and I kept them safe. None of them were lost, except the one who was destined for destruction, so that scripture would be fulfilled.
The entire text of the Final Discourse is encouraging to us as we endure the liminal space between the Resurrection and Return of Christ, between justification and sanctification. We also exist in a liminal space as we phase out of the pandemic. Our entire faith’s context is the liminal space of the already-but-not-here-yet Kingdom of God, where we are filled with the Glory of Jesus, the Grandeur of His Grace, and yet the Gravity of Sin is all around us. I’m praying with Jesus that he protects us, delivers us, and gives us heart, because we will face trouble in this world.
Our oppression moves us closer to God
I’m well-acquainted with the inadequacy of this world and how clear it is that God’s redemption is both here and incomplete, because I struggle every day for being a brown man, with political meaning assigned to my body. That’s a fancy way of saying I experience racism and prejudice just because of what I look like. I think the people who are oppressed have a lived experience that gives them a closer to proximity to God because they desperately need transcendence and liberation. They need God to give them comfort and courage, in a way that those with more power do not need. And so they have an existential connection to God’s liberating work, and God is on their side.
This make minorities and other oppressed people’s experience much closer to that of the early church. Americans and Europeans largely did not have their experience. In the former’s case, the country they inhabit was designed to protect their freedom of worship, and so their God becomes liberty, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And in the latter’s case, the church was codified in the law itself, and so the state church and Christendom changed the experience of Christianity from a minoritarian religion that thrived and grew under oppression, like a mustard seed, to one that grew through domination and violence. The largess of American Empire and the domination of European Christendom make the experience of Christianity far too luxurious for its full meaning and effect to occur.
But early Christians were not in charge, they were oppressed. Their little communities across the Mediterranean had to survive under the domination of Rome, and they had to fight for their own legitimacy, as an offspring of Judaism. And for them, every day was a struggle. They were waiting for Jesus to return to save them from their present suffering. But they faced as much of an existential crisis as we do in the pandemic, and for me, in many ways, it is a new experience. And I have to admit, it’s still full of privilege. Our technology, as tiresome and limiting as it is, has made this whole year much more tolerable. But it does show us how frail our condition is, how insecure we really are. When we fool ourselves into thinking we don’t need to be materially saved, we may just be blocking ourselves from seeing how we very much do need a savior.
This pandemic reminded us that our power won’t save us
If you don’t need to be saved from anything because the state already saved you with its promise of liberty or its threat of violence, then serving a God named redeemer, a Messiah whose purpose is to save you, seems immaterial. From what do you need to be saved? Why do those with power and privilege need a savior? The state has already done that job. Of course, their power and privilege will condemn them, ultimately. Jesus says you can’t serve both wealth and God. He says that clinging to what the world has and trying to gain it, will cause us to forfeit our souls.
My lived experience as a person of color is accentuated by the horrors of the pandemic and the racial injustice we saw during it. It wasn’t just the racialized police violence, it’s how the virus disproportionately hospitalized and killed black and brown folks. But not only that, the difficulty of the pandemic adds to the oppression we already face every day. It’s why we need a savior, why we need Christ’s return, why we need redemption and liberation, and cosmic hope and transcendence.
A Christianity that doesn’t liberate us from our present suffering is no Christianity at all. And if you feel especially discouraged now, and I know many of us do, then our faith is even more valuable again. If you feel like you need to be saved because of the evil around you, the death around you, the horrible circumstance of this pandemic, then you really do need a Savior. And this Savior isn’t abstract, isn’t purely emotional or metaphysical, but one that has an actual material significance and consequence. Our Savior really saves because we really need to be saved.
I think this message is essential for the church today. The Son of Man actually redeems us, actually saves us. I think that our backdrop of power, wealth, health, and privilege mute all of this. Christianity works in dire circumstances, and it falls apart when we mistake the state, or the market, or any other force for being that power. I think it’s why we are seeing a massive decline in church attendance, too. If Christianity is just a religion that makes us feel good, we have plenty of other options, especially when it’s Zoom church. But if we fully enter our suffering, it requires our faith to be so much more. And that is a liberating experience. If you are in despair, wondering how you can possibly be saved from this dreadful time, I think that the vacancy of hope in your life can be more easily filled by the power of Jesus’, his Resurrection and Redemption.