May 31: The Cost of Indifference
Beloved: it has been a hard week. On Wednesday we learned that America now has more than 100,000 deaths due to Covid19. And the death count is still rising.
This past Thursday, I was reading an article in the Milwaukee Journal, reporting on America’s ghastly record of 100,000 deaths due to coronavirus. In the article, the daughter of a man who died from the virus in Connecticut said : "For people whose lives haven't been threatened or where the virus hasn't been as rampant through a community, I just think numbers or not, it's still so abstract to so many people. It doesn't matter if it's 200,000, 100,000 or 10. It doesn't mean anything until you're personally affected by it."
It is all too easy to think: “Well, the virus is not too bad here, so we don’t have to be as cautious as New York City.” Or to think: “I am in relatively good health or younger, so I don’t have to worry.” But, Beloved, we know that this virus is made more dangerous because a person can have the virus without having any symptoms. This is why wearing masks is what love looks like right now because the statistics show that if there are two people together, and one is a Covid19 carrier and one is not, there is a very high rate of transmission to the nonCovid person. If only the non-Covid person wears a mask, the possiblity of transmission drops to 70%. If only the Covid19 Carrier wears a mask, the possibilty drops to 5%. And, Beloved, if they both wear a mask, the possibility drops to 1.5%. Why wouldn’t we wear masks in public?
Consider Hong Kong and Singapore, The Wall Street Journal reports that these two cities reported their first cases of the virus in January. “Four months later the densely packed Asian metropolises, with a combined population of about 13 million, have seen 27 fatalities between them.” Only 27 fatalities. Let me put it to you this way: 27 of 13 million is .000002%. America’s death toll, if we had the same percentage of deaths from the Coronavirus as Hong Kong and Singapore ( .000002%) America’s death toll would be 656 deaths. 656. Not over 100,000.
What’s the difference between us and Hong Kong and Singapore? One big difference is that in the Asian culture, people wear masks in public whenever they think they may be sick out of respect for other people. This cultural mindset of the other’s wellness being prioritized over my comfort or convenience or preference has saved thousands of lives. Because prioritizing the wellness of the other, prioritizing the wellness of our siblings at the forefront is how we live salvation. But if our mindset is: “Well, I don’t think it’s going to affect me, so I am just going to keep on doing what I do and living how I live”.......then we reach over 100,000. If our mindset is “I don’t think it’s going to happen here or it isn’t affecting people I know and love---it is happening over there”......then the death rate keeps growing and growing and growing..
A hard week, indeed. And, Beloved, in Minneapolis on Monday, George Floyd was pinned down to the ground, a white police officer’s knee on his neck. George asked for the knee to be removed saying: I can’t breathe. It hurts. It hurts all over. He called for his mother. He repeated that he couldn’t breathe. The knee remained on George’s neck for almost nine minutes; for the last three of those nine minutes, George was unresponsive. George died on Monday. Riots, looting, and protests erupted in Minneapolis and around the country as another black man has needlessly died in the hands of those we trust to keep us safe.
Now hear me, Beloved, hear me: there are many, many good and wonderful police officers; the vast majority of police officers are people who keep us safe, who lay their lives down on the line every day. But we have a sin that is woven into the fabric of American society, a sin that grows from the same root of indifference to others that we are seeing in the spread of the virus in America. This sin can infect even those who have sworn to serve and protect all citizens. And it is the sin of racism.
Beloved, it is hard to come to grips with this sin that we have woven into our ways of being on every level: laws and principles, education, the workforce, entertainment, the Church, housing opportunities, socioeconomic realities----all of it. The truth is: White people—we have authority and status in this country simply because we are white. Our white privilege doesn’t mean we haven’t suffered or struggled. It means our suffering and struggling isn’t due to our skin color.
Even the poorest white person in this country has more opportunity, more safeguards, more protections than most people of color. We Americans do not live out our Constitution that all people are created equally. And we Christians are not living out our baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in every person, to respect the dignity of every human being. Most of us probably think: “Well, I’m not racist. I don’t have a problem with black people or brown people, with indigenous peoples or Asian people. I’m not racist.”
Beloved, I want to invite us to consider that if we are not actively working against racism in America, then we are racist. If we are not actively learning the truth of how racism works in our legal systems, our justice systems, our housing, our education, our financial and social structures, then we are turning a blind eye because as a white person---it doesn’t affect us. Allowing racism to continue to exist without actively fighting against it is racism.
Racism is born from our indifference to one another and it erodes our connectedness, our unity, our oneness. The very thing the Christ came to earth to show us in Jesus: We are one: with each other and with God. This is the Gospel Truth that is meant to be at the center of everything we do, we sing, we pray, we preach, we live. The wellness and wholeness of my sibling—whether in China or in New York or in Plover or in my house; whether the color of my sibling’s skin is black or brown or white or any shade under the sun; whether my sibling’s name is Ahmaud Arbery or George Flynn---the wellness and wholeness of my sibling is to be my priority. Our priority. If my sibling says: I can’t breathe. There is no peace
Beloved, indifference and racism kill. According to Medpage Today, “Predominantly black U.S. counties are experiencing a three-fold higher infection rate and a six-fold higher death rate than predominantly white counties. Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, PhD, former president of the American Public Health Association said, “There is nothing different biologically about race. It is the conditions of our lives. We have to acknowledge that now and always."
More black Americans are dying of Covid19 because since our country began, we, white people, have looked away from the rampant racism that riddles our country. Our racism has led to people of color having less access than white people: less access to affordable housing, good education, well-paying jobs and advancements, adequate healthcare. We white people have allowed humans to be treated inhumanely, to live as if they are less valuable than ourselves------not because we are monsters, not because we don’t have hearts: But because it didn’t touch OUR lives. It didn’t affect our house.
Beloved, the Christ shows us and tells us that all of Creation is our household. God’s kingdom is our house. Our lives are inextricably and irrevocably connected to all lives. As people who follow Jesus, we are called to set a new normal, a new standard, a new human behavior toward suffering and pain. Like Jesus, we are to put ourselves in the suffering person’s shoes. Because the suffering person---whether she is suffering from Covid19 or his suffering comes from a knee on his neck---the suffering person is our brother, our sister, our beloved.
On this day of Pentecost, I want us as the church to remember that Rain School from our children’s message. The school in that story isn’t the building. The building serves a purpose---to form and build up a community of children, who then form the community of people. And next year, after the storm, that building will look a bit different. And there may even be some new faces and some other faces may no longer be there when they return. But the growing and the forming and the learning will continue---as long as the people who make up the school and who attend the school and who provide for the school remember what they are about.
Same goes for us. Right now, we are feeling the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit—moving in and around us as the storm of the Coronavirus threatens to completely dismantle what has been built. And friends, like the school, America needs a good storm to blow through. We need a storm of justice to blow through us--and dismantle the racism we have built with our own hands. Like Jesus, we are to live as if black lives matter. Because here’s the thing: all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. So, my white friends, we must no longer remain indifferent. We can no longer turn our heads or our hearts away from the ugliness that is ours to dismantle----we have created it, and now we must eradicate it. Starting tomorrow, on our website, there will be a page called: Eradicate Racism. The page will contain things we can do as individuals, and as the Beloved Community, to put an end to this sin of ours, including a new 10 week class/conversation called Sacred Ground that will begin the third week of June.
So, come wind of the Holy Spirit---blow down the barriers we have built in our hearts between us and others. Pour down the rain of God’s love and drown our self-centeredness, our greed, our indifference. Let the walls of what has been be washed away so we can rebuild and start anew. Let us breathe life into our virus-riddled nation by prioritizing our sibling’s health and let us work to put to death the systemic racism that is destroying us from within.
Beloved, the Word tells us that when we are baptized, we take on more than a new name, a new family. We take on a new body. We are clothed with Christ’s body. Beloved, if we are going to call ourselves Christian, if we are going to be the Church, then it is time to put our Jesus on.
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Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.