WE’RE CLEARLY NOT yet in a post-pandemic world, and almost everyone seems well-disillusioned of any pretense that we live in a “post-racial” time. But, as Julie Polter explains in her cover essay, the COVID-19 pandemic—and the worldwide protests in response to the other pandemic of police brutality and systematized racism—has led to actions once thought unimaginable. From NASCAR to the Southern Baptist Convention, a surprisingly wide range of people and institutions seem suddenly aware of their own complicity in symbols and structures of injustice—and more and more white people express their recognition that police brutality isn’t, after all, the isolated behavior of a few “bad apples.”
“QUIET MIRACLES,” THAT’S what the late writer Brian Doyle calls them, those moments of wonder so freighted with significance they inscribe themselves upon our hearts. If there is a unifying thread in One Long River of Song, a posthumous collection of Doyle’s essays and prose poetry, it is this: Quiet miracles bespot our lives. They are everywhere, if only we have the patience and humility to see them as such.
Consider a shrew or a hummingbird or a can of anchovies clutched to a young boy’s sleeping chest. That’s what Doyle does. He finds miracle and mystery enough to still your heart, bring you to tears, or leave you smirking and smiling in awe. Revealing and reveling in such wonders is what Doyle does best. And he does it time and time again, in short prose poems and essays that rarely run over two pages long.
CAROLYN FORCHÉ’S FOURTH poetry collection, Blue Hour, appeared in 2003, and her readers have longed for the next ever since. It’s hard to imagine any poetry book worth a wait of 17 years. Forché’s new collection, In the Lateness of the World, is worth more.
As the title suggests, Forché explores a dying world—countries ravaged and erased by war, islands drowned in natural disasters, seas overflowing with garbage. The poems are both haunting and haunted, including the memories of a lost world and the corpses that remain.
Forché coined the term “poetry of witness.” Her witness here is not only characteristically unflinching but also a challenge to readers.
The first half of the book mostly grieves the world’s tragedies at large, but always with the particularity that gives her ghosts a pulse. Nearly every poem includes rapid lists of sharp images. Forché’s lists dizzy and overwhelm, effectively dropping us into warzones and forcing us to follow her through an apocalypse.
IN HER STUNNING second novel, Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, once again examines race and kinship. This time, she interrogates the color line through the Vignes twins—their coming of age and its impact on the subsequent generation. Born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, La., the twins dream of escaping their stifling community. At 16, they run away together. In New Orleans, a desperate choice severs their bond: Stella passes as white to get a job, then leaves her sister Desiree in order to marry a white man.
Years later, when Desiree flees an abusive marriage and returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude, the town is shocked by the child’s color: “black as tar,” “blueblack.” Having inherited her father’s complexion, Jude looks nothing like her mother. From its opening pages, The Vanishing Half grounds us in this “strange” town that, “like any other, was more idea than place.” The idea: a community for those “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” An idea born of a freed slave, the twins’ ancestor, as he “stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him.”
FIONA APPLE’S 2020 internet takeover began the moment she released her newest album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, in April. This cyber movement was not orchestrated by Apple, who does not have any social media accounts, but rather by the countless women tweeting, Instagramming, and exulting over the album. I probably have the algorithm to thank for the prevalence of these posts in my feed, as they were mostly from my demographic—millennial women with overflowing collections of books and high-waisted pants. Yet, algorithm or no, the joy I witnessed was completely organic, and if you’ve heard the album, you’ll understand why.
Many people’s introduction to Fiona Apple is not her strong, eclectic body of work. Instead, it’s her infamous speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards in which she exhorts viewers, especially adolescents, not to model their lives after “what we think is cool.” After that, Apple seemed to vanish from the public eye, emerging every so often with an absurdly long album title that tied bundles of complicated songs together.
I’m beating around the bush with the word “complicated.” What I really mean is “angry.” Fiona Apple is one of the few women in music who is allowed to be furious in an unpretty way. She has become a secular patron saint for prophetic women whose insight makes them vulnerable to the ridicule of others.
Force of Nature
The podcast Floodlines tells the stories of four New Orleanians who stayed in the city as Hurricane Katrina hit, 15 years ago this August. Through eight episodes based on a year of reporting, the extensive traumas caused by the storm and a botched federal response are examined. The Atlantic.
WE OFTEN THINK the word “apocalypse” refers to an “end of days” scenario. While that is one usage, it’s incomplete. The Greek root, apokálypsis, is defined as revelation, or an unveiling. It’s often used in prophetic terms, as in the biblical book of Revelation. An apocalypse doesn’t mean destruction so much as laying bare humanity’s underlying truths.
This year, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the best post-apocalyptic films in a series that helped define the genre, turns 5. Miller’s Mad Max movies are fascinating not just because of their creativity and economical storytelling, but also for how they address the revelatory nature of apocalypse, both in humanity’s sinful nature and its capacity for selflessness.
The Mad Max films happen in a violent wasteland that Miller shows as the direct result of humanity’s greed and recklessness. Fury Road advances that revelation, altering the series’ attitude from cynicism to hope. Fury Road’s message of renewal, and prophetic undertones, makes it a perfect movie for uncertain times.
THE LEAST FUNNY thing in the world today is the novel coronavirus. Unless it’s how I look breathing through a Brita filter, or opening doors with my feet, or the phrase “under the leadership of this president.” But that’s not what’s getting me down today. (Ask me tomorrow.) I can’t stop fretting about climate change. Even though the virus has actually slowed human impact on the environment, I’m not content. And it’s showing.
People tell me I’m no fun anymore because I fail to see the silver lining in clouds which, I keep pointing out, would not actually float if they contained metal of any kind. (Nor do they contain stuffed-animal parts, despite often resembling your favorite childhood comfort friend.) Nor do I “walk on the sunny side of the street,” since that side is no longer protected by a healthy ozone layer. If apocalypse were a color, I’d be looking at the world through apocalypse-colored glasses. And that glass would be three-quarters empty, not half full. And yes, I’m mixing metaphors, because I like them shaken, not stirred.
The front of my mind may be on the virus, but the back of my mind is on the climate. And it’s a small mind, so there’s not much distance between the two.
RECOUNTING THE STORIES that shape our religious longings happens in the shade of uncertainty and fear. We remain in “Ordinary Time” but are besieged by a global pandemic with fallout the likes of which we cannot yet know. It would be easy to scapegoat people or to descend into fear. But we are called to live out our faith, even in difficult times—or maybe especially in difficult times.
We know we are constantly being shaped by our histories, in every way. Telling the stories of how we’ve come through in the past and grounding ourselves again in the firm foundation of our faith will, over time, reveal to us how that foundation shaped our lives in this season. It may embolden us to join God’s project of salvation, deliverance, and freedom for all creation. With Christ at the center of our lives, we have a constant invitation to return to the source and to center our lives in God in such a way that we see our responsibility to live, on behalf of this world, in the name of Christ. It pushes us beyond our circles of family and friends and helps us to see a larger connection, deeper relationships. Perhaps if we can get there, we will be able to see our need to repent from our self-absorption. We might be able to see that we are a web of relationships and—just as Moses needed the help of at least five women—that we need one another to survive.
Wrestling a Blessing
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
IN GENESIS 32, Jacob wrestles a blessing from the man at the river Jabbok, but not without cost. Jacob says he’s seen God face to face (32:30), something Moses would later be told is impossible. There has been much scholarship on whether the man with whom Jacob wrestles is God or an angel. The text is fully ambiguous. But it seems clear that Jacob wrestled in the night because he was afraid to face his past. He feared the coming confrontation with Esau.
I have had internal wrestling matches that have felt like I was in hand-to-hand combat with myself. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether our nation can wrestle with its internal beginnings, with its demons and angels—with its past. Recent events where Black people have died either in vigilante killings, such as Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, or state-sanctioned police killings, such as the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, tell me we still have some communal wrestling to do, in hopes of finding a new name that includes “justice.” Jacob needed to win because from his lineage would come the patriarch from whom came the messiah who “God blessed forever” (Romans 9:5). If people will know God’s blessings, they must find a way to live into what is right for the sake of us all.
IN 1996, PATTERSON Hood and Mike Cooley co-founded Drive-By Truckers, an alternative-country rock band based in Athens, Ga., that has always celebrated speaking truth to power while making unforgettable music. Over the years, Hood and Cooley have remained the chief songwriters in the band, and one thing has been constant since day one: They speak their minds. That has never been truer than on their latest record, The Unraveling.
“It’s a heavy record, it’s really heavy,” says Hood. “It was painful to write.”
Much of that heaviness revolves around Hood and Cooley plunging themselves into the hypocrisy of the evangelical movement that has come to a vivid crescendo since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“I’m not going to put up any pretense that I’m religious, but there’s a lot of Christianity in my background,” Hood admits. “I have very, very close family members who, until fairly recently, considered themselves part of the Christian Right.” He watched as those family members experienced a political turnaround, partly due to how they saw politicians co-opting their faith in ways that went against their interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.
“They’re particularly offended by the whole ‘thoughts and prayers’ thing being bandied about as an excuse to do nothing, as an excuse for inaction,” he says. Because of that, he put pen to paper and wrote the aptly titled “Thoughts and Prayers,” a hauntingly beautiful song that forces listeners to confront the senseless gun violence for which America has become known.
WHEN THE U.S. Catholic bishops gathered to draft a document on race in the wake of the 2017 white terrorist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Ark., submitted an amendment to condemn the imagery of swastikas, Confederate flags, and nooses. The U.S. bishops deliberated and voted to reject it.
The document, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” was billed as “a pastoral letter against racism,” making its writers’ silence on three famously extreme symbols of racism a curious one. The bishops explained themselves by arguing that swastikas and nooses were already “widely recognized signs of hatred,” which would seem to make them all the easier to condemn. (Interestingly, they eschewed this logic when issuing their only condemnation, against violence toward police.) As for the Confederate flag, “some still claim it as a sign of heritage,” they argued.
While this logic indefensibly hand-waves the history of slavery, murderous opposition to civil rights, and violence such as the 2015 shooting at a Black church in Charleston, S.C., as a vaguely benign “heritage,” it also fails to account for the flag’s use among those with no ties to the Confederacy. Take, for example, U.S. Rep. Steve King. While most widely known for asking what’s so wrong with white supremacy and white nationalism, King, who is Catholic, has also displayed a Confederate flag on his congressional desk. The quite obvious meaning of the flag’s presence on the desk of King, who represents a district in Iowa until January, is apparently lost on the bishops, given their claims about “Southern” heritage.
The decision to avoid condemning swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags would be troubling under any circumstances. But this moral failure is compounded by the fact that Catholics are among the most integral groups that rally behind these symbols. From the highest reaches of government to the lowest depths of social media, many members of hate groups and politicians who model their talking points are part of the bishops’ flock. Catholics not only contributed to the platform for the so-called alt-righters who terrorized Charlottesville and killed Heather Heyer but are leaders and even founders of the most dangerous neo-Nazi groups in existence.
The Catholic Church, once persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan, today has a visible white-power faction. As long as the bishops actively refuse to condemn its banners, they give white supremacists space to embrace their anti-Black and anti-Semitic work free of religious dissonance.
CONSCIENCE, REMARKED MORAL theologian Richard Gula, “is another word like ‘sin’—often used but little understood.”
As a teenager growing up in the naval stronghold of San Diego during the Reagan era, I experienced a recurring nightmare about war with the Soviet Union, which became darker as I learned more about the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place 75 years ago this August. During that time Joan Kroc, an anti-nuclear leader who was also principal owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team, and others organized Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament. On the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, thousands gathered in Balboa Park, and my fear was transformed into a conviction of conscience to work for nuclear disarmament.
Conscience involves the capacity to discern and choose the morally right course of action in a particular situation. In doing so, a person brings to bear a lifelong process of formation of conscience. Each person has the obligation to form his or her conscience as fully as possible, and to follow it.
The formation of conscience is highly personal and socially situated. Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well as theological writings such as those by St. Augustine, provide steps for building moral character, teaching moral reasoning, and forming our moral conscience to offer judgment based in practical reason to recognize and seek what is good and to reject what is evil.
This process for engaging Christian moral thinking involves four key elements:
- Be open to the truth and draw upon the prudent wisdom of personal and communal experience.
- Seek reliable teaching, including from scripture and Christian tradition.
- Review the best available information and consult trusted persons with relevant expertise.
- Engage prayerful discernment and conscientious action through the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide one’s application of moral values in each case.
WE KNOW WE intertwine with one another and the rest of creation in ways both material and symbolic: through blood and law, employment and play, through the full range of physical contact and social niceties, as well as loan papers, traffic tickets, and contracts. We sing a hymn in church, and the song swells into harmony, a gift of complexity and cooperation.
Through it all we breathe: Breathe in. Breathe out. My breath out mingles with your breath in. A communion of droplets. And so clusters of COVID-19 come not just in places of forced confinement—prisons, nursing homes, meatpacking plants—but after birthday dinners and choral practice, weddings and retirement parties.
“We’re all in this together” you might have heard as stay-at-home orders spread across the country; “the virus is the great equalizer.” After all, what could be more universal than breath? A pauper or a prime minister might breathe in a sufficient viral load to become critically ill.
BUT THE CONDITIONS in which we breathe, the condition of our breathing bodies, and the conditions of the facilities that treat our bodies when breathing becomes difficult are rarely equal. Some people of great wealth have died from COVID-19, but many, many more of modest or little means have perished from it.
Societal inequalities of income and race incarnate as preexisting medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and kidney and pulmonary disease, that increase the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. For example, in Washington, D.C., the bottom 10 percent of income earners have a rate of diabetes nearly 74 percent greater than the median. The wealthy can pay for better food and housing; they have less stress and exposure to industrial pollutants and more access to recreation spaces and health care. The lowest-paying jobs, many of which force people into overexposure to the virus, are disproportionately filled by those with options limited by racial bias and legal status. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic, “Black and Latino workers are overrepresented among the essential, the unemployed, and the dead.”
And the pandemic did not stop the other ways we deprive people of the breath of life: A neighborhood lynch mob stalks, films, and kills jogger Ahmaud Arbery but is not charged for months; police officers shoot Breonna Taylor in her own home during a botched raid; a white cop kneels on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
I breathe out. You breathe in. Before coronavirus, some people did that without a second thought. Yet every day others were struggling to breathe at all.
“THERE AREN’T ROADS beyond here; it’s trails and wilderness—wilderness that goes all the way up into Canada.
There’s something to the phrase ‘the pursuit of less.’ We try to live close to the land and what the land is able to do or produce; we live within that rather than our own will of what the ‘good life’ is.
We’re closed to the public and new arrivals until at least the end of August. This is providing a lot of reflection time. There are no distractions, really. There’s no TV, no cell phone services—this is a satellite phone we’re on right now. But the trees and the earth and the animals and all those things are very active—and it’s almost like a reversal.
A WHITE COP’S knee on the neck of a Black man revealed the old and ongoing pandemic underneath the current pandemic. The coronavirus had already laid bare the systems of racial injustice that accelerate the spread of sickness and death among people of color—the fundamental racial disparities in health care, economics, housing, education, and every other institution in America. Structural racism was exposed as a precondition for getting and dying from COVID-19; white supremacy is the virus that has made America’s soul sick for 400 years and continues to kill Black people.
Over the last weekend in May, including Pentecost Sunday, Sojourners helped organize faith communities to lament the first 100,000 COVID dead in this country. We were joined by Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters in their services, and we helped unite Christian families across all our divisions—mainline Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal, Catholic, Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American Christian leaders and their congregations—in honoring and memorializing those who died from the virus in only three months, many of them separated from their loved ones. On June 1, we were joined by mayors from more than 60 cities who, with interfaith clergy, announced a Day of Mourning and Lament.
THESE DAYS, I gather strength from predictability. Being home from work amid a global pandemic with two children—a toddler and a teenager—has filled my world with inventive ways to press on while working full-time, schooling the kids, and being a graduate student myself.
I have a newfound green thumb—working with my mini-garden, I recount stories from my childhood, stories of triumph, perseverance, and restless hope. I hope my toddler clings to these stories when things seem uncertain. I am also creating new stories to share for years to come. My journal is overflowing with COVID-19 stats, sketches of plants, and day-to-day business. It has become a place I document our lives. When my children grow old, they will look to this time and wonder how we made it through or how we handled this uncertainty because they yearn for a time when things feel hopeful again. I hope my journals will help them remember and understand how we coped with a time when we self-quarantined, socially distanced, stayed six feet apart in masks.
LAST SUMMER, I started composting. What began as an economical exercise focused on reduction became, over time, a relationship based on generosity and gift. When COVID-19 interrupted my weekly routine of dropping off food scraps, I realized with a jolt that composting felt less like an act of frugality and more like bringing tribute. Unexpectedly, through composting, I had entered into relationship with the earth—and this was a recovery of something long forgotten. As Robin Wall Kimmerer urges us to remember inBraiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, we exist in reciprocity with the more-than-human world.
This remembrance parallels a tactile memory I experienced last winter while running my hands through a bowl of dried black-eyed peas. The feel of the beans, almost like coins, merged with images of large, elementary numerals in my head and movement, like an abacus, from one side to another—a flash so quick and wordless I could not be sure. When it happened again a few months later, I remembered: This is how I learned to count. My grandmother—a foundational figure alive for my first 18 years—taught me to count with beans.
ALMOST FROM THE first day of the COVID-19 crisis, the question in the back of many minds has been: How soon will this be over? When can we get back to normal?
For irresponsible people, the answer has been: Now. Schooled by a lifetime in a consumer society, deprivation of any kind seems impossible, hence the pictures of people demanding, sometimes at gunpoint, that the barber shop or sports bar be opened back up.
For more responsible souls, the answer has been: Once we have enough tests. Or once we have good treatments for the coronavirus. Or once we have a vaccine.
But the real answer, in some sense, may be never.
Because, of course, this pandemic is just one crisis buried within a much larger one: the reaction of the natural world to the demands placed on it by a species making unprecedented demands.
IN MARCH, THE National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service sent recommendations to Congress for changes to the Selective Service System, the military draft. For people of conscience, the issues at the heart of our concern were the expansion of Selective Service and the draft and protection of the rights of conscientious objectors (COs). Conscientious objectors are defined by the Defense Department as those with “a firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief.” Some consider draft registration to be participation in war and a violation of their conscience.
During the commission’s two years of public hearings and debate, religious communities and peace organizations advocated for the commission to recommend that the Selective Service System be put into deep standby, as it was between 1975 and 1980. Short of that, we advocated for a process for COs to make their objection to war known at the time of registration with a “CO check-off box.” The commission ultimately rejected that option, stating that though it “would probably require minimal expense,” it would cause “confusion, during a draft, for those who indicated their intent to file for conscientious objector status.”