Apr 27, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online worship service, April 26, 2020
The theme of today’s service is renewal and regeneration. And in this sermon I invite us to consider the most pressing question immediately before us: What comes next?
The Governor of Texas has begun the process of re-opening the state. He has appointed a task force to get non-essential workers back to work and businesses back in business. The state, national, and world economy, meanwhile, are currently in a greater freefall than the one experienced during the Great Depression. Many people are hungry. Many people are scared. Many people are tired. And almost everyone is asking, what comes next?
But before I get to that vital question, I have to admit that I almost titled my sermon: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people. Like many other families, my own continues to struggle to make it through the everyday. Now, normally, I avoid too much of a focus on my own quotidian challenges in my preaching. This is especially true when it comes to my children. Neither of them signed up to be preacher’s kids. I do not think it is appropriate to turn their lives into sermon illustrates.
However, in the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that the primary job of the preacher was to “convert life into truth.” He charged Unitarian ministers to offer up “life passed through the fire of thought.” And I think that I am not burdening my son with some unasked-for narrative by sharing that it is not easy trying to get him to engage with his schoolwork. Out experience is, after all, one shared by many families. The primary truth I can offer, from my own life, today, is demonstrated by the tension between the question at the heart of my sermon and my alternative sermon title. We need to ask: What comes next? And, at the same time, most of us are wrestling with our own variants of: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The tension between our question and my alternative sermon title is not a new one. It might be reframed as another question: How do we look to the future when we find ourselves in the middle of tragedy? And to ask that question is essentially to ask, how shall we mourn?
It might seem counter-intuitive, but mourning is essentially a future oriented activity. When we mourn, we acknowledge that we have experienced a loss. We admit that we are suffering. And then we try to ask ourselves the difficult question: What comes next? What comes next itself contains two questions: How shall we remember those we have lost? And how shall we live without them?
This past week the COVID-19 death count in the United States passed fifty thousand. I suspect that most of you have been impacted by the virus. I know someone listening to this sermon is ill. I know someone hearing me preach has lost family or friends. I know someone considering my words has lost their job or their business. I know that almost everyone who is playing this video has been affected by this pandemic. We are all mourning.
As a historian, political philosopher, and a theologian, not to mention a parish minister, I have been finding it increasingly unhelpful to think of the situation we are in as unprecedented. There have been plagues and pandemics before. There have been tyrants before. The wealthy and powerful have feigned compassion for the poor before. There has been mass economic disruption before. And people have mourned before.
One of the central functions of a religious community is to help people mourn. We hold funerals and memorial services. We offer prayers and condolences. We write eulogies. We make meaning through mourning. We ask the question, through tears, what comes next?
For most of us, our primary experience of mourning has been mourning the deaths of individuals. Our grandparents or parents or partners or friends or even children have died. Their deaths might have been swift and tragic. They might have come at the end of a long illness. They might have arrived when those we loved were old, in their middle years, or when they were young. Whenever it has come, we, the mourners, who have survived have needed to ask the questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next?
I have lost my grandparents to old age and heart disease. I have lost friends to drug overdoses, violence, and suicide. I have had loved ones die of cancer. I have known people who were killed in car crashes and bicycle accidents. In each instance, the same questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next? How shall I mourn?
Right now, many of us feel like the writer Edith Sitwell when she was asked why she wore black. She replied that she was in mourning. “For whom are you in mourning?” came the response. “For the world,” she answered.
We are mourning the world. There is a sense of mourning the world in June Jordan’s poem, “Nobody Riding the Roads Today.” It was written long before COVID-19 blighted the globe. And yet, it captures much of the experience of isolation that I know many of us are feeling:
Nobody meeting on the streets
But I rage from the crowded
overtones of emptiness
...Nobody laughing anymore
But I see the world split
and twisted up like open stone
The world empty, the world split, the world twisted; we are mourning the world. We are asking ourselves, what did the way of life we had before the pandemic mean? We are asking, what comes next? And we, are doing this all, as all mourners must, in the midst of our ordinary, unaccustomed, struggles: illness, fear of illness, deaths of loved ones, job loss, housing insecurity, hunger and want, and, in the case of many an exasperated parent, the cry of, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork? Each struggle connecting to an aspect of what we have lost, of what we are mourning: health, the illusion of safety, economic security, work, and the school community. They each meant something different to us before the pandemic. And their meanings have changed now that we find ourselves living amid a worldwide pestilence.
The anthropologist David Graeber has written perceptively about mourning and the function of religion. Controversially, but correctly, Graeber believes that a central purpose of religion is, in his words, “the production of people.” In religious community, he writes, we “are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles... constantly being attended to and care for.” In community, we are “implicated in processes of transformation.”
It is a statement that I am sure rankles many of my more libertarian or individualistically oriented friends. One of the great myths of the United States is that we are self-made individuals. It is a myth that lies at the heart of the country’s economic system. It animates much of economic discourse and influential economists like F. A. Hayek have claimed “the individualistic tradition... has created Western civilization.”
Individualism sits at the core of the salvation narrative of conventional Christianity. After our deaths, we are promised, if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will ascend to Heaven and enjoy life eternal. The emphasis is on what happens to your individual soul and to mine. It is not on what happens to us together.
Graeber’s anthropological understanding of religion suggests, instead, that we are social creatures and that in community we create each other. Mourning offers an illustration of this dynamic. “Rarely,” he argues, “do the political careers of important individuals end in death. Often political figures, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive.” What is true of political figures, can be true for all us. Our legacies, our contributions to the commonweal, last beyond our mortal shells.
Some years ago, I asked my friend, the now deceased Spanish Civil War veteran, anarchist, and union organizer Federico Arcos, what he thought about life after death. Federico was a militant atheist. He had little use for organized religion--though he greatly admired both Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I assumed he would simply tell me that it the idea of life after death was absurd.
Instead, he surprised me. “We are immortal,” he told me. “We live on the stories we are part of and in the things we create.” “You see this road,” we were driving, “the working people who built it will live on in it as long as it continues to exist. My dead friends,” he had lost most of his loved ones during the war, “live on in me through the stories I tell. And they will on in you because I am telling you their stories. And if you share their stories,” and I have, “they will continue. That is our immortality.”
We are narrative creatures. We tell the stories of our own lives to each other to make meaning from them. And other people tell stories about our lives to understand our social roles. A religious community is a community of memory. And, “it is from the community of memory that most of the significant movements of thought and action emerge,” wrote twentieth-century Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. “It is only through a disciplined memory of the past,” he continued, “that one can judge properly of the present and play one’s own part rightly.”
We are mourning. We are asking what our stories have meant. And we are asking, what comes next? Since, we are in the Easter season, and because we are a religious community, I might point out that Christianity is, in many ways, a religion of mourning.
Jesus, the poor man, the rebel Rabbi, the overturner of the money changers’ tables, the preacher of the power of community and the living presence of the Kingdom of God, was put to death by the greatest empire of his day for suggesting that love was the most powerful earthly force. Jesus’s followers believed him to be the messiah, the individual who God had sent to proclaim, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos, “let justice well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream.”
Instead of bringing about the reign of the divine, peace to the cottages, and plenty to the tables, the story is told, Jesus was executed as a common criminal. He was nailed to a cross and placed between two thieves to die a humiliating and excruciating death.
Die he did. And his community had to ask the questions, amid pain and suffering, amid their experiences of grief and loss: What did his life mean? What comes next?
We might read the Christian New Testament and the non-canonical Christian texts, such as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as a series of arguments about how to answer these questions. In my Easter sermon, I suggested that one answer people found within these texts was a belief in the resurrection of dead--we shall only hope for heaven when we are dead. And I suggested that another answer was the resurrection of the living--opening ourselves to savoring what is and building the just community where we can. And I argued that the resurrection of the dead led to the politics of the dead. And that the resurrection of the living led to the politics of the living.
We can find debates about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living scattered throughout Christian texts. We can read Jesus proclaiming the politics of the living in the words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” And we can read Paul proclaiming the politics of the dead in the words, “I have been crucified with Christ.”
In the texts, Paul can never quite seem to decide whether he believes in the politics of the living or the politics of the dead. In his Letter to the Galatians he makes one of the most forceful statements of the politics of living in any Christian text--canonical or otherwise. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are words that a humanist and a theological universalist such as myself, might re-interpret as saying, we all part of the same human family. The lesson of this pandemic, the story we should be telling while we mourn, is that we are all interconnected and what impacts one of us, impacts all of us.
In the Letter of the Galatians, Paul also provides words that have formed the theological basis of the politics of the dead: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This statement was used by generations of later theologians--Augustine and Martin Luther in particular--to craft the idea that salvation is individual, it occurs in the next world, and it happens because of what we believe, not because of what we do. Such a focus on individual otherworldliness has often justified the negligence of earthly justice and the exploitation of the poor. It is behind Augustine counsel that obedience to the earthly authorities is obedience to God. It is in Martin Luther’s text, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he denounces those who rebel against the world’s powers and principalities. Those who look for heaven in this world, who seek justice among the living, are, he claims, “the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
I mention Paul, his influence on Augustine and Luther, and his confusion about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living, because his presence in the communities that eventually became Christian offers important lessons for us as we mourn the world. Paul was the one of primary evangelists of religion that became Christianity. Much of the Christian New Testament consists of letters he wrote emerging Christian communities. And in them we can read of a struggle over who will determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
In Galatians, again, we find a revealing passage. Towards the beginning of the letter Paul wrote, “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel I proclaim.” This text, which continues and from which I shall not read in full, provides an account of a struggle for power within the emerging Christian community. The struggle was about who would determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
On one side, stood Paul, and, presumably, Barnabas and Titus. On the other side, was “the acknowledged leaders.” There were theological differences between these two groups. We do not actually know what “the acknowledged leaders” believed. The theological polemics that have come down to us, that is the letters in the Christian New Testament, are from Paul’s faction, not theirs. I suspect that the acknowledged leaders beliefs might have been more in line with the gnostic teachings, the resurrection of the living and the politics of life, found in the non-canonical gospels and attested to in portions of the canonical gospels, than the resurrection of the dead.
That is not important. What is important is that they included “James the Lord’s brother,” and other disciples who claimed to have known Jesus when he was alive. Paul, in contrast, never met the living Jesus. Instead, he “received... a revelation through Jesus Christ” and, that he stated, made him equal in authority to the authority Jesus had granted his friends while he was still alive.
Much of the debate in Galatians is over whether or not Paul’s revelation granted him this equal authority. He claims it did. And he claims that the “acknowledged leaders” “recognized the grace that had been given to me.” We have no way of knowing whether this was true or not. We have only Paul’s account of the argument. We have only him telling us how Jesus was to be mourned and how the community was to answer the question: What comes next?
And that elision, the silence of James the Lord’s brother and his friends, should speak us to across the centuries and provide a crucial warning as we go about mourning the world, as we struggle to make meaning of what we have lost and answer the question: What comes next? The warning is this: those who are closest to the levers of power, those who are the most privileged, will be the ones who will determine how we mourn unless we struggle for the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living.
The silence of James the Lord’s brother is not accidental. It is a product of who James was and who Paul was. James was like Jesus, a poor man, an outcast, a Jew in a pagan Empire who proclaimed that Caesar’s power was less than God’s, an undocumented brown skinned workingman, struggling to make it through the day--as so many people are struggling today. James almost certainly struggled to find housing, to find work, and to get enough to eat. James was persecuted for his beliefs.
Paul, on the other hand, was an educated Roman citizen. Unlike presumably James, for there is no authentic text from James, Paul could read, and he could write. He was trained in Greek philosophy and Jewish theology. He had been educated in rhetoric. He even had a career persecuting men like James before he had his revelation. And yet, it is his letters, his theological treatises, that form the major corpus of Christian epistles and not those of James or his friends. He is the one who has determined so much of how Jesus is to be mourned. He answered the question: What comes next?
It is there, in the Letter of the Galatians, an account of the rich and powerful determining how the poor and marginalized shall mourn. It is there, the replacement of the politics of the living--which Paul sometimes believed--with the politics of the dead--which Paul left as the major part of his legacy.
And that, in this age of pandemic, on this Sunday a few weeks after Easter, as we mourn, is a central issue we must wrestle with as we attempt to answer the question: What comes next? Who will determine the narrative we make, the story we tell, the meaning we create about the pandemic? Will it be the most privileged and powerful among us, for that is who Paul was, or will be it those like James, who are suffering the most?
Will we, like Paul, choose the politics of the dead, with their emphasis on individual salvation, individual economic activity, and claim that we are self-made? Our we will choose the politics of the living, found in Jesus’s words that the Kingdom of God is among you? Not among one of you, not only inside of me, but among all of us, and present, possible, here, now, in this world. That salvation is social, and not individual, that we must build the commonwealth if we are to recover from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
I could close here by offering policy prescriptions and prophetic denouncements drawn from the politics of the living. I could argue that the President’s refusal to heed the warnings and possibilities found within science are part of the politics of the dead. I could take Texas’s Lieutenant Governor to task for his belief that we should be willing die for the economy. I could offer an analysis of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments during this pandemic as an attempt to destroy unions for civil servants by destroying the state pension systems. I could criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for their constant refrain that real help for families “will be the centerpiece of our next legislation.” And I could claim that we need massive income redistribution and the creation of new social infrastructure if our country and our world is to emerge from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
But instead of offering such a lengthy discourse, I will close with turns to two texts that suggest the politics of the living. The first comes from the speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. In her novel “Always Coming Home,” she imagines what comes next, after our present society experiences a collapse, and how the people of the future will mourn the world we have today. They discover new ways to live sustainably. At peace with each other, they do not fear or target the other. They not do not target immigrants or migrants but instead recognize that all are part of the same human family and invite travelers to: “Please bring strange things, / Please come bringing new things.” And welcome them with the words: “Return with us, return to us / be always coming home.”
In the future she invites us to imagine, the future that comes after whatever it is we have now, people come to recognize their interconnection with each other and with all that is. Her vision is a promise of what might be if we learn the lessons of the hour and reject the myth of individualism in favor of the truth that we are social creatures. Our salvation is social.
And finally, I turn to what is perhaps the greatest statement of the politics of the living from the twentieth century. It comes from Charlie Chaplin. At the close of his film “The Great Dictator” his character, the little tramp, his stand-in for the poor and marginalized, his cipher for James the Lords brother, makes a speech denouncing the fascists and fools, the powers and principalities, of his day, that were then hurtling the world into war and desolation:
“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...
To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people...
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then — in the name of democracy — let us use that power — let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world — a decent world that will give men a chance to work — that will give youth a future and old age a security...”
These are words that speak of the politics of life. Let them teach us how to mourn, how to make meaning from all that we have lost. And let them help us to answer the question: What comes next?
And, also, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork.
Let the congregation, absent in body, but present in spirit, say Amen.
Apr 1, 2020
as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020
I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.
In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.
I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.
We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.
Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.
We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.
The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.
It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.
After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.
The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”
Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.
And we can hope that it is sufficient.
Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.
But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.
For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.
The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.
What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.
That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.
There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.
Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.
Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.
Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”
Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.
Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.
Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.
The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.
Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.
Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.
And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.
Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.
At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.
The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”
Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.
Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.
At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.
It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.
These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.