Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?Mary Oliver
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
We are living in uncertain times. As I posited in my last post, I believe we have always been living in uncertain times, but the mask of our false hopes has been lifted.
COVID-19 has resurrected a multitude of questions within the realm of politics, economics, religion, and science. A number of important questions need to be asked, and yet there are those among us who tell us not to “question the authorities”, or “only the experts can have an opinion”. The problem is, prophetic voices are always dissenters, and their questions and warnings are heeded too late. We have seen this through history, and most recently by the warning of Dr Li Wenliant, who warned that COVID-19 spreads person-to-person when all others said otherwise. He was silenced for his dissent.
What is the consequence of ignoring those who ask questions or voice dissent, and bullying them into silence? George Orwell answered this for us,
“Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorship–an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later a meaningless abstraction.
Questions are necessary for good thought and rightful action. We have to ask them. I hope you will allow me to ask a few.
In the last few months I have heard many say, “we weren’t prepared for this.” Most assume it is because we lack ventilators, PPE or a working healthcare system, but these things are manifestations of a greater problem: we are human, fallible and fragile. Ultimately, we were not prepared for a pandemic in America because we are not prepared to face death.
We have come to value security, health, and happiness as our highest aims, and thus have no category for death, no meaning in suffering, and no purpose for discomfort. We have perfected what the Roman government used to mollify its people panem et circuses–bread and circuses. Give us our Netflix and Amazon so we don’t ask the hard questions.
Now, as our stability is threatened, our houses of entertainment lie vacant, shelves are emptied, and parks are lifeless, we have come face-to-face with the reality that we are human and we will die. We are horrified–and rightly so–at the concept of bodies stacking up. Many are saying “this shouldn’t happen in America.” Have we really come to believe that we are impervious to death?
Now that the curtain has been pulled back to reveal the Great and Powerful United States is not the wizard capable of granting our every wish, but a mere man-made society, impotent in the face of death, there is a temptation to cling more tightly to the false promises, and willingly hand over more in an effort to gain the impossible. As we do so we become like Aldous Huxley’s dystopian tale, Brave New World, wherein life’s unpleasantness has been successfully eradicated. Things like love, art, beauty, truth, and freedom have been sacrificed to ensure security, order, and happiness. This civilization of human machines exists in contrast to the Savage, whose very existence is a defiant act of humanity, as he sums up:
“I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.
Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what happens tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.
I claim them all.”
Why? Why would he give up the comfort and order of the Brave New World?
Because he considers the risks worth it. The sorrow is worth enduring in order to feel joy. Beauty exists in the risks. Huxley forces us to ask the question: is a sterile, risk-free, comfortable, extended life worth the losses it demands? With the rise of recommendations in response to the COVID-19 crisis these questions arise, not just in theory, but in actuality.
Security always demands an exchange, as we make these exchanges we need to be aware of what we are giving up. Some risks are reasonable and right, the benefit they provide is worth what we give up. Other exchanges are more costly.
Love is risky. It can result in rejection if unrequited. It can end in unfathomable sorrow when loved ones are taken from us, “there is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable.” (C.S. Lewis)
Love is inherently dangerous. But it is worth the risk. Why? Because the alternative: not loving, is worse. If we choose not to risk loving others in order to spare ourselves the possible pain it could bring, we do more harm, we opt out of something essentially human.
Much of being human is like this, because, “man understands himself from his limitation.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
As we walk into another week of isolation, unable to see friends and family face-to-face, or to share a meal at our table, and as I hear of spouses foregoing intimacy or living apart for the foreseeable future because of the possible risk of infection from a person not visibly sick, as elderly people are confined to eating meals alone and foregoing activities with others, as a mounting number of people cover their smiles with fabric, or fear has stolen their smiles altogether, the question must be asked:
How much humanity will we exchange for security?
As a culture we are on the quest for the holy grail to secure life eternal, but as Christians we know that the only cup that holds everlasting life is the one filled not at the Fountain of Youth, but at the fountain of blood that flows from our Savior’s side. Knowing this, we have an additional question to ask: how long can we consume a church service online, and forsake the corporate gathering? The world is awash in darkness and despair, but the church meets and boasts in hope. This is what it has done for centuries, under persecution and plague. The Church burns brightest in the darkness, standing defiantly, and in one voice proclaiming, sin is defeated and death has no victory. We do this unified, bodily present, and in so doing we spur one another on to continue to fight the good fight of faith, to anchor our wandering hearts, to take the risks of love, and to magnify our God whatever befall, because something greater awaits us.
The world is dark, the Church is light, and “we mustn’t let the light go out at any cost.”(Karl Barth)