My friend Deirdre Good wrote about her concern that, as a people of faith, we have not honored or mourned the deaths from COVID19 of 200,000 fellow Americans. She pointed the way to an article in the Harvard Gazette that opened with a question: How does a society grapple with such a loss? The article went on to offer thoughts from five Harvard faculty who share the concern, but with different insights. I’ve heard versions of the same expressed by television commentators, editorial columnists, and friends in casual conversation. Most of us, I suspect, would like to come to some sort of emotionally and spiritually satisfying place that accommodates the reality of such a loss.
It might not be easy. We have rituals to honor the military dead, and days to mourn martyrs and victims of (some) genocide, but we don’t mourn victims of plague. We may examine the significance that times of plague have had on the history of economic, scientific and political developments, but we don’t mourn their victims. We ignore them, hide from them, write fairy tales and compose nursery rhymes to shield us from them. Bereaved families and friends mourn, as they do for any death of a beloved, but society doesn’t. If society does anything, it’s likely to assign moral culpability to a handily available herd of scapegoats, and invest in protective amulets and imaginary cures. Maybe it’s time to be more honest with our collective selves about our fears and moral obligation to lovingly grapple with such a loss. And it’s not only about the dead. It’s also about all who were sick and lived, many with debilitating effects that may last a lifetime; it’s about all who have not yet become infected, but live in anxious fear they might; it’s about all who whose public behavior endangers those around them; it’s about collective anger at being misled and lied to by our leaders; it’s about our human vulnerabilities to the ways of nature we cannot control; it’s about the economic and social disruptions that have upended everything we call normal; it’s about our fear that we, as a people, have lost forever a better future.
I don’t think it’s too trite to begin with John Donne’s familiar words. In his time of plague, and lying sick nearly to death on his own bed, he could hear the bells of London churches ringing out for the dead of each parish.
No man is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own, or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
How can we, as people of faith, recognize and grieve in hope for all the dead in our own time of plague? Our annual remembrance of all saints and souls is soon upon us. I can’t think of a better time for whatever it is that we do. What will we do? We might start with tolling the bells for a symbolic number of times, say 200. The AIDS quilt is a dramatic and emotionally powerful recognition of the victims of AIDS. It belongs to them and should not be duplicated for COVID victims, but perhaps there is another way to create a powerful public symbol. As followers of Jesus, it may be most important for us to hear words from the pulpit that give voice to our fears and anxieties in the context of suffering and deliverance that is the story of God’s people.
I’m told the Black church understands what that means. By and large the White church of my experience doesn’t. Seventy years of relative comfort and reasonable insulation from global events of mass suffering have given us a false sense of security, confident that the general good we’ve enjoyed is ours by right. The individual trials and tribulations of our lives are nonetheless significant, but the collective story about what is culturally our due is quite different. The COVID pandemic has ruptured that story for at least a generation or two. Maybe that’s a good thing. We shall see.