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Can a Pandemic Change People

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

Now that about 20% of us have been vaccinated and nearly twice as many people are still sporting antibodies from having been infected with covid-19, we are finally reaching a point where some of us are cautiously re-entering the world of social contact. We are going to try to start having in-person Sunday morning services in May, inviting only vaccinated people to attend, to see if we can safely try to have a seated dimension of our church once again, after more than a year in pandemic lockdown.

A small group of my vaccinated friends and I decided that we would attend a small venue, carefully spaced concert at which we had to buy tables of 4 to acquire tickets. There are 7 of us. So, we needed to agree on an 8th person to invite, which, you wouldn’t think would be so hard. But, as we began to discuss it, we realized that a couple of my close friends have some bad history with one or two of the others and so it wouldn’t be universally comfortable in the group for me to invite them.

Of course, the next person suggested was someone with whom I have had an unfortunate conflict. I don’t hate her. I don’t wish her ill. But I also don’t want to spend an expensive Saturday night sitting next to her. And so it went, with each suggestion being vetoed, vore dire, style, by someone else in the group. And, in almost every case, some one of us have said to another, in regard to this bad blood, “I really think that you should just get over it.” Which is to say, “They don’t bother me and your issue seems to me to be unimportant.” Which is, if I may point it out, a really good way to tell a friend that they and their feelings are irrelevant, which just isn’t a good way to try to successfully emerge from our year-long pandemic isolation. 

It has been a rough year. A half a million people have died, which means that millions of people are in grief. Tens of millions have lost their jobs, some have lost their homes. Marriages have failed under the stress. The suicide rate is way up. Alcohol and drug abuse has spiked. Even those of us who have been blissfully free of panic attacks and serious depression prior to 2020, have realized that we just might not be as strong as we have been in previous years. Human beings are hard wired for social interaction and without it, our species does not do well. 

Even those of us who have remained employed, housed, and healthy, have experienced real, palpable anxiety, about having to go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or the auto mechanics shop and encountering people who refused to keep their distance, wear a mask, or show any signs of civil awareness of how dangerous their careless behaviors have been. The stock value of the human race has gone way down in my estimation over the past year as I have heard former friends declare that they absolutely don’t care if their personal conduct spreads the virus because, “If people are afraid of getting sick, they should just stay home.” Or those who refuse to be vaccinated because they want to wait until a few hundred million other people have had it first, or they are afraid that it is the “mark of the beast,” or it is all just a hoax. 

Over the past year we have been irrefutably presented with the fact that an awful lot of people simply are not very smart and that even more, who must certainly understand the issues, just don’t care about anyone but themselves. 

The pandemic came in the final year of the tragically polarizing presidency of Donald Trump, who did everything he could to stoke the flames of partisan hatred, racial prejudice, class warfare, and fascism. We were pretty engaged in being at one another’s throats before the pandemic and those polarized groups turned a global health crisis into just another aspect of the political and class divides of our nation. I simply cannot believe how close we came to actual civil war. American culture has been really sick, and we are not well yet. A lot is riding on how we come out of the pandemic.

I want to talk about two things today: forgiveness and boundaries. If you wanted to judge your way through life, it really wouldn’t be hard to do. People give us lots of reasons. In fact, if you are not going to judge your way through life, and this is no exaggeration, you have to make a conscious and powerful decision to suspend judgement. No kidding. As the popular 19th century Scottish pastor, Rev. John Watson, advised: Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.

People often behave very badly but if we can assume that everyone we encounter is carrying a burden we cannot see . . . we don’t know who in their life has died. We don’t know what their financial situation might be, their addiction status, their health, their trauma. Sure, maybe some people are not dealing with trauma or cancer or grief, but it is a fairly safe bet that almost every short tempered, confrontational, inconsiderate person you encounter is reacting to something in their lives that, while it may not be a good excuse, or even a cause, of their conduct, but it is, at the very least, a reason. 

My audience is, almost universally, a self-selected group of progressive people who have very passionate feelings on an array of social justice issues. The laundry list of things we are passionate about, if we allow it to happen, can make us virtually incompatible with all but a few people in the world. Almost half of the people in this country were and possible still are Trump supporters. Many would be willing to seal our borders against all immigrants, and I shudder to think how far many of them might honestly be willing to permanently imprison or even stone homosexuals, addicts, or even most minorities. 

But even among liberals, there are those who cannot abide people who still eat meat, or drive a gas guzzling car, WalMart shoppers, or those who live in a gated community. Honestly, liberals seem always to be on the verge of cannibalism, more ready to devour one another in harsh judgment, than to enjoy and celebrate the myriad things they have in common.

The fourth century Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote about the last non-Christian Roman Caesar, Emperor Julian, the Apostate, that he brought together all of the local priests and bishops to meet in the palace to politely discuss their beliefs. Marcellinus recorded, “The Emperor thought that freedom to argue their beliefs would simply deepen their differences, so that he would never be faced by a united common people. He found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men as Christians are to each other.

What Julian observed about 4th century Christians is, I’m afraid, even more true among liberal religious people in the 21st century.

I recognize that calling out people for being easily offended will probably offend the whole lot of them, but over these past years when I have been invited to travel and speak in other churches, at least in the USA, the invitation is almost always from a Unitarian Church and, the Unitarian Universalist approach to faith is the most agreeable to me of all of the choices on the menu, but without exception, I have experienced these small congregations to be divided against one another in shockingly toxic ways.

Thomas Jefferson once said that he believed that before the current generation ended, that everyone in the United States would be a Unitarian. And, for a faith that fits in a modern scientific age, they really should be the vessel of thinking, compassionate, religious people . . . but their congregations are almost always very small, and most are ready to collapse because they just don’t get along with each other. I could cite a fair list of reasons why that is so, but I believe that I may have already said a bit too much. 

I would be among the last to suggest to a progressive audience that you should lighten up on your convictions, dilute your passion, and get along at all costs.

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We need more prophets and less apathy in this world, but I’m just saying, if you expect purity of convictions in others, when we all have so much impurity in ourselves, then we are not divided by principles, we are divided by inflated egos and that needs to stop. 

If our goal is to educate others, to heighten awareness of moral issues, to encourage others to share your passions about social justice causes, well, that can happen, but it never happens when people feel unsafe, judged, put down, or belittled. Change of that sort happens when we feel safe. When we can feel loved and accepted as we are so that we are allowed to open our minds to new ways of seeing. Trust me, if people could be judged into changing, I would have had this city cleaned up 25 years ago!

Let’s face it, we are evangelists, not evangelists who want to convert people from one set of magical beliefs to another set of equally absurd magical beliefs, we want to convert people into believing that we really can have universal healthcare that costs less than what we are paying now. We want to convert people into believing that we really can pay women the same amount we pay men for the same work, that the minimum wage should be a living wage, and that the sexual orientation of other people is none of our business. And it can be done, most of us were not born into liberal progressive views. We changed, other people can change too, but love always works better than hate and if we cut off contact with people whose current beliefs and behaviors are deplorable to us, then what real chance is there that they are ever going to change? 

Remember, you changed because you were in a social, educational, spiritual community, that allowed you the freedom to grow, so don’t close the door behind you when you outgrow old belief systems. 

But I said that I wanted to talk about two things as we emerge from our pandemic hiding places. 

One crucial spiritual value is forgiveness and all of its cousins: compassion, tolerance, sincere love, and even reconciliation, but I also want to talk about boundaries, because, seriously people, you cannot be reconciled with everyone. 

Yes, try to suspend judgement. Focus on changing yourself rather than being critical of others. Extend yourself to show undeserved, unearned compassion. Try to find common ground with people. Try to stay in conversation with family members, neighbors, co-workers, and friends with whom you have vital disagreements. 

Look people, I was an election judge in Tuesday’s election, which means that I was paired up with a Republican for 13 consecutive hours at the polling place, an uneducated, opinionated, Fox News watching, unvaccinated, Republican who thinks that wearing a mask has absolutely no benefit in slowing the spread of a virus. And look at me, I am not incarcerated for homicide, assault, or anything. I’m just saying, it can be done. 

But forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have amnesia. Suspending judgement doesn’t mean that you also abandon your values, your beliefs, your ethics. Trying to stay in community with people does not have to mean that you sacrifice yourself in the process.

Look, if we say that you wake up every day with a hundred units of emotional energy, that’s your daily strength; what are you going to spend it on? Navigating life, staying informed about the news, dealing with work, home maintenance, traffic, bills, the family in your house, they all take some of it and at certain stages of life, they may take almost all of it. 

So how much can you afford to spend on those who only take energy from you . . . who won’t stop sending you authoritative videos about how the vaccine is just Bill Gates way of getting a GPS implanted in your body, or RNA based vaccines will change your DNA and make you buy a Subaru, listen to NPR, and vote for Democratic Socialists? Or the persistent friend who constantly tries to use friendship as access to manipulate you into a romantic relationship. . . how much energy, leeway, access do you give to people who just don’t want what you have to offer; but they do want to control you, change you, or own you in some way. Even if it is your oldest high school friend, your brother or your mother, you may have to put up solid boundaries that allow you to decide how you are going to spend your emotional energy.

Or, if you prefer, as Jesus said, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” (Matthew 7:6) I am a big believer in forgiveness and reconciliation if it can be accomplished in a healthy way. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, forgiveness without confession is cheap grace. When a real offense has taken place, the mere passage of time, especially time passed in silence, does not have to make any real difference. Everybody makes mistakes but don’t let the mistake turn into a character flaw by failing to apologize. People of conscience should always strive to make a mistake right. Forgiveness without confession, without acknowledgement of the fault, is a demand that you either have amnesia or that you devalue yourself to the point that you too come to believe that you deserve to be abused. 

The mere existence of social media makes it almost certain that there is not a person within the sound of my voice who has not said something that you shouldn’t have said during these months of pandemic. Sure, we have been under a lot of stress, we’ve been fed propaganda, and we have all come to imagine ourselves to be virologists, dispensing judgement and instructions on how everyone else should live.

To end the pandemic, we may need more than a vaccine and a haircut. We may also need some humility, to own our mistakes and hold out an olive branch whenever possible. My church has often sung a song declaring that love is our religion. Between the Trump administration and the pandemic, it looks like a lot of us have been in danger of losing our religion. 

Dr. Roger Ray

I implore you to remember the kind of person you know in your heart that you want to be. You know what is really important. Sure, respect yourself, guard your emotional health, but, to quote St. John, “Let us love one another, for love is of God.” In fact, all we can really know of God, is in the act of loving. 

Dr. Roger Ray

The Emerging Church