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Imagining a Post-Covid New and Improved World

Following is a sermon that was written and delivered to the Emerging Church by Dr. Roger Ray, Pastor on August 23, 2020

Well folks, it seems like it is time for some brutal honesty about this pandemic. We have spent the last six months negotiating with ourselves about when life would return to normal. When can kids go back to school? When can churches try to fill the pews with throngs of congregants? When can we do something as basic as going to a movie, a concert, or confidently plan a vacation that involves air travel?

When we felt we had to stop having Sunday services here back in March, we assumed that we would be back in May, June, at the latest. There was hope that the warmer weather of spring would kill off Covid-19 as it usually does the annual flu. Sadly, it appears that this novel virus enjoys hot, sunny weather as if it were a college student on Spring Break.

Rather than going dormant, infection rates just move around and spike in different places. The adamant states that will be forcing schools and universities to reopen will, quite stupidly, spark a rise in infections that will almost certainly kill tens of thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands of people.

The adamant states that will be forcing schools and universities to reopen will, quite stupidly, spark a rise in infections that will almost certainly kill tens of thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands of people.

Like many of you, I have places I want to go, people I want to see. I have had to cancel 5 out of state speaking engagements and my scuba gear is dry rotting in a closet. Months ago, I had some confidence in the coming iterations of a vaccine, but sober minded virologists have been asking us to temper our expectations.

The first vaccines may provide only very limited protection from Covid-19. The painfully honest answer to the question we have all been asking, “When will we get to go back to normal?” maybe a year, or two, but it may also be “never.” We may simply have to rethink what “normal” is.

I do not know if our local opera and symphony will survive this long shut down and, frankly, I don’t know that the symphony and the opera will survive in Kansas City and St Louis, for that matter, I’m not sure about Chicago and New York. I have no idea if the cruise line industry will return or if it does, how many huge ships will simply be scrapped for metals and parts. In the new normal, will people ever go back to church and sit on pews, hip to hip with strangers, sitting only dozens of feet from large choirs? Will professional athletics become a pay-per-view, TV only event?

We are probably all glued to the news these days, trying to figure out and predict when normal will come back but, and I hate saying this, but given the current political environment, you cannot really rely on the information we receive from the White House, or even the WHO or the CDC because everyone is cooking the books to make Covid-19 seem to be less lethal than it really is.

I hope this will change if we get a new administration in the White House in January but even though we are being told that there have been more than 160,000 covid related deaths in the USA, and that is a nightmare scenario on its own but that number is the result of calling covid related deaths something else, most of the time.

We are not just undercounting covid deaths, we may be trying to hide the majority of them. Florida and Texas are great examples. For the past several years, each state experienced a four month spring death toll from pneumonia of just under a thousand people. But as the virus spread to those red states, they reported only one or two thousand covid deaths but the rate of death from pneumonia went up by 400% in each state over previous years.

Now, Mark Twain was fond of saying that “there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.” I realize that people can reasonably argue about charts like this but the sad truth is that we don’t know what the real sad truth is about how many people have died in the USA from covid-19. The reported number is certainly an undercount, that is impossible to dispute but is it off by 40% or 400%? We don’t know because, at this present moment, the government of the United States and of many of our states, simply cannot be believed.

Whatever the true number is, what we can count on is that the death rate is going to go up dramatically as schools re-open and the fall flu season joins forces with the coronavirus. For historical comparison, American deaths during the 4 years of WWII were just over 400,000. We will certainly pass that number in the first year of Covid-19.

This is a war but we are not on a wartime footing, in fact, all we seem to talk about is trying to get back to normal when things are going to get a lot less normal over the next few months.

We have a certain longing to go back to the way it was before the pandemic but, at a more crucial level, I’m going to ask you today to reconsider that. Because, honestly, “normal” was never all that great. And just as World War II changed the face of government, industry, the workforce and the marketplace, I believe that we need to be thinking about a new normal that must emerge from this mortal battle we are currently engaged with.

Like all of you, I am hoping for a major change in our government at the end of this year. Also, like many of you, the current Democratic ticket is not at all what I was hoping for. I really thought that we were ready for a true progressive this time and we are not getting that. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes but the best thing that I can say about Joe Biden is that he is a better choice than Marianne Williamson.

I have not seen Oprah on screen since I watched the Color Purple in a theater in Louisville in 1985. But since she became famous, she has made one quack after another famous. Oprah has given the world so many fraudulent snake oil salesmen: Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra, and Marianne Williamson and so, Oprah, if you are listening, please give it a rest. Your suggestions are nearly as dangerous as Covid-19! If that offends any of you then let me say now that I’m sorry . . . . that you didn’t get to go to college.

But the big thing that we have reason to hope for in a new administration is that, unlike the Trump administration and the administration of governors like Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas’ governor Greg Abbott, and Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp, we expect a Biden administration to pay attention to medical scientists.

Clearly, the reason why the pandemic has been so much more lethal in the United States than it has been elsewhere is because Trump has insisted on ignoring the advice of serious doctors and scientists and instead pushes false narratives and snake oil cures. Governors DeSantis, Abbott, and Kemp, along with their cult leader, Donald Trump, have been too worried about holding onto power and propping up the economy and not nearly worried enough about fighting the virus and saving lives. We have every good reason to believe that this insanity will come to an end on inauguration day in January.

But just like we want scientists and doctors trying to lead the charge on the medical battle with covid, what I want to earnestly beg for today, is that we similarly pay attention to what the experts and academics have to suggest about how the world’s economy, government, and environment recovers from this crisis.

We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to follow sane medical advice going forward to stem the spread of Covid-19 and the inevitable pandemics that will follow it in this overcrowded, and ecologically stressed planet. But we need to do more than simply be reactive. We had problems before we had a pandemic and many of those problems have only gotten worse.

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In January of this year, before the virus had affected us at all, our for-profit, heartless healthcare system was failing us. Our capitalist economy that kept pushing resources into the hands of fewer and fewer people was failing us. Our government that holds onto power through corporate donors was, and let’s call it what it really is, our government run through bribes and corporately written legislation was failing us.

Our symbolic gestures towards recycling, earth day postage stamps, and environmental accords that were largely ignored and were too little too late in any event have been failing us. And, men and women, don’t you know that our churches and synagogues, our mosques and holy sites that are charged with speaking truth to power, teaching morality, giving voice to the voiceless, do you need for me to tell you that the church has been, for a thousand years, failing us?

As the author, Laurie Buchanan, has pointedly said, “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.” Maybe we don’t want to pollute the earth. Maybe we don’t like the way we finance our elections in America. Maybe we don’t approve of the lax gun laws in our country or the huge wage disparity between the rich and poor . . . but come on, we’re not in elementary school. We’re not helpless children. If we are not actively changing what we don’t approve of then we are tacitly choosing it and if I may channel my inner assistant middle school principal, let me say, “Stop it!”

As it happens, since Denmark has managed the pandemic in their nation very well, a group of 170 Dutch scholars from five different universities came together to compile a list of things the world needs to do in the wake of the pandemic.

Here are the 5 things they recommend to us all:

  1. Move away from ‘development’ focused on aggregate GDP growth.
  2. Develop an economic framework focused on redistribution.
  3. Develop a form of agriculture that is regenerative.
  4. and you’re gonna hate this one – Reduce consumption and travel. And finally,
  5. Debt cancellation.

Please allow me to hit on each one of these 5 points quickly:

1) Move away from ‘development’ focused on aggregate GDP growth

Our Western economy has been built on what Greta Thunberg calls a “fantasy of endless economic expansion.” We cannot go on making economic expansion our goal when we know that expansion is based on using up limited resources and trying to drive our work force to produce more every year. Folks, now that I am within a year of my own retirement, I am painfully realizing that there is more to life than working more hours and trying to increase production. Europeans keep trying to make their work week shorter and their vacations longer and we Americans keep trying to figure out how to lower wages and increase hours…. which simultaneously shortens lives. The mortality rate is 100%. So, get some friends, fall in love, and try not to get the perfect attendance record at the office.

2) Develop an economic framework focused on redistribution.

We need to develop an economic framework that distributes resources more equitably and does not constantly shove profit into the hands of the 1%. And this is as true of healthcare as it is athletic shoes. The reason why healthcare in America sucks so much is because we have designed it to make a profit. Sickness should never have been a capitalist opportunity. The first question to be asked, especially in a pandemic, is “how do we provide affordable healthcare to everyone who needs it?” The system we have is based on scarcity and hoarding and it is driving us to the bottom of the developed world. We have written our copyright and patten laws so that we create billionaires at the top of the ladder when what we need to be doing is spreading the growth in innovation and technology among the whole of the population.

Just look at how differently our current education system is being run…. As the pandemic forces schools into distance learning without providing computers and internet access to everyone, some students are doing ok while others are falling farther and farther behind every day. And if you think that’s sad but you are not worried about it because your kids have computers and wifi, let me tell you, you don’t want to live in a country where half of the citizens are functionally illiterate. How do you think Trump got elected in the first place? We want everyone to be as educated as possible!

3) Develop a form of agriculture that is regenerative.

The third point is about developing a regenerative agriculture. And again, capitalism has reshaped agriculture over the past two generations so that we have killed off family farms. We grow and subsidize the food crops that can be grown in thousands of acres at a time with all mechanized farming methods: corn, rice, potatoes, wheat, and soy. Which also happen to be the five crops we should try hard to eat very little of. On September 20th I am going to deliver a sermon on the politics of food and drill down on this topic but for now, let’s say, we are growing crops that deplete the soil while they kill the consumers. Let’s not choose that, let’s change that.

4) Reduce Consumption and Travel

The fourth thing our Dutch friends suggest is that we reduce consumption and travel. All forms of travel come with a certain environmental impact. Cars and airplanes are the worst. I hate that because I love to travel but to be kind to the earth we need to reduce our carbon output and that means we need to stop building larger closets and covering the landscape with storage units and just stop buying so much stuff and stop burning coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas.

In this one arena, the pandemic may actually be teaching us some important lessons. Very many business meetings can be held over Zoom. Many employees can be trusted to be very productive from home. We don’t have to fill up our city streets at rush hour, and we don’t always have to have in person meetings. And it may, in fact, not be unreasonable to suggest that we plant a tree every time we take a round trip flight somewhere because we have to strive to live in a carbon neutral way.

5) Debt Cancellation

The fifth suggestion from our congress of scholars is the shortest and the most complex. To say simply “debt cancellation” is to give us an assignment whose application is going to be more complicated than the issue of reparations for the descendants of African slaves, but it is similar to it. Raising salaries is one aspect of redistribution of resources but another is the fact that capital itself is so unfairly distributed that some means of putting capital back into the hands of families is crucial to creating a fair society. Poverty is a multigenerational problem. Just one example is seen in the way that Americans organized the land distribution in our push from the east to the west.

When we opened up places like Oklahoma for people to just go out and stake a claim for land that, in any rational sense, belonged to Native Americans, we only allowed white people to participate. When you give capital to one racial group and specifically deny it to Latinx, Asian, Black, and Native groups, you are building the structure of poverty. If we created structures of mult-generational poverty how can we be surprised that minorities in our country are still poor? We made sure they were poor.

There is a very basic rule of capitalism that you have probably heard: poor people pay rent to the rich, and the rich have rent paid to them. We need to cancel student debts and find a way to subsidize home ownership that doesn’t make it a life long journey to get out of the tenet-landlord trap.

I said earlier that the church has failed us. Institutional religion has failed us in many ways from gifting us with neurotic guilt for evolutionary appetites and for teaching us to focus on an unknown, unseen, and probably imaginary after life rather than trying to clean up the mess where we are now. But what I have specifically in mind today is that the church has taught us to be charitable when it should have been teaching us to love justice.

I loved all of the years that we took meals to the homeless at Bill’s Place. Those days will be etched in my memory as sacred moments for the rest of my life. But every week, I was coming to realize more and more powerfully, that as loving and as holy as charity can be, charity is not justice.

As long as those homeless people continued to be dependent upon people like us to feed them, we were delaying justice. The church has failed us as long as it taught us that we were supposed to be good people in an evil society rather than working together to turn an evil society more just. I love the powerful reminder of Dr. Cornel West who asks us to “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

Before we rush to go back to the normal that was unjust, let’s try to imagine a world that doesn’t institutionalize poverty, that doesn't depend on ecological destruction in order to gain profit and doesn't use illness as an opportunity to make money.

Dr. Roger Ray

That's the way things used to be. Let’s do better. Let’s be better. Let’s change rather than choosing the evils we have grown accustomed to.

Dr. Roger L. Ray
The Emerging Church