#TheologyinIsolation 10 - Is talking about the pandemic as 'a battle' the best we can do?
ADA France-Williams asks if we need to find a metaphor to explain our situation
Creating distance, as disease resistance,
Teflon intimacy as our societal adhesive,
Becomes unstuck as we grow defensive.
Front rooms widen to encompass all of life,
Whilst Zoom narrows the gaps between work and play.
Anywhere is everywhere, night bleeds day.
Some tears, some fears of expanding space,
The cell of our planet divides and multiplies,
We are multiverse, digitally omnipresent,
Without form, we are of no fixed abode.
We are virtual avatars, with rusting cars,
Planes are grounded, new age is founded,
New wine needs new skins.
We crawl, walk and graze our shins,
Lactic acid, burns within embryonic limbs.
If there ever was the need for a global vision, now is that time. We mutually frighten and inspire each other in equal measure. A flurry of online groups, book clubs, personal training, schools and supper clubs have arisen as volunteers seek to bring life out of death. But those fires in time will dull to embers without serious resourcing, as the initial goodwill and energy fades. Our money isn’t on these perceived second order activities though. Covid-19 is the stealth enemy, an invisible parasite hitching a ride on our hands, travelling through our coughs and sneezes. We are all its perpetrators and victims, some of us will be survivors, others of us will not. This is serious. This is war. And that is where our investment goes.
In the U.K we are on a war footing and have been called upon to adopt the spirit of the blitz. We speak in terms of defeating, battling, winning, and overcoming. The warriors in this battle are the frontline members of the National Health Service. The tales of their deaths are portrayed as modern-day martyrs for the cause. The reoccurring message is bracketed with the messages ‘Stay Home’, ‘Save Lives’ and the command in between the lines is ‘Protect the NHS.’ This is no slander on their good work, those I know within the NHS do not look for, or welcome the worship they are receiving. But the problem with the battle imagery is that once we have our idolised heroes, everyone else is potentially a villain.
What if battle imagery is not the only, or the best imagery that we have? Many of the incumbents of the most powerful nations are at a loss as their mental arsenal does not have the right weapons to deploy. This is not something our drones can strike, it is not something our nukes can obliterate, it is not a human which can be tortured into submission, or a secret deal which can be struck, or a computer system which can be hacked, or a satellite surveillance system which can be utilised. Our language of force and violence arises from fear and the felt need to project power.
One of my children has recently gone positively Neo from the first Matrix movie. The scene where Neo says ‘we need guns, lots of guns,’ and rows and rows guns slide into view. My child has turned all of their Lego bricks into some form of weapon, all the imaginary play is armies, our lounge has become an arms dealership, and to someone like me, who has protested outside of ‘arms fairs’, it is more than a little conflicting to play along at being an arms dealer, buying grenades and ground-to-air rocket launchers. The best I can manage is asking if they have a ‘non lethal’ range of weapons. My child is feeling insecure, as we all are. I think the volume of their weaponry inversely correlates to the depth of my child’s insecurity. As a brown child they have suffered the stigma of being a person ‘of colour’ in a fairly white environment. They have encountered social distancing already. Now any of us ‘off colour’ are potentially stigmatised and now know what it is like for someone to take wide berth as you approach, or spot the flicker of fear in their eye, as they shuffle past you.
When we idolise one group, it is easier to demonise another. Last week, a Tesco worker shared how that morning a gentleman in his 70s had spat in her face after she asked him to follow the new one way system for travelling around the store. She went on to say ‘we are on the frontline too, not just the NHS’. Some of the initial neighbourliness is drifting into suspicion. Neighbours I had not met before now comment on spotting me out and about and I feel monitored, yet I jokingly tease my neighbour if I notice he’s been out more than once. We are told to report each other. Could we be moving from being watchdogs, protecting and supporting, to becoming guard dogs, barking and challenging. I write this in Holy Week, the most sacred week in the Christian calendar. Jesus is deemed a threat and the powerful are attempting to control and isolate him and his message which are infecting the populace. His contagion brings a new type of life, and frees the captives from the living death to which so many of them were unconsciously bound. In the fervour of that week in Jerusalem Jesus faces down the oppressive systems of power and control. As the crowds gather around him, a decision is made to make people “Stay Home, Protect the Religious Traditions, Save Lives”. Jesus is seen as the contagion. He must be eliminated, he must be stopped. The Roman Empire is drawn in to crush him, and halt the spread of his message and ministry. In time the disciples would be locked down in their homes, the Christ contagion would be seen to have been stopped, excessive violence a shield to cover over hollow vulnerability.
What if the model of how we are dealing with this pandemic were love not fear? What if we operated from a love of life, ours and our fellow humans, undergirding our social distancing rather than a fear of death? What if we accepted that this is our reality now and prepared to die well whilst doing what we could to preserve life. What if we wrote our wills and expressed our love and respect to family, friends, and strangers?
What if we were on a peace footing?
Then not only the health and emergency services would be drafted in but the thinkers and the artists, and the theologians, the comedians, and philosophers, and the poets, the life affirming online celebrations and movements which will fade and tire without funding and support. The concerts, the community groups, the contemplative movements will help breed the wisdom and insight necessary to live and perhaps die well. Other heroes could be recognised - like the refuse collectors, the shop keepers and assistants, the teachers, and the transport workers.
We need a global vision. The sort that Jesus offered us. If we work from a place of closed borders and suspicion of neighbour and friend we will not save our lives, we will lose the elements that make make life worth living. We will exist but become war refugees estranged from ourselves and each other. To truly save our lives we have to become willing to lose them, and once that acceptance has taken place, and the fears begin to be quelled we may discover a renewed collective life which transcends borders, overcomes barriers and is deeply human and deeply divine, and goes on beyond death and devastation, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to a hoped for Resurrection Sunday.
A.D.A. France-Williams is Vicar designate of The Church of the Ascension Hulme, and HeartEdge Hub Director for the North West of England. He is a visiting scholar at Sarum College based in Salisbury. His book Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism in the Church of England will be published this summer.