I’ve found myself drawn to images of the Marys at the foot of the cross. Death, particularly the death of someone you love, is hard to watch. I suppose it is a natural human instinct to look away or to hide from the grief and horror before you. It takes a spiritual hardiness to remain in place and bear witness to death. When the men fled, the Marys stayed to watch the horror of Christ’s death.
Covid-19 has brought death to steps of the church in a new way. Under normal conditions, the church knows how to handle death, even unfortunate, tragic, and senseless ones. We have ritual ceremonies and traditional rites that carry us through and help us create meaning from loss. As officiants, we embody the promise of resurrection and stand as witness to the promise of life after death. Still, this pandemic has brought a new and different type of death into the lives of Americans and I’m not sure the church has figured out its role in it all. Have we figured out how to bear witness; how to create meaning in the middle of this tremendous loss? Have we cultivated the spiritual qualities in our people to help our people bear witness despite the horror?
The American political response to Covid-19 seems to be an insistence on turning away from what is happening. At first, that refusal to look manifested as a denial of the severity of the situation. Our political leaders, especially President Trump, were slow to acknowledge the full scale of the pandemic and its potential to devastate the country.
Even now as we are in the throngs of the first wave of this pandemic, our leaders refuse to look squarely at the death and devastation surrounding us. Yesterday, the Senate held hearings on when and how to open up the United States in which health experts rebutted political figures, urging against opening up and creating a disastrous second wave.
To be fair, it isn’t just politicians pushing society to open. This morning, the headline on NYTimes.com declares, Americans Are On the Move Even As New Warnings Sound. Most of us feel ready for quarantine to end. In Michigan, we are preparing for a second armed protest of citizens at the Capital Building in response to the Stay at Home Order.
In my own home, we’re antsy to get out more. My kids miss their grandparents and their school friends. Our neighbors are likely to lose their family run business if this lasts much longer. Quite a few people I know are expecting layoffs as soon as the PPP clock runs out. There are a myriad of reasons to want society to open up and they range from the deeply personal to the blatantly ideological or political.
I wonder, though, if the desire to open up isn’t also born of avoidance. It is horrible to acknowledge the deaths of fellow human beings. It is horrible to recognize that those deaths disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us. It is horrible to reckon with the rising levels of child abuse and domestic violence as perpetrators quarantine with their families. It is horrible to watch the unemployed spiral through savings as 1 in 5 Americans go without work. Our lives are permeated with horror.
The hardest part of quarantine is bearing witness to this suffering and knowing that our only ability to “help” is to do nothing but stay home. Suddenly, we are all Mary. Just like the Mother of God watching as her son was killed by an earthly power that outstripped her love, we are powerless in the face of the disease. Yet, Mary had a choice. She could have fled the cross. Instead, she watched and bore witness. Her presence was a protest and a statement of faith. It means something that Mary kept the faith and stayed to watched even as the horror unfolded.
Certainly, the church has role in teaching us to stand steadfast in the face of the urge to get out and “do something.” Surely, the church has something to offer to protestors demanding action when what is required is patience, the ability to bear grief and horror, and the unyielding belief that life rises even in the face of death. I want to believe that in this moment, the church has something more to offer us than streaming church services in the middle of the pandemic. We are the repositories of generations of spiritual practices that should teach us to resist the urge to flee.
I want to end this blog on a positive note, but frankly, I can’t see it from where I’m standing. So, I’ll end with a question. Where do you see the church cultivating the spiritual gift of presence even in horror in this moment?
Elizabeth Hakken Candido is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) Pastor who currently serves as the College Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life at Kalamazoo College. Liz lives in Kalamazoo, MI with her husband Bob who is a pilot. They have two daughters, Clara and Abigail. Liz blogs at skepticsnbelievers.wordpress.com
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